There is no question that Jens Pulver is coming towards the end of his career, but at least he is getting to spend his final days as a fighter in the limelight of Asia's biggest mixed martial arts (MMA) organization, ONE FC.
As a former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) titleholder, the 38 year old knows what it's like to fight on the main stage, but he has also competed on a few less glamorous cards in recent years and is just happy to be back where he feels he belongs, fighting on internationally televised shows in front of tens of thousands of fans.
"The next ONE FC is going out live all over Asia and I am very excited to be put on a global scale of that size, but at the same time I would be lying if it didn't give me the butterflies. I just want to perform, I just want to represent my friends, fans and family to the best of my abilities. My wife is from Laos and her family will have the chance to watch me do what I do in the cage live on TV there and I not only represent my US roots but I represent Laos and the family that I married into."
Pulver's in laws will get a chance to watch him take on Masakatsu Ueda at the Singapore Indoor Stadium on April 5th in the semifinals of the ONE FC Bantamweight Grand Prix because the event is the first to be beamed live to 28 countries, including Laos, by Star Sports.
The Japanese fighter holds an outstanding record of 16-2-2 making him a strong favorite to win the tournament and Pulver knows he is going to have his work cut out if he wants to progress to the final at Ueda's expense.
"I feel Ueda is the man to beat in this GP, he has beaten some top fighters and you don't win the Shooto world title and defend it unless you have some great skills. He is a very tough opponent but at the same time he is exactly the type of fighter I need to fight at this point in my career and everything I am working on is all based around that high paced conditioning I once had when I was the man who could take fighters into the later rounds and laugh at them as I melted away all of their stamina."
Pulver's first fight for ONE FC came on short notice and after a strong showing in the opening round against Eric Kelly he faded in the second. That fight was at featherweight but this time around he is fighting at his most natural weight class of 135 lbs and is in the middle of an extensive training camp.
"I have moved camp to Kearney, Nebraska, where the 802 MMA and 802 crossfit gym is being built as we speak. I am making this my permanent place as of this summer and I have started surrounding myself with guys who are national champion wrestlers as well as MMA fighters. You have not heard the names TJ Hepburn or Josh Smith, but I promise you all you will very soon."
"I not only coach and mentor these youngsters but do everything in my power just to deal with that youthful speed and power they possess and they are my day in and day out training partners. Lance Steffen has taken over the reins as the coach in conditioning, diet and life. He is the backbone with a few other partners and they are starting to put together a gym that I am lucky to train at."
Pulver had to cope with some youthful exuberance in the quarter final of the ONE FC Bantamweight Grand Prix but the match up ended in a premature, albeit eye watering fashion. 19-year-old Chinese fighter Ya Fei Zhao started strong, showcasing his Sanda striking but the Pride, WEC and UFC veteran seized the initiative and was firmly in control when an upkick to the groin in round three left him doubled over in agony.
Common sense prevailed and the fight went to an early decision with Pulver, who was clearly ahead at that point, progressing to the next round but being stretchered out of the arena as the decision was announced would not have been the finish he envisaged.
"I was disappointed that I was unable to continue but I have never been kicked so hard in the groin that I began to throw up before. It was an eye opener to say the least and I am very sorry to the fans that I was unable to complete the final round."
Pulver is already the subject of the documentary 'Driven' and surviving an abusive childhood and going on to fight for the biggest MMA organizations in the world is the stuff of which Hollywood movies are made. Winning the ONE FC Bantamweight Grand Prix would be a fairy-tale ending to the story but for now he just wants to enjoy the moment, something which he has not always been able to do during his career.
"I try not to think about winning the Grand Prix, I am the old man in this thing and I am just taking the time to slow down, learn and not look past the fight that is in front of me. I spent to much time living in an emotional whirlwind of anxiety and depression that somewhere along the line I forgot to be proud of what I achieved in this sport so I just hung my head at the losses and the regrets. I am doing everything in my power to put a smile back on my face and put evil back in my fists."
His lifelong battle with depression is well documented but Pulver is not just happier these days, he is more confident and motivated and says the self belief which helped him become the first-ever UFC Lightweight champion has returned.
"I will flat out say if I get into that cage feeling the way I have been feeling throughout this camp there is nothing less than my hand being raised. After all that I have been through it amazes me that I once again found the confidence of knowing that I will win this fight."
Thanh Vu faces Kevin Belingon in the other semifinal of the ONE FC Bantamweight Grand Prix with both fights set for ONE FC: 'Kings & Champions' at the Singapore Indoor Stadium on April 5th. The final will take place on a ONE FC card later this year.
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