Jens Pulver has a story to tell. It has a heartbreaking beginning with a happy ending.
And an inspirational middle.
Pulver overcame horrendous mental and physical abuse as a youngster, pulling himself up to be a high school and collegiate wrestling champion, and earning a college degree, all of which were a precursor to becoming the first-ever UFC lightweight champion.
Now retired as one of mixed martial arts' all-time greats, Pulver is enjoying life with his family, occasionally doing MMA commentary and telling his story as a motivational speaker.
Once one of the "baddest men on the planet," Pulver now uses words and his own life experiences, rather than his fists, to get his point across.
It would only make sense as Pulver loves to talk and he wants to give back. He’ll do some of that today and Tuesday with various speeches to youth on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
“It’s my turn to give back,” Pulver said Sunday afternoon in an interview at the Journal. “I was raised by mentors, I was raised by coaches. I was raised by people who cared. I want them (the youth) to never close the door on the person they are going to be in five years, six years, 10 years. Don’t give up on that person because you don’t know them yet."
Today, Pulver will speak at Little Wound High School at 9:30 a.m., followed by a speech at Wolf Creek Elementary School at 11:45 a.m. and at Pine Ridge High School at 2:30 p.m. On Tuesday, he will talk to a selective group of kids at Pine Ridge High School from 10 a.m. to noon.
“Everybody has their favorite athletes in different sports; Jens was one of our favorites,” said Mike Kelly, who is bringing Pulver to South Dakota for the two-day engagement. Last fall, Kelly brought NBA Hall of Famer Rick Barry to the Pine Ridge community.
“Having seen Jens, read the two books that were written on Jens and the documentary on him, I thought he would be a good representative to go talk to the kids on the reservation," added Kelly, who said Pulver has the story to resonate with the kids there.
Pulver said this is one thing he has always wanted to do. Yet, he admits that to actually get out there speaking, he’s afraid that once he hits the gas, he won’t be able to turn it off.
Pulver’s story is well documented. He grew up with an alcoholic father who abused him, his siblings and his mother. His cousin committed suicide as a teenager.
It was an upbringing that could have haunted his moves the rest of his life. Instead, it motivated him to be the best that he can be.
“I always think about my cousin because when I was 16, 17, the world is the love of your life. That is as good as life gets, your senior year in high school,” he said. “When I won that world title at the age of 25, I looked down at this idiot stamp (tattoo on his hand) and I thought I was an idiot (when he got the tattoo). Life hadn’t even begun. I didn’t meet my wife until I was 32. Then I had my kids. I won a world title, life was good."
After winning two high school state wrestling titles in the state of Washington, he was also a National Junior College All-American before going on to Boise State, where he graduated with a degree in criminal justice.
He wanted more. He found it with mixed martial arts. Nicknamed “Lil’ Evil,” Pulver was the inaugural UFC lightweight champion, defeating Caol Uno in UFC 30 on Feb. 23, 2001. He held the title for 393 days, defending with wins against Dennis Hallman at UFC 33 and B.J. Penn at UFC 35 on Jan. 11, 2002. He was stripped of the title on March 23, 2002, when he left the UFC due to a contract dispute.
“I am the guy who started 155 pounds in MMA,” he said. “I had to fight 235-pound guys. I had to fight guys with no time limits. I had to fight all of these things until it was cleaned up. “
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Pulver also served as the head coach on The Ultimate Fighter 5 reality show against long-time rival Penn, as well as competed in Pride Fighting Championships, for the PRIDE 2005 Lightweight Grand Prix, as well as in World Extreme Cagefighting and ONE championship fighting. He finished with a 27-19-1 overall record, retiring in 2014.
“Had I been a calculating individual, I would have never left my job as a resources officer, straight out of college, working at a high school as a head wrestling coach,” he said. “I had all of these things right out of college, but yet I wanted to be a world champion in a weight class that hadn’t even existed yet in a sport that has no rules.”
Pulver wonders about his message. How can he tell teenagers to think about when they get old, to think like he does now because he is seasoned and he has been through all of these things?
But, he will tell his story. When he does, if they hear his message, or even if they don’t, he will understand. He knows what they are going through.
“I have had a shotgun shoved in my mouth by my father; I have been abused,” he said. “I have won titles, I have seen people pass away. I have a brother locked away for 55 years. I have a brother who has a Master’s in literature. I have a sister who has beautiful kids. I get to be a father now.
"I've seen it all."
Yet, he said that when you’re 17, you’re in a small circle. For Pulver, the biggest thing is to find your passion; find what puts a smile on your face. For him, it was wrestling. It was that one-on-one competition, the ability to walk out there and represent his family, represent all of the coaches and mentors who gave him the time.
Pulver has a three-word slogan that he wants young people, those who are hurting, to live by and remember.
Never fly solo.
“Learn how to be your own best friend," he said.
When Pulver began experiencing success in the ring, none of that compared to when his son and two daughters were born; when he married his wife.
“Had I closed the door on that person, then that would have been all she wrote. There is no parade. I remember my cousin, but at the same time you hurt a lot of people,” he said. “The people you don’t want to hurt are going to be hurt. The people you love, they are going to wonder why you didn’t stay alive for them. When my cousin shot himself, the first thing I asked myself, I was 12, was, ‘Why didn’t you want to be alive for me? We were supposed to hang out this summer.’”
Pulver wrote a powerful book about his upbringing (Little Evil: One Ultimate Fighter's Rise to the Top) and had a documentary film done about his life (Jens Pulver: Driven). Both were therapeutic personally with the hope they could help others.
In retrospect, Pulver admits that he probably would have never been the fighter he was if not for the abuse he went through from his father and his own will to succeed. At the same time, he doesn’t wish anyone to ever go through what he went through.
In the end, what he was able to do was break the cycle.
“I am going to be the one who gives my family something positive to talk about. I’m going to give them a reason to smile and I’m going to give them a reason to hold their head up,” Pulver said.