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Maple Valley’s king of sprawl and brawl Jens Pulver tells junior high students about path to UFC
Winning fights is how Maple Valley native Jens Pulver shows his gratitude to the community that raised him.
For the 38-year-old mixed martial arts fighter and 1993 Tahoma High graduate, every fight, whether it’s in a boxing ring or in a cage, is another opportunity to make the people who helped him through a rough upbringing proud.
“There is not a time I never thought about my team, my school, or my town, whether I made you proud or not,” he said.
A two-time state wrestling champion at Tahoma, Pulver was also UFC’s first lightweight champion of the world, a title he won in 2001.
“It was for all my friends and families and coaches and peers and took care of me and believed in me,” he said.
Coming back to Maple Valley for the second time since he left for college to wrestle, Pulver spoke to students at Tahoma Junior High about overcoming adversity and not quitting when things get tough in life, two things he learned while growing up.
The son of a horse jockey, Pulver describes his childhood as “living on egg shells.” With an alcoholic father, he said his family was accustomed to beatings and violence practically every day. When he was as young as five, he said he took several beatings to protect his mother, who was often the object his father’s rage.
Pulver explained that while this went on, he was often teased and ridiculed for the clothes he wore and the toys he had, which he refers to as the “rainbow bike story” in reference to the type of bike he rode. He stressed this is why people should not judge when it comes to a person’s appearance.
Fortunately for Pulver, he found a means of escape through wrestling in the school district. There, he also found a role model in his coaches, including Russ Hayden, after whom he named his daughter, Hayden Spring.
Wrestling worked well for Pulver, he said, due to his height. Growing up, he aspired to be a horse jockey and trained at local racetracks with horses, but when he got to high school he went through a growth spurt — he rapidly put on weight and became too tall. Yet, he was still too small to play baseball or football.
“Wrestling saved my life, and that’s a God-given fact,” he said.
What also attracted him to wrestling was the individual aspect of the sport, in which each wrestler performed to the highest individual ability in order to create a successful team.
“I love being the individual,” he said. “Your heart, your courage, grit, how much you trained, you can’t hide from it. It was the opportunity to showcase everything you’ve done. You’re looking at your coach, your school and wanting their acceptance instead of being on a team doing everything to get away from them and stand out.”
Rather than use wrestling as a means of channeling the anxieties from his unhappy home life, Pulver said he forgot about it entirely while on the mat.
“It didn’t have nothing to do with being abused,” he said. “Not at that age. It was my escape.”
It was during high school that he discovered his greatest strength and weakness, his mental state, a trait which he said persists to this day when he fights.
“There would be some days I could beat anybody,” Pulver said. “I had the emotional setting that I could beat the national champion because I’m supposed to, but I could lose to the worst guy. It just all depends mentally on how I was doing how I felt. Some days I was on and going to conquer the world. If I’m hell bent, I’m doing it and no one’s going to stop me.”
After graduating from Tahoma, Pulver wrestled for Highline Community College. There, he became an NJCAA All-American, placing in the top eight at the NJCAA National Championships. He then wrestled for Boise State University, where he graduated with a degree in criminal justice.
During college, Pulver was introduced to boxing and mixed martial arts and became instantly fascinated. After a brief stint in California training, he began competing in the Ultimate Fighting Championship series in 1999. His unique fighting style, which called for defensive wrestling and boxing strategies, was dubbed “sprawl and brawl.”
Pulver said this style enabled him to take on other fighters who were either predominately wrestlers or boxers.
“Wrestlers were the dictators,” he said. “You were going to dictate where (the fight) went. Fitness was lacking in toughness. We just beat the mess out of each other. At the time, I think that’s what it needed. The wrestler was the dictator. If I didn’t want you to take me down, you didn’t. If I wanted to take you down, I did. (If they were a wrestler) don’t let them use a take down and just punch them and hit them.”
In February 2001, Pulver faced top ranked Japanese Fighter Caol Uno for the lightweight title, the first time the title was available. Pulver won by unanimous decision.
Winning the title, Pulver said, was not only a gesture of gratitude to Maple Valley, but a way of redeeming the name Pulver. Before, he had wished to change it, but then later realized the only way to do so would be to change its meaning.
“This was my way of saying ‘thank you’ and ‘goodbye’ to the name that I wasn’t going to be, the drunk wife beating POS sitting in jail,” he said. “It literally went through my mind. It wasn’t until I woke up in the hotel room the next day and I looked at it (the championship belt) and said, ‘It’s really mine.’”
Pulver defended his title twice, which included a fight against B.J. Penn, a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioner and the first American-born to win the World Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Championship. Winning with a majority decision by the judges, it is considered to be Pulver’s best fight. He later turned to boxing, winning five matches with no losses.
But it was in the World Extreme Cagefighting Pulver fell into a six match losing streak, which he said caused him to fall into a rut. Complicating this was what he termed the “one-ton brick” of negative comments from others that only added to his own self-criticism.
“I became my own worst enemy,” he said. “Nobody called me a loser more than myself. I lost in front of my family.”
When speaking to Tahoma Junior High students, Pulver used this as an example of the damage “flicking out insults” can cause to other people, many of whom are often already feeling depressed about themselves. Additionally, Pulver stated that those who suffer from depression and anxiety, something he said he suffers from, should not let the present define the rest of their lives.
“Don’t close the door on the person you haven’t met,” he said. “Don’t close the door on who you’re going to be in six years because you haven’t met them yet. If you just keep moving forward no matter how bad life is…it’s going to get better.”