The Lightweight division has always been one of the deepest and most talent-rich in the history of the UFC. Global superstars such as Conor McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov, among talents such as BJ Penn and Charles Oliveira, have laid claim to the Lightweight belt.
But before there was glitz and glamour tied to the sport, before the Jimmy Kimmel Show appearances and the cereal boxes, the UFC Lightweight division didn't exist. In fact, until UFC 31, the 155lb weight class was known as Bantamweight. And the smaller fighters who fell within this weight class had no belt to fight for. The UFC was fixated on the welterweight, middleweight, light heavyweight, and heavyweight divisions.
The UFC was living through its 'Dark Ages.' Politicians were campaigning against the sport while television executives were struggling for sane reasons as to why they should broadcast Mixed Martial Arts.
And so it's during the UFC's 'Dark Ages' that we meet the future champion of a division that didn't yet exist, Jens Pulver.
Welcome to the UFC
Pulver arrived at the UFC in September 1999 as a fresh-faced 24-year-old. With a record of three wins and one loss, Pulver carried some popularity around his name having battered Joe Stevenson at the Bas Rutten Invitational in Colorado.
Pulver had a decorated wrestling background, having won three state championships, and coupled that with a hellacious left-hand and solid boxing fundamentals.
At UFC 22, the future champion was matched up against Alfonso Alcarez who was also making his debut. Due to the lack of concrete unified rules, particularly in relation to the smaller weight classes, Pulver weighed in at 170lbs while Alcarez was around 155lbs. This was the norm for fights outside of the staple weight classes.
Pulver's UFC debut was far from what he had been hoping for. As the two fighters took to the octagon in the very first bout of the night, they did so without a television audience. Due to the Dark Ages era, the UFC and its then-promoters SEG (Semaphore Entertainment Group) were unable to secure Pay-Per-View rights for the entire card. As such, the bout between Pulver and Alcarez did not air on television.
Pulver started the fight by imposing his weight difference on the smaller Alcarez. Immediately getting the fight in the clinch and up against the fence, Pulver dragged Alcarez to the mat and landed grounded knees to the head and knees to the body. Whenever they would disengage, Pulver would land a couple of left hands to work his way back into the clinch. This was the story of the entire fight - a workmanlike performance from Pulver though not entirely entertaining.
Controversy marred Pulver's promotional debut as the result of the fight was overturned 30 minutes after Bruce Buffer read out the scorecards as a unanimous decision victory for Pulver. It's quite unclear what caused the mishap with the scorecards - did Buffer read them out incorrectly? Did they lose the scorecards? Either way, the fight was inexplicably ruled a draw despite Pulver's dominant outing.
Six months later, Pulver was back in the UFC octagon against submission specialist David Velasquez. This marked the first time Pulver had Pat Miletich in his corner as he had recently switched gyms. Training with Jeremy Horn and Matt Hughes, among many others, Pulver had the stability of a high-quality gym behind him.
At UFC 24, against Velasquez, Pulver left nothing to the judges. With a total disregard for Velasquez's specialty, Pulver caught a head kick attempt and imposed his wrestling to get the fight to the ground. Velasquez had no answer for Pulver's shots from mount position, succumbing to a flurry of them before the fight was mercifully stopped in the second round.
There was a perception in the MMA community at the time that smaller guys couldn't finish fights via strikes. Pulver was on a one-man mission to shatter those beliefs.
Three months later, another Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu specialist, another Pulver victory. His opponent, Joao Roque, tried the entire fight to take down Pulver with zero success. Pulver stuffed all 15 takedown attempts and smiled at Roque after every one. He dropped the Angolan-Brazilian a couple of times with his patented left hand but the most impressive facet of his game had become apparent: Pulver had a level of focus and concentration unlike any other. Despite all the moments where Roque was on the ground, willing Pulver to join him, Pulver never once took the bait. He didn't once divert from the game plan, urging the ref to get Roque back to his feet every single time. It was far from entertaining - and certainly frustrating for Pulver - but his life was about to change forever.
Becoming 'Little Evil'
Toward the end of 2000, rumours started to bubble about the UFC's future. SEG were losing a lot of money trying to promote the sport and finding investors proved to be difficult; bankruptcy seemed to be on the horizon. Two months before Dana White and Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta - better known as the Fertitta brothers - would go on to buy the organisation for $2m, the three found themselves in attendance at UFC 28.
John Lewis, who opened the first BJJ academy in Vegas, trained White and the Fertitta brothers in the art of grappling. When he was matched against Pulver, there was no way the three would miss the chance to watch their trainer in action.
Back in 2000, if you fought for the UFC you weren't under contract to compete solely under their banner. Especially if you were a 155'er with a lack of opponents to pick from. As such, Pulver spent a couple of fights on the regional circuit after defeating Joao Roque. It was here that he would suffer his second career loss, just 81 days before his clash with Lewis at UFC 28. Facing off against the highly-touted Din Thomas, Pulver tapped to a heel hook that left him with crippling sciatic nerve pain. Instead of taking the time off to heal, Pulver accepted to fight Lewis.
Pulver had been looking for a new nickname and was told by coach Miletich that he could have the moniker of 'Little Evil' if he knocked Lewis out. Standing across the cage from Lewis, it was evident that Pulver was harbouring a lot of pain. As Buffer announced both fighters, Pulver languidly bounced from leg to leg with a grimace and general discomfort on his face. His pain, however, was about to vanish.
15 seconds into the first round, Pulver punishes a lazy jab attempt and lands two massive left hands that faceplant Lewis in front of future UFC owners White and the Fertitta brothers. Unbeknownst to Pulver at the time, this stunning knockout would earn him a shot at the inaugural lightweight title. With that picture-perfect left-hand, Pulver had become 'Little Evil.'
White flew Pulver to Japan a few weeks later to attend a Shooto event. Shooto was one of the leading MMA promotions in Japan at the time and had arguably the greatest Lightweight in the world under their banner in Caol Uno. In the main event of that Shooto card, Uno took on submission ace Rumina Sato. Sato had wins over Yves Edwards and Rafael Cordeiro - not that it mattered much. Uno would knock him out halfway through the first round.
White turned to Pulver and said, "that's who you're fighting next for the belt."
UFC 30 marked the first-ever card promoted by White and the Fertitta brothers. In the space of 18 months, Pulver had gone from an unaired prelim fight to the co-main event of a PPV.
Uno entered the fight as a favourite among fans. He had beaten the aforementioned Sato twice and held wins over Din Thomas - the man who heel hooked Pulver - and Dennis Hallman. Rear-naked chokes, triangle chokes, armbars, guillotine chokes - you name the submission, Uno likely had one in his record. His fan-favourite style consisted of spinning attacks and high-paced scrambles. It was the complete antithesis of Pulver's sprawl-and-brawl approach to fights.
Debuting his new nickname 'Little Evil' for the first time, there was a lot of expectation on Pulver's shoulders despite being the underdog. At the time, there were always debates concerning which promotion had the better champions. The truth was that Japan mostly had them all. With a new, never-before-seen Lightweight belt on the line, Pulver had to prove that he was the best 155'er on the planet which would mean shattering the general consensus that Uno was number one.
The first round was the most troublesome for Pulver. Despite defending a few takedown attempts with his textbook sprawl, Pulver found himself carrying Uno on his back as the Japanese wizard looked to sink in his patented rear-naked choke - the same submission that had stopped three of his last five opponents. Pulver defended calmly, and expertly, a reminder of his stellar levels of concentration and high fight IQ. Reversing the position and returning to his feet, Pulver landed a clean one-two as the round ended.
Uno had won the opening frame and would win no other.
In the second round, Pulver defended a takedown from Uno and initiated a front headlock. This allowed Pulver to land some heavy shots to the body of Uno and score points in the eyes of the judges. On the feet, Pulver delivered knees in the clinch and used a right jab to disguise his powerful left hook. Every time Uno looked to take Pulver down in round two, Pulver punished the attempt.
The third round would be an even clearer one for Pulver. Almost every shot he took at Uno landed cleanly which forced the Japanese lightweight to start shooting out of panic. Pulver was competing without wrestling shoes for the first time in his UFC career which allowed him to throw kicks. Utilising this new tool in his arsenal, Pulver knocked Uno down toward the end of the round with a well-placed low-kick.
The fourth round was uncharted territory for both men who had never fought past the third. It was Pulver who would look the fresher of the two as Uno began to telegraph his usual spinning attacks. Despite Uno's attempts to entice Pulver to fall into his guard, 'Little Evil' drew from his experience of fighting Joao Roque and stayed his distance. On the feet, Pulver landed a significant uppercut on Uno after ducking under his headkick attempt. Pulver's defensively sound approach had him five minutes away from capturing UFC gold.
In the final round of the fight, Uno abandoned the takedown attempts and started to brawl on the feet with Pulver. This drew a smile out of 'Little Evil' who had been hoping for this opportunity all fight long. Another leg kick dropped Uno but Pulver avoided following him to the ground for obvious reasons. A stiff jab, followed by an explosive combination, wobbled Uno; the left hook from Pulver, who was exiting the clinch initiated by the prior flurry, put an exclamation mark on the round that would seal a unanimous decision victory.
The UFC had crowned a Lightweight champion and who better than the big-hearted Pulver, a man who wore his heart on his sleeve and fought anyone they would put in front of him?
In his octagon interview, Pulver didn't proclaim that he was the best in the world. He didn't call anyone out. His first action was to dedicate the fight to his friend, Dusty, who had passed away a few days before the title fight.
"My little buddy died from cancer on Thursday and all he wanted to do was see this fight but God intended he would be fighting with me in the cage tonight instead of watching it on television."
Pulver wept as he spoke those words - you could hear a pin drop in that moment. Pulver had captivated the hearts of the MMA world.
Defending the Throne
Before a heated contract dispute in 2002 would see him depart from the UFC and vacate his belt, Pulver defended the Lightweight title twice. And both times as an underdog, yet again.
His first title defence came against Dennis Hallman who was by far the most experienced fighter Pulver had fought. With a record of 21-4, Hallman had racked up wins in both Japan and the US. He was the first fighter to hand Matt Hughes a loss, back in 1998, before submitting him with a 20-second armbar a couple of years later at UFC 29. Hughes was a long-time training partner and friend of Pulver's. As such, the grudge match was inevitable and the two faced off at UFC 33. Hallman was on an 8-fight winning streak and had a lot of hype around his name.
Despite the animosity leading into the fight, the bout itself was tepid and uneventful. Pulver grounded Hallman for the large majority of the fight, stuffing takedowns and then landing the odd shot from top position. Hallman's style revolved around submissions but he just could not find an opening on the defensively sound Pulver.
It was only in the fifth round where significant damage was dealt as Pulver landed his trusty left hook on a tired Hallman who staggered from the shot and immediately started swelling underneath the eye.
Pulver had successfully defended his belt - a unanimous decision on the judges' scorecards - and cemented himself as the very best lightweight on the planet. Fans and media alike, however, started to hear rumblings about a new kid on the block. And so, a few months later, Pulver would be defending his belt again as the biggest underdog he had ever been in his career.
Very few gave Pulver a shot at UFC 35; very few believed he could get his hand raised. The man stood across from him in the octagon only had three professional MMA fights but he was the wonderkid, the heir apparent to Pulver's throne.
BJ Penn shocked the grappling world in 2000 when he became the first non-Brazilian to win the World Jiu-Jitsu Championship. He had only been training BJJ for three years and had only been a black belt a few weeks before the competition in 2000. What Penn had done was unheard of. As such, he earned the nickname of 'The Prodigy.'
After being encouraged to try MMA, he was given his debut at UFC 31 where it became apparent that he could do more than just grapple. With three seconds left of the first round, he knocked out Joey Gilbert. A month later, he became only the second man to beat Din Thomas. In half the time it took to finish Gilbert. This time, a combination of knees and punches did the trick.
Penn earned a shot at gold after his performance at UFC 34 against Caol Uno. The man Pulver had fought for 25 minutes, Penn finished in 11 seconds. His grappling was legendary but Penn proved that he was a natural on the feet too.
At 23 years of age, and with just three professional fights to his name, Penn entered the title fight with Pulver as a resounding favourite. Pulver was tough to beat but his two losses had come via heel hook submission. If Pulver could get submitted by Din Thomas and David Harris, what would the biggest sensation in BJJ do to him?
The answer, funnily enough, was nothing. In one of the biggest upsets in MMA history, Pulver cruised to victory by nullifying Penn's game throughout the entire fight.
Penn opened the first round with a takedown but Pulver messed him up with elbows, forearms and short punches from the bottom. Pulver would use this chaos to reverse the position and control Penn from top position. As Penn attempted to scamble and hunt for the submission off his back, Pulver kept him grounded and rendered his game inefficient.
When the second round started, it was officially the longest fight of Penn's career. Pulver landed a clean head kick and uppercut before Penn took him down, a sign that he did not fancy his striking skills against Pulver despite three knockouts in a row. Penn managed to get into full mount and work in an armbar which Jens reversed to regain his guard. However, moments later, Penn locked in an armbar on Pulver that he almost tapped to. He had been saved by the bell in a sequence that Penn would not be able to repeat for the remainder of the fight.
The next two rounds followed a similar pattern: Penn would pull guard, Jens would land on top of him and continuously pummel him to the body and head. For all of Penn's freakish leg and hip dexterity, he could not find a way to work a triangle on Pulver.
The fifth round, much like in Pulver's title-capturing performance against Uno, saw both fighters engage in striking exchanges. Pulver had Penn outclassed as he smiled and grinned his way into punches. Pulver hurt Penn momentarily with a front kick and left hook before landing further clean shots on 'The Prodigy.'
At the end of the fight, everyone who had counted Pulver out looked silly. Aside from the armbar in the second round, Pulver made Penn look every bit of a 23-year-old with just three professional fights to his name.
Pulver won the fight by majority decision as one judge indefensibly and inexplicably scored the fight a draw. Thankfully for Pulver, this was not to be a repeat of his UFC debut.
Pulver always performed best when the odds were stacked against him and few believed in him outside of his camp. He relished being the underdog and fighting with a chip on his shoulder. Since Pulver vacated the belt in 2002, there have been numerous lightweight champions. And a lot of them have been more talented and more dominant than he was. But very few could ever hold a candle to his heart and doggedness.
He never saw big money like McGregor or reigned undefeated like Khabib, but no other fighter can ever say they were the first UFC Lightweight champion. Without Pulver's early successes, who knows if we ever even see the UFC adopt the lighter weight classes? He paved the way for future 155'ers in the US and deserves way more respect than this sport has given back to him. An undeniable pioneer of the sport.