(Props: Karyn Bryant/MMA Heat)
When BJ Penn announced his retirement last night after getting smashed by Frankie Edgar at the TUF 19 Finale, it signaled the end of an era; yet another UFC legend from the last decade had finally accepted that he couldn’t hack it anymore. But while Penn got to make his final statement on national television to the cheers of an adoring Las Vegas crowd, one of the Prodigy’s greatest rivals made a much quieter exit from the sport.
In an interview with Karyn Bryant published yesterday, Jens Pulver — the UFC’s first-ever 155-pound champion — announced that he was officially retired. Pulver was in town for the UFC Fan Expo, working the FightMatch booth, and had this to say about his competitive status:
“I (competed at) 135 for a bit, and I hear everybody saying ‘time to retire’, this and that, and I refused to announce it or say it, but I think I’ve said it like three times today — I’m done. I mean, I’m done. And I think most people are like, ‘Well, you were done like five years ago’.”
It’s the kind of self-deprecating line that we’ve come to expect from the always humble Pulver, but there’s some sad truth to it. Pulver’s career peak came way back in 2001-2002, when he won the UFC’s inaugural “bantamweight” title with a decision win over Caol Uno at UFC 30, then defended it twice against Dennis Hallman and BJ Penn. Since then, his career has been in a long, steady decline, punctuated by just enough bright moments to keep him going.
After leaving the UFC after the first Penn fight due to a contract dispute, Pulver bounced around various promotions for a while, and ran up a 2-2 record competing in PRIDE. He returned to the UFC in 2006, where he suffered a shocking knockout loss against an unheralded youngster named Joe Lauzon, and was choked out by BJ Penn in their rematch at the TUF 5 Finale.
Pulver dropped to 145 pounds to join the WEC’s featherweight division in 2007, and submitted Cub Swanson in just 35 seconds during his promotional debut. It seemed that a change in weight class was the perfect remedy to rescue Pulver’s career. Unfortunately, Lil’ Evil would go on to lose his next five fights in the promotion, taking bad beatings against the likes of Urijah Faber (twice), Leonard Garcia, and Josh Grispi.
Following his WEC stint, Pulver went nomad again, showing up in XFO, Titan FC, RFA, and ONE FC. He dropped to bantamweight, and then to flyweight, steadily alternating between wins and losses. In 2013, Pulver suffered back-to-back losses against Masakatsu Ueda (in ONE FC) and Sami Aziz (in Superior Challenge). Pulver has kept busy since his last defeat, training fighters and working a commentary gig for Cage Warriors — but he hasn’t competed since last November, and doesn’t plan on strapping on the gloves again.
As Neil Young sang, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.” In MMA terms, I guess that means it’s better to retire after a high-profile ass kicking on cable TV (like Penn) than sort of float around the fringes of the sport for a while and reveal your retirement on a YouTube video eight months after your last loss, when most fans have already stopped wondering when your next fight will be (like Pulver).
The end of the road is never a fun place to be. Then again, look at Pulver’s smile while he talks to Bryant — the smile that’s always been his greatest physical trademark. Jens Pulver is in a good place. He’s got things to look forward to. He’s comfortable with the fact that his time is up, and can even say those words out loud now. It was never an easy journey for him, but he survived it. You’d be smiling too.