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Friday, February 23, 2007 - Page updated at 05:57 PM

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World champ's life has been a fight for survival

Special to The Seattle Times

He has endured more self-doubt, bruises and bloody lips than he cares to talk about.

And that was before Jens Pulver ever stepped into an octagon ring.

In a life filled with hard knocks, bad breaks and emotional setbacks because of an alcoholic and physically abusive father, Pulver is alive.

And is still fighting.

Some say he's a tick or two off. Even crazy.

The fact is Pulver, a 1993 Tahoma High graduate and world champion ultimate fighter, is a walking, breathing contradiction. Nice as Dr. Phil one moment, extolling advice to troubled youth, fiery as a pit bull that hasn't been fed in weeks the next.

"I am not flashy, I am not rich," says Pulver, talking about an upcoming fight. "If you want to go to hell, you have to come to hell to find me and I will drown you in deep water once you get there."

Pulver, known simply as Lil' Evil in the ring, has been to hell and back. He has been to the bottom, risen to the top, been beaten down and done some beating up.

The ultimate fight?

A quick guide to ultimate fighting

Name game Ultimate fighting is also called full-contact fighting or no-holds barred fighting.

Mixing it up Blends martial arts, boxing, wrestling and kickboxing.

Not allowed Doesn't allow gouging, strikes to the groin or head butting.

Ultimate goal You can force an opponent to "tap out" or quit.

Velvet gloves Fighters wear lightweight gloves with holes that leave the fingers exposed, allowing them to grab and punch each other.

Ring's the thing Fights take place in an octagon ring or cage, designed to keep the fighters from falling out of the fighting area if they go to the ground.

Roundup Non-championship fights consist of three five-minute rounds, and championship fights are five rounds.

Brash. Honest to a fault. Heavily tattooed. Raspy voice. Pulver is more bark than bite.

"He's a good little Jekyll and Hyde," former Tahoma teammate and three-time state champion Ricky Christian said. "He's kind of all over the place. Depending on the day you get him, however he feels is how he's going to come across. If he's in fight mode, he'll trash talk. If he's not in fight mode, he will be a little different.

"But his heart's always in the right spot."

Pulver has endured his share of troubles, most stemming from a difficult upbringing from a father he has been estranged from for more than 15 years. Ironically, that same past fuels Pulver's present and future.

"All I want to do is give everything I've earned back," says the 32-year-old Pulver, who spends considerable time working for various children's organizations helping troubled youth. "It's for the kids who came from abusive families. That's what I love doing. That's what I am about, helping kids."

Fighting has become Pulver's salvation, his livelihood.

In April, the two-time state wrestling champion (1991-1992 at 122 pounds) will star on Spike TV's "Ultimate Fighter 5." Pulver is one of two coaches — arch rival BJ Penn is the other — who will teach eight burgeoning ultimate fighters what it takes to succeed in the ring. At the end of each episode, one fighter from Pulver's team will square off against another from Penn's team.

Pulver will fight Penn in the season finale June 23. He also has a book coming out in April — "Never: Jens Pulver and the Wednesday group that will change the World."

In a sport known for its raw, no-holds-barred fighting style, Pulver is an ambassador. It's a position he relishes.

"I dreamt about being a world champion every day when I was growing up," said Pulver, who attended Boise State out of high school on a wrestling scholarship and graduated with a degree in criminal justice. "It always was my dream and goal. I'd sit there in my room and imagine it, just to be somewhere else.

"Imagine life was great."

For Pulver, one of the greatest wrestlers in state history, the demands and rule-oriented rigors on the wrestling mat simply weren't intense enough.

He needed more.

His first fix of ultimate fighting came in 1997, when he was a senior at Boise State and a mixed martial-arts show in town looked for volunteers. Pulver stepped up.

"To take it to the next level, you have to be a half-crazy dude," said Abel Pulver, Jens' younger brother. "It takes a little bit of crazy. Wrestling is one thing, a straight-up fight is another animal."

Jens quit his job as a school-district resource officer and wrestling coach, headed to California and eventually to Iowa carrying his dreams and a pair of duffle bags.

On Feb. 23, 2001, Jens' dreams became a reality when he won the UFC Bantamweight crown.

"Wrestling, to me, always felt a little incomplete," said Pulver, who got the nickname Lil' Evil after a grumpy early-morning workout. "I always felt like, 'If we could just throw punches.' "

Armed with a menacing look and a devastating left hook that once broke an opponent's jaw with one punch, Pulver has powered his way to a 21-6-1 record. He trains six days a week, 10 to 12 weeks before a bout. The grueling daily workouts — 3 to 4 hours of running, lifting weights, stretching and fighting with boxing gloves, followed by two hours of wrestling and sparring — make even the toughest wrestling practice appear ordinary.

"Training is the only thing I have ever known," Pulver said. "It saved me."

Marlene Pulver, Jens' mom, had reservations about her son's dream. Seeing him on high-school and college wrestling mats was difficult enough, but watching him in a cage, fighting for survival, was quite another.

He brought a ultimate-fighting videotape home to show his mother when he was a sophomore in high school.

"Mom, you need to watch this," he pronounced. "I am going to do that someday. And I am going to win. I am going to be that champion."

Marlene's stomach churned then, and it still churns whenever a fight approaches.

"It's hard to watch him," she said. "I get a bad stomach for a few days before every fight. I am already nervous about his fight in June."

For Jens Pulver, life is — and always has been — about the fight. About getting past a troubled youth. And, most important, overcoming self-doubt.

"It would've been easy for me to give up and follow the dark side," he said.

"The harder thing was learning to believe."




Copyright © The Seattle Times Company



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