"1! 4! 5!"
Such was the battle cry of Jens Pulver after his 35-second submission victory over Cub Swanson at WEC 31 last December. Though some fans wondered if Pulver’s previous two losses in the UFC (to Joe Lauzon and BJ Penn) signaled that his career was heading toward its conclusion, the sheer dominance displayed in his first match as a featherweight proved that a new chapter was just beginning. And along with his fierce reputation, the win was enough to get him an immediate shot at the WEC’s featherweight title, which has been held by Urijah Faber since March 2006.
In his four title defenses, Faber has looked absolutely unbeatable. But he’s never faced anybody as seasoned or explosive as Pulver, whose 21 career victories include seven via stoppage in 60 seconds or less. The matchup, which goes down at WEC 34 (June 1st; Sacramento, CA), is easily the biggest 145-pound MMA contest in American history, and has all the ingredients to become an all-time classic. In advance of that fight, we called Jens at his home base in Bettendorf, Iowa, to discuss "The California Kid," his legacy, video games, and how his old rival BJ Penn will do against Sean Sherk at UFC 84.
CAGEPOTATO.COM: Talk to me about Urijah Faber — what do you think of him as a person?
JENS PULVER: Oh, I think he’s a great person. I like Urijah, man. He comes in great shape, likes to be explosive, and he’s really inventive out there in the cage. I think he’s done a real good job taking the reigns at 145, representing it, and trying to build it up.
So you don’t see yourself having a heated personal rivalry with him, like you had with Cub Swanson and BJ Penn? We’re not going to see any trash talking?
No, there’s no bad blood, no trash talking; it’s utmost respect. We’re gonna go out there and show everybody that we don’t have to have animosity to fight our hearts out. We’re going to prove that.
How much have you been studying Faber’s past fights?
I study habits. You don’t want to get too hard into what he’s done in the past, because he may change it up for me. So I just try to study things like how willing he is to stand up and when he’s going to shoot for takedowns. I study how hard a person fights, how hard they push things, and Urijah’s pretty much shown that he doesn’t fold. He had Curran on his back for almost a whole round and never panicked. He just stayed solid and waited for his opportunity.
Have you noticed any weaknesses in his game that you’ll try to exploit?
I wouldn’t call them weaknesses at all — like I said, he’s a great champ — but I have my plusses, and that’s what I’ll be going in there to exploit. I want to end up on top, I don’t want to be working my guard too much, and I want to control the pace. If he wants to box, I definitely want to be there to counterpunch and blast him with shots if I get those opportunities. If he wants to wrestle, I’m more than willing to use my ground game. It’s always been instinctual for me to keep fights standing, but the more I’m training and having fun on the ground, I’m trying to change those instincts.
You’ve been loyal to the Miletich camp ever since you joined up with them, early in your career. Is that just because you’re a loyal person, or because you’ve seen other camps and feel like Bettendorf is truly the best place to train?
This is my home. We have a great group of guys and we’ve come a long way. A lot of us started together, and we’ve seen new guys come in and old guys go out. My manager Monte Cox lives here, and I’m content living here and training here.
What’s your training routine like these days?
Mondays and Thursdays I’ll do my weight training, circuit training, and plyometrics over at TFX in Rock Island, and then I usually come back and work pads. Mondays and Wednesdays are stand-up days — we have a lot of sparring to do tonight, we’ll try and go 15 rounds — then Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday I do wrestling and grappling. The mornings are usually conditioning — riding a bike, swimming, stuff like that — then the afternoons it’s two hours of wrestling, grapping or sparring and pads.
You’ve been fighting professionally for almost a decade. How many years do you think you have left in you as a fighter?
I don’t know. I feel really good right now and it’s just a matter of, am I skilled enough to hang with the new fighters who grow up with the opportunity to do MMA? I’m still one of the old-school guys who was around back when the sport was first developing to where it is now, so it’s more a question of if I can rumble with these guys. And I feel that I can. I feel phenomenal right now, probably the best I’ve ever felt, so who knows? As long as I’m competitive. That’s the biggest thing for me.
Besides winning a title as a featherweight, is there anything else you feel the need to accomplish in this sport before retiring?
I’ve accomplished a lot and I’ve had a blast doing this sport, but I just want to solidify myself as a top contender. More than anything it’s about rising to the occasion. Can I overcome the opponent that’s in front of me? Can I go after that title and win it? I’ve never taken a title from somebody else. When I won the 155-pound UFC title it was vacant, and I defended it, but I’ve never taken the belt from anybody, so I’m pretty excited to give that a shot. But I’ll walk into this fight knowing I was a pioneer, and I’ll walk out knowing I’m a pioneer. I was a world champion, I’ve fought my heart out, I’ve had a good time, and that’s really all I can ask. But am I done competing? No. I’m a competitor, and that’s what I’m out there doing right now. I’m out there competing because I love it, not because I have to or because I need to, but because I love it. I’m just down for getting out there and doing it.
What advice would you give to a guy who’s just starting out in this sport with big dreams of making an impact in MMA like you have?
Well the biggest thing is to not stop. When you’re climbing that ladder you want to make sure you’re training all aspects. You might have your strengths and there’s certain ways you want to fight, but you’ve got to be ready for anything. And openings will pop up. I’ve seen a lot of people in those situations where somebody has to drop out of a fight and next thing you know they find themselves standing in the middle of a title fight. You don’t ever want to go “I’m not ready, I need more time.” You want to be ready when that time comes.
Speaking of up-and-comers, have you been watching the current season of The Ultimate Fighter?
Not too much. When I’m training, it gets me too fired up to watch other fights — my goal is to stay relaxed and focus on what I’ve got ahead of me. But I know who they are. I met Tim Credeur down in Louisiana when I was with Rich Clementi, and I think he’s got the right attitude for sure. He wants to fight the tough guys, he’s not looking to stay in the house to be on camera — this guy wants to fight, period.
Who do you think will win at UFC 84, BJ Penn or Sean Sherk?
You have to like BJ Penn in the first couple rounds. If he can do a lot of damage early, he can really change the fight. But you have to favor Sherk as it goes into the later rounds, because the guy can go that pace all day long. He’s got that Matt Hughes kind of style — it’s real hard to deal with him staying on your legs. I mean, he broke Kenny Florian down and grinded him out, and he’s really good at that grinding aspect. I think it’ll come down to who’s gonna be fighting on their back. I don’t really see BJ submitting Sean Sherk from his back, but if he gets on top, BJ’s an absolute nightmare. And it’ll come down to who imposes the standup. If BJ’s winning the standup over Sherk and starts making him shoot, then that favors BJ a lot, but if Sherk starts grinding the standup and makes BJ try to take him down, then the tide is going to change.
I know you’re a video game fan — have you checked out Grand Theft Auto IV yet?
No, I haven’t played it yet. I’m a big Call of Duty 4 player. I don’t really branch out too much because I get almost religious when it comes to my training camp. I play what I know, I train what I know, and if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. I spend a lot of online time playing Call of Duty, and I got some World of Warcraft going on there too. So I’ve been a real big PC player, but I definitely want to check out Grand Theft Auto IV to see the new graphics, how they use the environment and raise the bar.
What else do you do for fun when you’re not training?
I hang with my daughter, I spend a lot of time with my fiancée Kannika — we’re getting married soon — and I just try to be a family guy. I just got a house out here in Bettendorf, so I’m working on my gardening and getting the lawn the way I want it, and trying to figure out how to do home improvements. My favorite vehicle is a ‘94 Jeep Wrangler, and I’m all about learning how to fix that thing. The other thing I like to do is travel. I love doing appearances, going to shows, meeting young fighters and fans — that’s the part of the sport I love the most.
How often do you check in on the forums on your website?
Always, believe it or not. I write some blog posts to let people know what I’m doing, and I read the responses, but if I tried to respond to everything I’d be doing it all day long. It’s not that I’m too cool for it, it’s just too hard to respond to everybody, so I feel bad for not having that ability.
Last question: Does your Miletich camp-mate Tim Sylvia stand a chance at beating Fedor Emelianenko?
I’m pretty excited for that fight. Fedor’s a great, well-rounded fighter, but this is where Tim’s gotta be the 300-pound giant. He’s gotta be the big 6-foot-8 guy, and he’s gotta make Fedor come straight at him. I like Tim’s chances. You can never count this guy out. He’s come a long way, and if he can get some agility going he’s really going to make it tough for people.
Thanks so much for your time, Jens. Is there anybody you want to give a shout-out to before we sign off?
I’d like to thank CriticalFightGear.com, Medalist, and Activision for Call of Duty 4. But I especially want to thank everybody for coming onto JensPulver.com, and everyone who’s ever written me a letter or an e-mail. I’m out here for you guys, so I really appreciate them taking two minutes out of their day to come up to me and talk to me. I’ve never been the guy to say “nah man, I’m too busy to talk to you,” because it’s a real special thing to me, and I just can’t thank them enough. — Ben Goldstein