Looking back now, Jens Pulver can't say exactly what he was expecting that day. A test, maybe. A way to find out something about himself that he'd only guessed at before.
The name of the event – The Bas Rutten Invitational 2 – sounded official enough. If the Dutch Pancrase fighter was affiliated with it, and if they'd already done it once without anything terrible happening, how bad could it be?
But since this is small-time MMA in 1999, we're not talking about a fancy event at a civic center. We're talking a couple hundred people packed into a Muay Thai gym in Littleton, Colorado, a town where just four days earlier two heavily armed teenagers had walked into Columbine High School and killed 12 classmates and one teacher before taking their own lives.
It seemed like an unusual time and place for grown men to gather and beat one another up for sport, but the date had already been set and the tournament participants had been rounded up. No one knew what to do except proceed as planned.
"It was really strange," Pulver recalls now. "Columbine had just happened, so we went out and visited what was basically a memorial. I remember all the news trucks out there and all the flowers. We went over there and paid our respects, and it was pretty heavy. We were out there trying to do this sport, and right there something as horrific as Columbine had happened."
Pulver had come to Colorado because although he knew a little bit about fighting after his wrestling career at Boise State and assorted "underground" fights against local tough guys, he knew there was a whole other world to it that he had barely touched. In the late 90s, being a professional MMA fighter was still more a state of mind than anything else. If you arrived at the fight reasonably on time and put your hands up when the bell rang, you were a pro. Aside from being able to tell your friends about it afterward, there weren't a lot of other rewards involved.
But when Pulver heard about the tournament in Colorado, he knew he had to go check it out. He'd hit a heavy bag in a boxing gym a couple of times. He'd been introduced to the idea of submissions, even if he was far from well-versed in them. But at his core, Pulver says, he was still just a wrestler with a chip on his shoulder. That's how he planned to fight, right up until he got an unexpected pep talk a few minutes before he was scheduled to go on.
"It was crazy because I was just sitting there and I remember [former UFC matchmaker] John Peretti coming up before the fight saying, 'All right, you've got to be exciting. You've got to do this and that.' I was just like, oh my God. But at the same time, okay, I guess I can do that. It just seemed like so much. It was like, you want me to do what? Stand up? Okay. It was wild to me."
Still, something about it appealed to him. There had been plenty of times during his college wrestling days when he'd thought to himself, this match would go down very differently if they'd let me punch you in the face. Now here was his chance. The only problem was that the other guy would be punching back.
"I was really nervous, because I knew they could do more to me than just wrestle. All I could do was just hold on to my britches and go. I was a wrestler, born and raised, but I got in there and just started blasting punches. Just swinging. I had great conditioning because I was a wrestler at Boise State, and I just got after it. I just went wild. It was crazy."
His first fight was a furious three minutes against a guy named Curtis Hill. Pulver remembers hitting him with a big left that wobbled him, then moving in close for an uppercut. After another left hand Hill was sent reeling, and that's when his corner stopped the fight.
"It was a rush," Pulver says.
He didn't know it at the time, but it was that aggressive, slugging style he'd come to be known for later in his career. His love affair with power punching started that day, and the relationship wasn't always a healthy one.
"I think I took it too far later on because of that. Like Pat [Miletich] said, early on my base was getting people down and pounding on them. But then I got into always wanting to stand with everyone. I wanted to stand there and hit you. But it gets costly. You're basically just shooting the lights. They can catch you and you can catch them."
While he was glad to get the win in his first fight, Pulver was equally glad that the tournament structure would allow him another chance to fight that same day.
"I just wanted to keep going, keep figuring it out," he says.
He got his chance against a fighter by the name of David Harris, who was practically an MMA veteran compared to Pulver. Harris had gone 4-0 earlier that same year when he made his own debut at the first Bas Rutten Invitational. Harris had submitted John Alessio in his first round bout that day, but Pulver was determined to give him more of a challenge.
"We went for what felt like forever, and I threw this kid everywhere," Pulver recalls. "I'm tossing him this way and that way and man, that kid was so tough. I hit him with everything. I about brought the kitchen sink down on him. Then I remember he shot in for a single-leg [takedown] and I just thought, there is no way you're taking me down. I had my wrestling shoes on and everything. I just thought there was no way."
By then they'd been at it for almost twelve minutes without any round breaks. Pulver's cardio was holding up well, and he felt certain that there wasn't a man in the room who could take him down with something as basic as a single-leg. The fact that Harris was even attempting it seemed like a sign of desperation.
"All of a sudden he wraps around my knee and I feel my foot go in a different direction, and it was like, what in God's name? What is this? I didn't know anything about footlocks. To me it was just wrestling with punches until I got caught in that."
Confused, and in an increasing amount of pain, Pulver was forced to tap out from a toe hold 11:57 in. He'd had his first win and his first loss in the same day, and by the time he left the little gym in Colorado it was fair to say he was hooked on MMA.
He had no idea that he would make a career of it for the next decade and then some, becoming a UFC champion and a fan favorite in the process. All Pulver knew was that he wanted more, though he had no idea where that pursuit would take him.
"I had no clue. You had to be a fool just to want to do it. I had a job. I was coaching wrestling at a high school. I told my family, you know, this is what I want to do. They were like, are you insane? Again, it's legal in like three states at this time. They don't even have my weight class. This doesn't have retirement or benefits. But my desire to want to compete and be an athlete was just too much. I had to do it."