Some aging fighters continue on in this sport because they want to. Others do it because they have to.
If you've looked at the state of Jens Pulver
's career lately and wondered which category he falls into, you're not alone. The thought has crossed his mind from time to time, too.
In fact, the more he thinks about it, the more the 36-year-old former UFC champion is starting to wonder if maybe that's been his whole problem lately, and if there might still be time for him to fix it.
"I think before, I was stuck," said Pulver, who has flirted with the idea of retirement several times over the course of his current six-fight losing streak. "I was stuck wondering, what am I going to do now? Am I going to put on a tie and go to work, or am I going to fight? I really hit a crossroads. I felt like I was stuck in between, and I didn't know what I wanted to do."I can't go out the way I've gone. Not from being a world champion to losing six fights in a row.
-- Jens Pulver
It's hard for him to say what the low point was, simply because there have been so many over the last couple of years. There was the night he got knocked out in just over a minute by Leonard Garcia. Then there were the four-straight submission defeats, all in the first round. He got dropped from the WEC, and notched just one victory in the last three years of competition.
As the losses mounted up, Pulver fell into a spiral of depression that only made it harder to get himself to do the things that might make him a winner again.
"You're just sitting there going, this is terrible. I can't even buy a win. It's so frustrating. And then, how do you find the happiness and the willingness to go train? It's a huge crush to your self-esteem. You just can't win. But you have to sit back and look at what you're doing wrong. It doesn't help anything to sit there saying to myself, you're a loser."
Instead, Pulver said, he realized that he had to make a decision. Either he was going to hang up the gloves and find something else to do with his life, or else he was going to go all in on an attempt to resurrect his career. No more half-measures. No more second-guessing himself.
The conclusion he arrived at, he said, was that he had to keep going. Not for the money, necessarily. Though he needs a paycheck as badly now as he ever has, the small shows he's fighting in aren't exactly making him wealthy. Even his recent deal to appear in the new Supremacy MMA video game
is more about his desire to meld his love of gaming with the chance to lend his likeness to an admittedly "intense" product.
But at the end of the day, Pulver said, he's still fighting because he can't stand to let his dismal recent performances be the final touches on his career.
"I'm trying to put Lil' Evil to bed, if that makes sense, so I can retire the right way, and so I can be done the right way. I can't go out the way I've gone. Not from being a world champion to losing six fights in a row. I want to give it one more shot."
That's why, with a fight scheduled at XFO 38 on Jan. 22, Pulver packed his bags three months ago and headed to Illinois to train with MMA veteran Jeff Curran
. More precisely, Pulver has completely moved in to Curran's facility, living in a small room above the gym and foregoing time with his family in order to focus on the fight.
"This is my first training camp where all I have to do is go downstairs and train. I'm right here at the gym. I've got no TV, no computer. I just work on my skills, my mind, and I just shut the real world off. My wife, God love her, she's handling that part well. Now I'm just sitting in my training camp all the time."
In Curran, Pulver has found not only a coach, but a fellow fighter who understood exactly what he's going through, having been through it himself in the not so distant past.
"I went on a four-fight losing streak and got cut from the WEC," Curran explained. "I was supposed to be in the UFC myself right now. When I got cut and I lost those four fights – one of them was a world title fight – I was as depressed as you can get. I didn't feel like there was any hope, to be honest. But after getting through that, I realized how important it was to have my team and my family behind me. Jens was missing that team feeling, and that's a big part of it."
When Pulver first came to him, Curran said, it wasn't hard to spot the holes in his game, nor was it all that difficult to tell that he'd lost confidence in the abilities that had once made him a champion.
"We were really working with a raw pallet," said Curran. "He was so out of shape and so spiritually broken from the last few years of his career. It's not even like starting from scratch. It's more like starting from a negative."
The key, Curran said, was getting Pulver to throw himself completely into the work in the gym that, at least for the past couple years, he's been sleepwalking through.
Pulver's the first to admit that he hasn't pushed himself hard enough in recent years, mostly because he wasn't entirely sure that he should even be still trying to keep his fighting career going after so many crushing losses.Can I make up for the things that I've done wrong, for the people I've disappointed?
-- Jens Pulver
"I would sit at home and think, what am I going to do?" said Pulver. "Then I'm not training as hard some days, and it's one loss after another, and my coaches are going, 'Look, get in there and push it, push it,' but I just wasn't giving them 110 percent. When I was younger, I gave it a million percent. But I think it was because I was teeter-tottering between, am I fighting or am I trying to figure out bills and figure out what's next?"
Now, according to Pulver, that's over with. Now he knows what he's doing. For better or worse, he's trying to make it as a fighter again. The question is, are the problems he's spent the last three months trying to fix the real ones, or merely convenient stand-ins?
Face it, Pulver wouldn't be the first fighter to blame a lack of work ethic or poor training camps for losses that had more to do with a natural decline in age and ability. In this sport, you have to tell yourself that a fix for what ails you is within your grasp, but it doesn't always mean you're right.
But even if now is when many MMA fans might like to see Pulver walk away from the sport, he can't. Not without spending the rest of his life wondering what would have happened if he'd given it everything he had just one more time, anyway.
Instead of living with that doubt, Pulver said, he wants to find out for himself whether he can still do this. Even if the answer might be no.
"I'm not doing it for the financial side of it," said Pulver. "Does it help? Of course. Do I need the money? Absolutely. But it's more about proving to myself that I can get back. You only live once. Can I make up for the things that I've done wrong, for the people I've disappointed? Can I still get out there and fight? That's what I want to prove to myself."