History in the Making: Jens Pulver proves BJ Penn is only human at UFC 35


Imagine you are a mixed martial artist. You're small, perhaps too small, but you're motivated. You're motivated by wanting to get out of the small Washington town you grew up in. You're motivated by all of the people who said you wouldn't make anything of yourself.

But most of all, you're motivated by the anger you feel towards a father who put the barrel of a gun in your mouth only to say you weren't worth the bullets.

Now imagine you're a different mixed martial artist. This time you are born into an affluent family in one of the most beautiful places on the planet -- Hawaii. You started training in Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) because well, you can't surf ALL the time, right? You are naturally gifted in the art and within two years, you're training under a member of the world-famous Gracie family and winning the black belt division of the World Jiu-Jitsu Championship.

Jens Pulver (the former) came from a much different background than BJ Penn (the latter) but they both ended up fighting in the UFC. When they collided at UFC 35, not only was it the first lightweight bout to headline a card in the promotion's history, it was a showcase of heart versus talent.

BJ Penn doesn't seem as invincible now as he did then, but coming off a knockout win over Matt Hughes, he looks as good as he has in years heading into his UFC 127 clash against Jon Fitch on Feb. 27 in Australia.

Before "The Prodigy" steps into the Octagon this weekend, let's take a look at his classic battle with "Lil' Evil" Jens Pulver.

By the time Pulver stepped into the Octagon at UFC 30, his fifth appearance for the promotion, he had only been fighting for two years but had an entire career's worth of experience. With a 9-2-1 record, he faced off against highly-regarded Japanese fighter Caol Uno. Naturally, he wasn't given much of a chance.

Never one to let critics and pundits decide his future for him, the Miletich Fighting Systems (MFS) member pulled off the upset and became the first ever UFC lightweight (then called bantamweight) champion.

Later that year, he defended his title against Dennis Hallman, whose last appearance in the UFC had him submitting Matt Hughes in 21 seconds. Pulver had defeated a Japanese superstar and a "Superman." How would he stack up against a "Prodigy"?

BJ Penn ran through, or more appropriately grappled through, the BJJ world at the turn of the century and caught the eye of UFC President Dana White. He convinced the young Hawaiian to try MMA and the tough Hilo boy, always looking for the next challege, accepted.

He debuted at UFC 31, knocking out Joey Gilbert with just seconds remaining in the opening round. Less than two months later, he stepped in against top lightweight Din Thomas and separated him from his senses in less than three minutes. 

In November 2001, "The Prodigy" staked his claim to the lightweight championship when it took him only 11 seconds to knock out former contender Caol Uno. Five minutes, three minutes, 11 seconds. Penn continuously showed that as the competition improved, his game escalated right along with it. 

Young, talented, and exciting, the UFC couldn't wait to give him a title shot. The only thing standing between Penn and championship gold was a guy who had fought for everything his entire life. And he wasn't about to give up his belt so easily.

The first round starts and Penn immediately takes the fight to the ground. They exchanges punches there until "Lil' Evil" is able to scramble to his feet. Penn grabs a guillotine and hops into the champion's standing guard but Pulver is able to pop his head out and slam his opponent down to the mat.

With 90 seconds remaining, the referee calls for a stand-up and Penn, the BJJ expert, begins to tag the champion with combinations. He pulls guard and is forced to enter the second round for the first time in his UFC career. Despite that, he is in control of the bout.

The challenger opens the second frame with crisp combinations before taking Pulver down and grinding  him against the cage. Halfway through the round, neither fighter too worse for wear, the fight is once again vertical. Penn throws a weak leg kick, perhaps showing the first signs of fatigue before taking the champion down again.

Pulver tries to scramble out from under the grappling phenom but ends up giving up mount. The audience erupts as Penn rains down punches and attempts an armbar submission. With less than a minute left, the challenger is still delivering shot after shot while the champion throws his legs up in vain, trying to sweep out.

Ten seconds left and Penn grabs an arm. Pulver defends as long as he can, the horn sounds, and Penn extends the arm.

Jens Pulver is literally saved by the bell.

The third stanza begins and "The Prodigy" immediately shoots in for a single leg. "Lil' Evil" sprawls and ends up in his opponent's guard. Little action forces a stand-up and once again, Penn looks to take the fight to the floor. The champion sprawls out and lands some big shots after slipping into the Hawaiian's half-guard.

Heading into the championship rounds, the tide of the fight seems to have turned.

The fourth round begins unlike any of the others. Pulver begins to push the pace with Penn on his heels, circling around. The challenger latches onto a bodylock and tries to take the champion down but Pulver reverses and ends up in half-guard. He lands some heavy shots and is careful not to leave any limbs ripe for Penn's picking.

Penn gets back to his feet. Another takedown attempt, another reversal from Pulver. A minute and a half left into the round and the referee stands the fighters up. During this time, Penn looks as good as he has since the second round but still appears to be out of gas. 

Pulver opens up the final five minutes with a nice combination and begins to stalk his heir apparent around the cage. He is using crisp boxing and leg kicks to keep Penn on his heels and from putting any offense together save for single punches. A stiff jab from the champion snaps the Hawaiian's head back and elicits an OH! from the crowd. 

A minute is left in this championship fight and the two fighters are night and day images of one another. Pulver is bouncing around, outboxing and countering his opponent while Penn is flat-flooted and sluggish. The champion staggers the challenger with a beautiful combination but an accidental low blow forces a temporary stoppage.

"Lil' Evil" takes a moment to collect himself and comes roaring back to finish off the round. Just like he has the past three rounds, he presses the action and imposes his gameplan on Penn.

The official decision is announced -- a majority decision in favor of Pulver. The champion breaks down in tears. Penn has a look of shock on his face, one that likely mirrored many of the fans who were watching at the time.

That night personified the attitude that has made Jens Pulver the legend he is today. The inability to know when to quit. And while we lauded him for that in the past, it breaks our hearts now. The calls for him to quit are constant, seeing as he's suffered 6 defeats in his last 7 fights.

Penn went on to become one of the very best in the world and the undisputed top 155-pound fighter in the game. Two losses to Frankie Edgar later and analysts were wondering if he too should hang up the gloves.

It's easy to dismiss fighters after they've passed their prime or after a particularly bad losing streak. It's easy to get sucked into revisionist history. But despite this loss, and losses to Georges St. Pierre and Edgar, BJ Penn will always be one of the best.

And so will Jens Pulver. His performance at UFC 35 are 25 minutes that prove it.

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