Even for all its bed bugs and misty veils of Aqua Net, Atlantic City was a boon for the UFC in 2001, if for no other reason than it wasn’t Lake Charles, Louisiana. The UFC could put on fights in New Jersey even in the Dark Times when virtually every other state held a crucifix up to it. Donald Trump -- himself a rogue figure with occasional foresight -- was more averse to conformity than he was to the pack of outliers who fought in the UFC, and his Taj Mahal was home to the last SEG era event to be held in the States.
That was UFC 28, on November 17, 2000, seven years, five days and a million court battles after the belligerent chaos of UFC 1 sent us off on this course.
When the UFC returned to the Taj three months later, at UFC 30, it was a whole new ballgame. After UFC 29 in Japan, the hydra of Dana White and the brothers Fertitta (casino owners Frank and Lorenzo) ignored the circling vultures overhead and bought the UFC. They spent two million dollars for the day’s blackest cloud. And at the time it was like they’d been sold beachfront property in Wyoming. Even the Italian word Zuffa, for all its slick lacquer and shine, felt like a fresh coat of paint on the old jalopy.
Yet the new regime had the audacity to bring with it a plan.
UFC 30 was branded as "The All New Ultimate Fighting Championship," its poster featuring Tito Ortiz standing arms akimbo, like the top half of a centaur from the mythological past. Same gunslingers, but new vision…and deeper pockets…and inroads to Las Vegas. The Zuffa era kicked off with a pair of title fights. Tito Ortiz against Evan Tanner for the light heavyweight belt, and Jens Pulver against the Japanese import Caol Uno, for the lightweight strap.
All of that was of course window dressing for UFC 30’s real story. On February 23, 2001, Dana White began his journey to becoming the greatest ringleader the fight game has ever known.
"I knew the difference in the aspect that the new UFC were from Vegas," Pulver says. "For me I was like, okay, if these guys from Vegas are buying this, they have the ability and the options and the desire to get us into Las Vegas. It was great to be in Atlantic City, but Las Vegas is the fight hub. You’ve got to get into Las Vegas. So when they bought it, that was one of the things on the personal side I just got real excited. They weren’t going to buy a company of this magnitude without having at least spoken to the Nevada commission. It made me real excited as a guy living in Iowa and having never been to Las Vegas before."
Pulver had two shades of eyes and a tactical mean streak in the cage. He fought at UFC 28 when Bob Meyrowitz and company were still the spearheads. That night he beat John Lewis, and earned the heathen’s nickname of "Lil Evil" from Pat Miletich.
"I went with the ‘Lil Evil’ moniker because that was so hard to get," he says. "I had to knock out John Lewis to get it. I didn’t want to be called the ‘Pulverizer.’ I thought, really, Pulver? Come on. It was actually going to be ‘Grumpy Evil Little Bastard.’ But we shortened it down to ‘Lil Evil.’
‘Lil Evil’ remembers meeting Dana White at UFC 28, as well as first hearing the deeply affluent caramel-toned voice of Lorenzo Fertitta. He remembers also jumping in the Fertitta private plane to go scope out Caol Uno, who was the welterweight champion in Shooto, in his fight against Rumina Sato in Japan. That was one day after UFC 29, the last of the SEG era, also going on in the greater metropolis of Tokyo.
"Yeah, I got to fly to with them to Japan," Pulver says. "They were getting ready to bring me in and do the Caol Uno fight, and they always said we want the top guys, so we went out there and watched Uno defend his title. That’s how I met Lorenzo, Frank and Dana.
"And I tripped them out because, they had their own plane, and Tito Ortiz, that big boy, he slept the whole flight, but I couldn’t sleep. So I crawled underneath the table and fell asleep. That weirded them out man. I was like the plane’s cat. I circled around, circled around, boomp, plopped down underneath the table where I could sleep. I had a great time. The sky was the limit for the UFC then. For a kid like me to be on a plane flying to Japan, to go with these guys, it was amazing. And you just knew there was going to be change. You knew these guys were going to make this thing explode."
Uno would come to the UFC, and Pulver would get the better of him at Zuffa’s maiden show. As the fighters walked to the cage, the vibe was different. Zuffa allowed for champions to walk out to their own entrance music at UFC 30 for the first time, rather than the synthy showcase music that had for so long been the soundtrack to the plankwalk.
Pulver walked out to Twiztid’s "Mutant X," from the Freek Show album.
"I was an Insane Clown Posse freak, so I came out to Twiztid," he says. "Those lyrics? I was born an accident, off the ripper/free spirit but a mind drifter/vampire labeled me the blood sipper,’ I was like, that’s me."
The Zuffa Era was upon us.
At UFC 33 in September, just two-and-a-half weeks after 9/11, the company did make it to Las Vegas. It was the first big hurdle in dyeing MMA into the wool, and in reshaping of all those bad perceptions about the UFC. The blowout event featured three title fights, including Pulver against Dennis Hallman. "Lil Evil" finally got to Vegas, but the show itself mortified Dana White and plenty of people who’d dished out their disposable income to watch it. All three title fights (not to mention both the undercard bouts that featured Chuck Liddell against Murilo Bustamante and Matt Serra against Yves Edwards) went to decisions. It was 105 minutes of actual fight time spent in waiting. The time ran over and the PPV cut off, which wasn’t the homecoming Zuffa had imagined.
UFC 33 was the first big clam note in the symphony, but Vegas had been made. And the rest, as they say, was history.