Nowadays more than ever, Jens Pulver wears his hurt on his sleeve. Everyday it's the same questions, inquiring minds prying for reasons why a living legend still feels compelled to prove himself in a young man's game. He doesn't have a reason, or at least not one they'll understand. Maybe not even one he can to articulate to himself.
It's not the usual fanfare, that's for sure. Ask Pulver and he'll scoff at the pursuit of world titles and personal accolades. That's old hat, he's done it before. Eleven years ago, bathed in the glow of Atlantic City, when Pulver actually cared about becoming a champion, he did it.
But now? The memory of that fireball kid who took Caol Uno to a majority decision and handed B.J. Penn his first loss is so distant, it doesn't even seem real. "That's been the hardest part," the 37-year-old Pulver admits. "Just trying to figure out where I stand, where I'm at now, what the heck do I do, what do I do with myself when I'm sitting around waiting for practice. It was just so much easier when I was young. I was all about fighting, fighting, fighting. But now there's family, and life after fighting, and all these other things that come into play. I don't know, it just caught up to me."
For Pulver, "it" happened slowly. He always fought with the elephant-sized chip on his shoulder of an abusive childhood. He was the seven-year-old boy whose father forced the cold barrel of a shotgun down his mouth. That anger consumed him, and eventually, it carried him to greatness.
But most, if not all of it is gone now. The trifecta of winning, adulthood, and family took care of that. Without the anger, Pulver was left emptied. One loss sidled into two, two careened into four, and gradually the self-doubt crept in. The way he tells it, that's how he got to this point, where waking up can be chore in-and-of itself.
"Right now I'm figuring out exits," he says. "I'm figuring out how to walk away from this sport and not hate every minute of it, not regret that I ever did it. It's hard, maybe it's not as hard as it seems, but I'm fighting to put a smile back on my face and be happy that I was an MMA fighter. I'm fighting because I want to appreciate the things that I've done, what I've gained, what I've gotten out of it.
"People think I sit back, look at what I've done and go, ‘Wooo, I'm the man.' You are so far from it, it's ridiculous. I don't even wake up with those kind of ideas. I just wake up and go, ‘Alright, man. Control this anxiety. Stuff depression down a hole. Go out there and make your kids smile, make your wife happy, make your family happy, and more than anything, make yourself happy.'" Describing Pulver as depressed would be a sloppy over-simplification, but that's what makes the usual questions so hard. They're flat, black-and-white. They don't understand the shades of grey Pulver is talking about.
Most aging fighters who cling to the game seem to do so for the wrong reasons, or even impossible reasons. Outside of the occasional Dan Henderson or Randy Couture, there aren't too many 40-year-old comeback stories out there. But Pulver's goals have become much more abstract. After a lifetime of competition, fighting is the way Pulver learns who he is. It's the medium through which he can exercise his daily demons and quiet the restlessness in his head. "I listen to people now, and it's so hard," Pulver says. "It's almost fun to try to explain to ‘em, I've passed my physicals, man. I get my brain checked. I get everything checked. If you think it's because I'm slow and sluggish and sloppy, and that's what's got me beat, you're so far off from what I understand.
"I'm on this journey. I'm trying to beat the demons inside of me. Trust me, nobody is more negative than me, about me. Nobody says a negative comment that I haven't already said to myself a thousand times, at least."
If anything, Pulver's self-awareness is striking, a side effect of spending so much time lost in thought. As middle age bears down on him, "Lil' Evil" shows no hesitation talking out his struggles. In fact, he often jumps at the occasion. His honesty is a rarity in a sport governed by testosterone, but as time goes on, too often for his liking is it mistaken for delusion. "People say, when are you going to stop? Well, I guess when I'm dead," Pulver asserts defiantly.
"When are you going to stop battling inside your mind? I don't know, when there's a magical switch and I can hit the button, and say, ‘Awwww,' and then I'm good. Maybe then I'll grow up, walk away, and not even be near this sport. If I could I'd be out gardening all day, or be a chef, or who knows. But this is the only thing I knew. I think it's really hard to get people to understand, ‘why do you do it, Jens?' I do it because when I say it's all I know, it's all I know to combat all the negatives that are inside me. It's the only thing I can do to battle what's inside of me. It's what gets me up everyday, it's what makes me fight myself. The ability to go out there and train and do what I've known since I was a kid. It's what got me through all the child abuse, all the dysfunction, all the negative.
"It's hard to explain to people out there who don't understand it," Pulver exhales with a mixture of reluctance and indifference. "But at the same token, I don't try to force them to understand it, because I don't understand the way that they think either."
It must be a frustrating feeling, to feel so trapped in your own head. The way Pulver tells it, he's always been like this to a certain degree, just never this bad.
He grew up admiring athletes like Muhammad Ali, devouring reading material about the guys who can "go out there and shine every time." If he had his wish, he'd had loved to been someone like Georges St-Pierre, a fighter who can get to the top and stay there, not be saddled with all this baggage.
Pulver likes to recount a story from his high school wrestling days. He was the two-time Washington state champion, and after another dominating season, he was the odds-on favorite to become the first three-time winner in over 40 years. Then he read about the hype, heard nothing but the hype, and eventually, lost himself to the hype. Pulver lost the title that year too. Actually, he didn't even make it out of the first round, falling short to a kid he had destroyed by 16 points a month prior. "That's my life, man. That's my world. That's what I've always been, the roller coaster," he says.
Lately Pulver seems to have taken to a liking to the phrase, ‘I'm just trying to remember how to be a world champion.' For some it may sound silly, but Pulver isn't talking about athletic accomplishment. He just wants to remember how the brain of a champion works, how a man can carry himself with his head held high. "It's so hard to try to tell people," he sighs. "I'm trying to remember how to be a world champion and not this depressed, anxiety driven blob that stands in front of you. It's draining to no end. I'm tired, and there's a part of me that knows, I have to fix it because I have family. I don't want them to see this humbled dude sitting over there, all quiet and unhappy."
Ultimately Pulver has to move on. He knows it, he hears it every day. But life after fighting still seems like a lie, because, well, he's not done with fighting. He cracks that if he was a comedian, no one would tell him he needed to stop telling jokes for a living at 40. Comedians don't eat punches to the face on a daily basis, so it's not really an apt comparison, but he understands that. The point is, Pulver still needs this outlet until he can mentally reach the next stage of his life.
"(I'll retire) when I can get to that point where I'm happy," he promises. "Not letting depression and anxiety win. That's my battle. That's the biggest goal, and when I feel like I beat ‘em, and I can go out there and I can hold my head up, and I can feel proud of what I've done, a smile on my face, I'm done, man. I don't need to put another glove on. I'll be out there giving back, teaching other people and let them experience the road. Help them along the way. That's my goal. That's what want to do in life. All the battered women and children out there, all the kids who've always been told they don't have a shot or a prayer or a hope. That's my goal, to one day be able to give back to them. And until I can put a smile on my face about what I've done, I'd just be a hypocrite."
And so the living legend presses on, inflating from flyweight to featherweight to fight undefeated Filipino champion Eric Kelly at ONE FC: Pride of a Nation. The brief stop at 145 pounds will be Pulver's first since 2010 -- a favor to the ONE FC brass -- and afterward he vows to deflate back down to bantamweight and continue doing what he's doing, seeing the world and trying to figure out who this new Jens Pulver really is.
"I just want people to understand. This is a different kind of journey than trying to win a belt. It's a different kind of journey than trying to get rich or even being successful," Pulver finishes before taking a deep breath.
"I'm excited, man. I just can't wait to go out there. The first person I've got to beat is me, and then I can try to beat the guy I'm fighting in front of me."