Jens Pulver: 'Lil Evil, Big Legacy

Timothy McKinnon’s profile of Jens Pulver originally appeared in the June 2008 issue of FIGHT! Magazine. Pulver will face Javier Vasquez at WEC 47.

Wherever he goes, he is introduced as the former lightweight MMA champion of the world or— equally flattering—as the UFC’s first 155-pound lightweight champion. Jens Pulver is grateful for both accolades, but today he is gunning for a new one. He wants to be called the ”World Champion,” without the word “former.” It’s not going to be easy. To get the title, Jen’s is going to have to beat a man who many people think is one of the top four or fi ve pound for pound fighters in the world. This time, more than ever, Jens’ approach to training and his game plan must be technically sound and blade sharp.

I have had the privilege of getting to know Jens over the last several years as a fellow resident of the small town of Bettendorf Iowa. I’ve even penned a book about him, and about the band of brothers that meets at the Pat Miletich’s gym. Neither myself nor anyone else who knows Jens has ever seen him so driven. He wants this title. His manager and friend Monte Cox once told me, “The best way to get Jens to do something is to just tell him he can’t do it. He’ll do anything in his power to prove you wrong.” Like a shark smelling blood, Jens can smell this opportunity. And like a shark, he has begun to stalk his prey.

I asked Jens why this second world lightweight championship is more important to him than his earlier one. “This one actually means more to me. The fi rst time, I was so much younger.” Jens goes on, “With the fi rst title, it was as if I could say goodbye to my past, my drunk-idiot father, memories of getting beat on, all that emotion, all that crap. My dad’s name is also Jens Pulver, and I’ll be damned if that name wasn’t going to stand for something good. I was going to be proud of the name I was given.”

Many longtime fans of MMA are aware of Jens’s hard childhood. His mother, Marlene, describes it as “his own personal hell.” Jens, his mother, and two brothers (Dustin and Abel) were all savagely beaten by his father. Although Jens refuses to be defi ned by this chapter in his life, it has undeniably shaped him into the man he is today.

A New Commitment To Training

Jens understands that his opponent, Urijah Faber, is a phenomenal athlete with endurance and cardio that are beyond compare. So, while Jens has always taken training seriously, this time he has gone off the charts. For boxing, wrestling, weights, and grappling, he has employed many of the same great coaches and training partners with whom he has worked for years; his home base remains the Miletich camp, in Bettendorf, Iowa; and his core fundamentals are still the same. But this time there is something more: He has added the talents of a conditioning coach named Kevin Jandt. Kevin is former college wrestler and Ironman triathlete whose specialty is endurance. The Ironman event involves a swim-bike-run combination of 140.6 miles in a single day, with a time limit of seventeen hours. Kevin crossed the line in just over eleven hours and forty four minutes. He knows what is required for an athlete to be fully prepared, and he knows how to suffer. I accompanied Jens and Kevin to a few workouts, and I can confi dently report back that Jens is suffering.

Pat Miletich told me about the revitalized Jens he has seen in the gym, “He’s back; the ol’ Jens Pulver is back.” Pat continued, “He has a renewed excitement and exuberance for the sport. He has added so many tools to his toolbox. Anyone knows that if you stand with Jens, chances are he’s going to knock you out. But now, as he illustrated in his last fi ght, he’ll out-muscle you and submit you in a heartbeat.” Pat said that Jens is already a killer in the gym, but he acknowledged that the intensity of his program is only going to increase. “Just wait until a couple of weeks from now, he said. “It’s only going to get more crazy from here. Jens is becoming a complete fi ghter.”

A New Use for a Tractor Tire

The first stage of a workout for Jens these days is a session of strength training and plyometrics. In attendance today are Jens, Kevin, and “Hillbilly Heartthrob” Brad Imes. There are also two staff trainers who put these guys through a gauntlet of abdominal contractions, grip strength techniques, cardio, squats, agility, push ups, and sprints. There is very little rest between sets. The guys are now well into their third rotation, all breathing heavily and bordering on agony, when Jens pipes in, “You will never see me puke. You hear me boys? At least, that is, I’ll never do it in front of you all.” He continues, “Now, I might go in the bathroom by myself, and lie when I come out, but that’s all you’ll get from me.”

Right in the middle of the training facility are three big John Deere tractor tires. Remember, this is farm country, with Deere & Company’s world headquarters just a few miles down the road, in Moline, Illinois. One tire weighs 225 pounds, the second 250, and the third hits the scale at 275. As Jens grabs the first tire, you cannot help but notice his physique. His legs are clean shaven and his calf muscles are bulging; his back and shoulders are ripped , and the veins in his forearms are popping. Although his nickname is “Lil’ Evil,” he is a gigantic 145-er.

While carrying the tire around, Jens tells his training partners that it’s cutting into his hands. Brad Imes, delighted at the chance to ridicule him says, “That’s because you have city-boy hands. Have you been counting money all your life or something?” Jens replies, “I ain’t even playin’. I think I left a chunk of my hand with that bastard.” Perhaps realizing that he isn’t going to get any sympathy, Jens grabs the 275-lbs tire. “I demand wheels on this thing. Where are the wheels? I’m carrying something that weighs 115 pounds more than me. This is ridiculous.” Then he finishes with, “That’s alright, I’m going to be the champion in two months.”

Jens has only thirty seconds to rest. Yet, in his typical style, he quickly makes friends with a visitor to the gym and invites him to join his workout, “You’ll be knocking people unconscious in no time, brother.” After another ten minutes of drills, the session wraps up.

A New Kind of Turf War

Although it was touch-and-go at times, no one puked.

Whenever you prepare to become a world champion, the pace of training is unrelenting. But it’s been even tougher for Jens since he’s moved from the MMA lightweight division to the featherweight. He says that, while training for fights in the lightweight (155-pound) division, he could get down to the required weight without much trouble. But now he has to drop ten pounds lower than that to qualify for the featherweight. “If I had to, I could get to 155 and not be in tip-top condition. I didn’t have to cut 25 pounds like some guys in that division. That is not the case at 145; it requires me to be in sick cardio shape.” Being in “sick cardio shape” has worked well for him so far: Jens has an unblemished 9-0 record in the featherweight class, with eight knockouts and one submission victory. But the road to getting into that kind of shape has been a hard one, and sometimes and unpredictable one.

On another morning, Jens, Big Tim Sylvia, and Kevin head to the Bettendorf YMCA for a training session in the pool. Before you dismiss this as child’s play, try going into in the pool with Kevin, knocking out 3,000 yards of sprint sets. By the time you are finished, you will have been at an anaerobic threshold until you see black, the lactic acid will have built up in your muscles to untold levels, and you will have wanted to tap out at least ten times. It is a hard-hitting test of one’s fitness.

This significant part of Jens’ training program is complicated by an ongoing and cantankerous turf war. The rival gang outnumbers ours by five to one. They are tough, determined, and dogged in their quest to commandeer the coveted four swim lanes. This band of outlaws has been dubbed ”The Silver Foxes.” The requirements of the club: You must be female, at least 71 years old, and have absolutely no ability to swim.

As we enter the pool area, the two posse’s uncomfortably glare at each other from across the pool like the Bloods and the Crips from the old Michael Jackson “Beat It” video. Gone are the switchblades, pipes, and bandannas; these have been replaced with latex swim caps, nose plugs, and multi-colored water noodles. The tension is palpable. As the 6’ 8” frame of Tim Sylvia enters the pool deck, Lil’ Evil follows and Kevin is close behind. Suddenly, the room has fi fteen more tattoos and quite a bit more testosterone. As Big Tim gets into the pool, the Silver Foxes shoot stink-eye across the lanes. The men begin their workout, and believe it or not, these guys can swim. Jens has great technique and a fluid stroke. He begins to suffer as the session wears on, but doesn’t complain. Big Tim is surprisingly agile, but he’s unaware that his bulk in the water is creating a tidal wave, and the victims are none other than our canasta-playing friends. As the workout comes to a close, the guys exit the pool, exhausted, semi ticked-off at Kevin, but thankful that their water torture is now over.

A New Brand of Sportsmanship

There was quite a bit of acrimony surrounding Jens’s last fight against Cub Swanson, but the lead-up to his bout with Urijah has been marked by mutual respect and class. I asked Jens why it was different this time. “Look, we are both athletes competing for the same world title. I don’t have to hate you, to hit you in the face and knock you out.” Jens adds, “Urijah is a bad ass. What has he had, like 15 title defenes or something? He’s an athlete that I can respect. He does his job and doesn’t talk trash, he trains hard, he respects his sport, his respects the cage, he’s just done a fl at-out great job, and I give credit where credit is due.” He adds, “We ain’t criminals. This is a sport. Someone the other day told me this is cockfi ghting, and I let ‘em have it. Does it look like I have feathers coming out of my ass? Do you think I lay eggs? Do you see people dashing me with salt & pepper, splashing me with teriyaki sauce?” Jens adds, “Nah man, I like him. Now don’t get me wrong, we are going to beat the hell out of each other, but I still like him”.

About the fight, Jens says, “This is big. I’m excited for the 145 division, and excited for the WEC. This fight is for all the little guys, and I will represent them like I always have.”

A New Found Peace at Home

As Jens’s conditioning coach, Kevin will be the first to tell you that Jens is very focused and believes that everything starts at home. In Jens’ early years, home was not a place of comfort, but rather a place filled with anxiety, fear, and rage. Today, things are different. Jens is in a committed relationship with a stunning girl named Kannika, who has a pint-size frame and a huge smile. She is also the reason (many believe) that Jens is at peace. He says of his current situation, “It is so nice to come home and have someone supportive there, to leave the fi ght in the gym and not have to fight at home. The last thing I want to do is fight at home.” Jens goes on, “I can just be me. The anxiety and nightmares are gone, the anchors are gone. I am surrounded by good people and I am having fun again. I am no longer living in a cesspool of depression and anger. I’m back, Jens is finally back.”

In previous conversations we’ve had, Jens mentioned that his mental state is as important as his physical state. He knows how to hit people really hard, and he’s a veteran technician of the sport, but if he is not mentally focused and prepared, his chances for success are diminished.

“Kannika means everything to me. Jens says, “Having someone positive in my life has healed me, and I can drop my guard and be myself. Now, all of my fi ght can be left on the mat.”

New Friends From New Jersey

Two visitors have arrived in town from out East: a husband and wife team named Michael and Toni Cestero. They have traveled to Bettendorf to rendezvous with their new friend, Jens Pulver. Mike works for Allies, Inc., a non-profit organization in New Jersey that helps children with disabilities. In early 2007, Mike wrote Jens on his website to ask if he would attend a fundraiser for the organization. Jens has said that, when he donates time or money to a cause, he doesn’t do it for the headlines. His only reasons for appearing at Allies, Inc. last November were to visit with the children and help raise money for them.

Mike and Toni Cestero and I are about to meet Jens for dinner at Duck City Bistro, a quaint restaurant in downtown Davenport. Jens has just finished a two-hour grappling session at Pat’s gym, and the workout was apparently rough. As he approaches the table, with Kannika at his side, I can see that the side of his face is sporting a wound. He explains, “Yes, I left part of my face on the wrestling mat today, but I’m fine. All in a day’s work.”

Jens devours a spinach salad and an entrée of Mahi Mahi while the group talks about the November fundraiser. Mike and Toni mention that many of the children at Allies, Inc. still talk about the night they met Jens Pulver. Given his knowledge and experience, Jens gets lots of invitations to seminars and training clinics from organizations willing to pay top dollar for his presence. That night in November however, was notably different, and it impresses the Cesteros to this day. The money Jens raised through his four-hour visit with the children came to $15,014. The amount he received for the visit was a nice, round figure: zero.

A New Kind of Father

Jens, Big Tim, and Kevin have just finished a workout, and they call to invite me to meet them for a late breakfast. We enter a restaurant and grab the corner booth. When the waitress arrives, she looks at Tim and Jens and asks, “The usual, right?” “Yep” they reply in harmony, “The usual.” Five minutes pass, and an array of healthy specialties appears on the table. The morning’s fuel consists of scrambled egg whites, a bowl of fresh fruit, multigrain pancakes, broccoli, and lean steak. At first glance, it appears to be a lot of food, but these guys just got done burning a thousand calories, so it’s time to replenish.

Jens starts talking about his daughter. He is extremely protective of her, and has rarely allowed media coverage of their relationship. This time, however, he has granted me permission to ask questions (selectively) about his little girl and what she means to him. Her name is Madeline Spring, and she’s fi ve years old today.

“I want my daughter to look up to me. I absolutely must set a good example for her,” Jens says. “Obviously, I didn’t have that when I was growing up, with all of those times I was getting punched on. Not this time, brother. It’s time to make right all of those wrongs.” His eyes become watery, “I just want her to be proud of me. You know, she doesn’t live with me full time and I don’t ever want her to fi nish a sentence with ‘my dad was not around.’” Jens has told me before that he’s setting a benchmark for how Madeline will allow others to treat her later on in life. He adds, “If I can show her love and support, she won’t allow anyone to mistreat her.”

It is clear that his daughter has inherited Jens’s sense of brutal honesty. Like her father, she doesn’t pull punches. Jens tells of an incident that took place just a few of nights ago, when Madeline went along with him to a grappling session at the Miletich gym. When they arrived, there were plenty of familiar faces in the wrestling room, including a crazy-tough wrestler that happens to be a double amputee. As he had done so many times in the past, he removed his prosthetic legs, placed them off to the side, and then promptly administered a bunch of ass-whippings on the mat. Jens has deep admiration and respect for this guy, and is quick to mention how strong and talented he is. As Madeline watched him get ready, she called out (without lowering her voice), “Daddy, that man doesn’t have legs.”

The man, slightly grinning, and not the least bit offended, came over to Jens and said, “Hey Pulver, did you hear what your daughter just said?” Jens replied, “Yeah, I heard her, but with all due respect, she’s five and you don’t have any legs”. The two of them chuckle. Jens patted Madeline on the head and said “Daddy has to go to work now.”

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