“How can you be Lil’ Evil again? … You gotta’ get Lil’ Evil back.”
People say these kinds of things all the time to Jens Pulver and he doesn’t quite know how to respond.
He could tell them the truth: That he hasn’t felt ‘Lil Evil’ lurking inside of him, burning to be unleashed, since late 2002. Lil’ Evil, you see, was more than just a cool-sounding nickname to Pulver, it was a full-fledged identity, it was the predominately destructive force that may have sabotaged and complicated his life outside of the cage, but made him a wrecking machine inside of it.
Pulver had moved to Iowa in the late 1990’s to train with Pat Miletich’s team and had scant few possessions: two duffel bags filled with clothes and a bag filled with coins. From his debut in April 1999 – a first-round TKO where the other guy’s corner threw in the towel – until August 2002, the darkest space that dwelled inside of Pulver, overflowing with anger from a tormented childhood and a drunken, abusive father, catapulted him to a 14-2-1 mark in MMA. He was a tornado, a ball of rage, and only the occasional heel hook or a toehold could stop him.
Anger, many elite fighters have testified, is not a particularly healthy or advantageous emotion inside of the cage. It clouds the mind, interferes with making sound judgments, wastes energy and can disrupt your fight strategy and lead to costly mistakes. Yet anger was a faithful ally to Pulver. Stepping into the cage with him, you weren’t an opponent, you were a soon-to-be-victim.
“I was a starving dog – what else was I going to do?” Pulver explained. “I wanted to knock everybody unconscious until I wasn’t starving any more. I used to have demons chasing me. I was mad, I was invincible and I was bulletproof. In the old days I was like, ‘You think you’re going to hit me – well I’m going to hit you six times and I’m going to hit you harder. You swing at me I’m going to hit you so hard you will never swing again. I’m going to embarrass you.”
And now, in 2009?
“The thing is, I just can’t get that mad in a fight no more,” he said. “I just can’t get that pissed off in a fight anymore. I don’t have that rip-your-head-off thing anymore.”
His record is a reflection of that diminished fury. Since January 2003, Pulver has been a .500 fighter, going 8-8. In his defense, he has never been finicky or discriminating about his opponents; he routinely fights the best in the business. Losing to top-tier fighters like B.J. Penn, Takanori Gomi, Hayato Sakurai, Urijah Faber, Leonard Garcia, Duane Ludwig and Joe Lauzon is nothing to be ashamed of, especially when you consider that the undersized Pulver fought most of his career at 155 pounds out of necessity, often giving up 20 or more pounds on fight night to his opponents. But it is how Pulver has lost over the past five years that has raised eyebrows: The banger with the crushing left hook has been knocked out or TKO’ed in six of those eight defeats.
When it comes to reinvigorating his career, and recapturing the form that made him a living MMA legend, the 34-year-old Pulver is running out of chances. Which is why Sunday’s rematch with Urijah Faber is Huge – yes, with a capital H. Lose, and Pulver will fall to 1-3 in the WEC, and invite even more criticism that perhaps this fast-evolving sport has passed him by. But if Pulver can turn back the clock, and somehow upset Faber, then suddenly a whole lot of people will undoubtedly entertain the prospect that, ‘He’s back.’
But if he is going to upend Faber, change is mandatory. Pulver would be ill-advised to simply stand and try to trade leather once again with Faber, who boasts far quicker hands and feet and can fire off 1-2 combinations and bolt out of harm’s way by the time Pulver tries to reciprocate. One blueprint for victory that intrigues Pulver was the plan executed by Mike Thomas Brown, who beat Faber by first-round TKO. Pulver has studied the fight and offered this analysis:
“What I’ve learned is that Brown just refused to get caught up in Urijah’s scramble game, while I just sat there and walked in front of Urijah and allowed him to back it up, clinch it up whenever he wanted to, run around, do this and do that,” Pulver said. “Brown never got caught up in any of that. He just stayed solid and right in front of him, pushed him back (in the clinch) and – bang – hit him when they got close and he just didn’t play any of the scramble games that Urijah likes to play. That is dead opposite of what I did the first time I fought him. I not only allowed it to happen but I fed off of it and the momentum just kept going and going and going.
“Brown took that away from the first clinch. Urijah was like, “Oh, dear God, I can’t get him into those scrambles.’ Urijah loves to bounce around and get you wondering where he’s at but Brown just stayed in one spot and was like, ‘Bang! Bang!’ and just played the bigger guy. What you do with speed is put shackles on him and Brown was definitely putting shackles on him.”
While Faber and others believe the former featherweight champ simply made a mistake and was stunned by a big punch that precipitated his downfall, Pulver disagrees and figures Brown would have prevailed had the fight advanced past the first round.
“I think Brown was going to win regardless,” Pulver said, adding however that he expects the loss lit a fire under Faber that will cause the former world champ to “come at me like a bat out of hell. I’m expecting a guy who basically just rolled over me (last time) so what would you do? You would try to do the same stuff. But I’m going to be ready.”
Drawing up a new strategy for Sunday’s fight is not the only big change in Pulver’s life. Most notably, he is no longer a member of Pat Miletich’s team, opting instead to train under Matt Hume in the Seattle, Wash., area. The move is even bolder because Pulver, after many years away from his boyhood home, has returned home to Maple Valley, Wash., the place from which he fled after a wretched childhood that included having his own father put a shotgun in 7-year-old Jens’ mouth and threatening to pull the trigger. Jens Sr., to the best of his son’s knowledge, still lives in the area. Junior is hoping they don’t cross paths.
“I’m praying to Jesus he don’t ever show up and get in my face,” Pulver said. “I don’t want to be provoked. What scares me is that he will provoke me and all those emotions that I have harnessed … It will be the final payback of all paybacks.”
Pulver’s training camp has been interrupted by the very highest of highs and gut-wrenching lows. In mid-December Pulver’s wife, Kannika, gave birth to their second child, a boy they named Karson. Little more than a week later, Pulver got a phone call: Justin Eilers, a close friend and former UFC heavyweight, had been shot and killed during a Christmas evening domestic dispute in Idaho. The former linebacker for Iowa State University was 30 years old.
Eilers’ stepfather, according to various media accounts, has been charged with second-degree murder in connection with the fatal shooting. Then, just last week, several teenagers –children of MMA mega-manager Monte Cox – were involved in a serious car crash in Iowa. Pulver is like a big brother to the teens. His first instinct was to return home to Iowa, but he stayed in Washington state to honor his obligations as a pro fighter.
The crazy thing is, even with his life seemingly still overflowing with trials and tribulations, Pulver says he isn’t overwhelmed and is happier than ever. He puts his faith in God and the Bible, striving for peace in his everyday life. He is no slouch in the cage – still tough as nails and able to fight 25 hard minutes or more. But has that relentless quest for peace, that softening of his heart, detracted from his fighting powers? Will finding peace in life keep him from being ever being a champion again in the cage?
“What if ‘Lil Evil is dead?” Pulver’s wife once asked him. “Why not be Jens? Why not go out there and light them up (your opponents) because you’re an athlete and a competitor and you love to do this?”
It is incredibly sound advice, and something Jens Pulver is still exploring, still trying to get right. He is still trying to find the switch that he can turn on in the cage and turn off in real life. It is a work in progress.
So does that mean ‘Lil Evil’ is indeed dead?
“Oh yeah, he’s gone,” Pulver said. “He’s Mr. Nice Guy now. I love helping people, I love charity work.”
But the nickname stays, huh?
“Absolutely, I’ll never get rid of that.”
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