The Godfather of 155: Jens Pulver looks back at becoming the first UFC lightweight champion 20 years ago

The Godfather of 155: Jens Pulver looks back at becoming the first UFC lightweight champion 20 years ago

It wasn’t supposed to be Jens Pulver.

When the UFC lightweight division — known as the bantamweight division at the time — was established in 2001, the new owners of the promotion had initially targeted their trainer as the most likely candidate to compete in the first championship fight for the weight class.

Three months before Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta along with their friend Dana White purchased the UFC for $2 million from the struggling promoters at SEG, the trio were really just combat sports enthusiasts who had fallen in love with mixed martial arts.

At the time, White had run a successful boxing fitness program in Las Vegas and after reconnecting with Lorenzo Fertitta at a wedding, they began training together. Eventually, White and the Fertitta brothers attended a Limp Bizkit concert at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino and that’s where they ran into John Lewis, who opened the first Brazilian jiu-jitsu academy in town while he was also competing in the UFC.

All three were interested in learning about the ground game so they began training under Lewis, who introduced them to a slew of fighters including Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz and B.J. Penn. Then in November 2000, Lewis was matched up for a fight against Pulver at UFC 28 in Atlantic City, N.J., with White and the Fertitta brothers in attendance to support their longtime trainer while the deal to buy the entire organization was just a couple of months away from closing.

Pulver already held a 2-0-1 record in the UFC at the time his fight against Lewis was booked but he was also less than three months removed from a submission loss to Din Thomas that left his leg in bad shape.

“I had this really bad sciatic nerve,” Pulver revealed when speaking to MMA Fighting. “Din Thomas had hit me with this heel hook and beat me in [World Extreme Fighting]. We were doing the UFC and WEF because there was so few fights between the two so we could fight for different organizations.

“But I had hurt my foot real bad and it messed up my sciatic nerve so I was in a lot of pain going into that fight. But there was no way I wasn’t going to do that fight.”

According to Pulver, he was just trying to stay healthy enough to compete against Lewis with no expectations what a win would do for him much less that he was facing the person training the future owners of the UFC.

“I was in a lot of pain,” Pulver said. “I was in a lot of trouble. I remember Jeremy Horn telling me I needed to just lay down and relax this final week and I was worried about getting out of shape. He’s like ‘you’re having trouble walking.’”

Despite the injury, Pulver finished his training camp and flew to Atlantic City where he would participate in the first UFC card that was sanctioned by the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board, which had developed and adopted the unified rules of mixed martial arts.

That night, Pulver set foot in the world famous octagon for a fight against Lewis that would change his life forever.

Before White and the Fertitta’s trainer could do much of anything, Pulver clipped Lewis with a left hand that staggered him and he followed with another devastating left that put the 32-year-old grappler down on the canvas in a heap. Referee Mario Yamasaki stepped in to stop the fight as Pulver threw his hands in the air to celebrate a stunning knockout that he timed at just over 11 seconds into the opening round.

“I threw the two punches that landed. We drilled that combo over and over and over,” Pulver said. “I threw those punches, they landed and then next thing you know here come the Fertittas and Dana White. They took over the UFC and you knew it was going to get really big because we were going to Atlantic City and we know that was just a stone’s throw from going to Las Vegas.

“We were coming up from going to Lake Charles, La. Being legal in three states, all of a sudden these guys are coming in.”

It wasn’t long after that fight ended that White and the Fertittas flew Pulver out to Las Vegas because they would soon take over the UFC and an idea was brewing to introduce a new title as part of their inaugural show as the owners.

In those days, the UFC only had three titles in the entire promotion — heavyweight, middleweight (which would later become light heavyweight prior to an actual 185-pound division being added) and welterweight. Thanks to Pulver demolishing Lewis in a fight that took place at 155 pounds, the upcoming owners of the UFC were ready to crown a fourth champion in a division they called bantamweight.

“They flew me out to Vegas and I got to meet everybody,” Pulver said. “‘We want to meet the guy that knocked out our coach.’ I got to have a blast. Here I was in Vegas for the first time ever and I was like wow. I got to meet everybody and sit down and talk to them and they had all the dreams and desires of what the UFC was going to become. I loved it. I loved every minute of it.

“I was sitting there and we were watching [Caol] Uno win and Dana says ‘that’s who you’re going to fight for the 155-pound world title.’”

Caol Uno was a stalwart of the Japanese fight scene, who had already firmly established himself as one of the best lighter-weight athletes in the world. The win that earned him the UFC title shot came against Rumina Sato, a submission specialist with an advanced ground game that had already carried him to wins over the likes of Yves Edwards, John Lewis and future coach Rafael Cordeiro.

“I don’t think people understood how good Uno was because I really don’t think people knew how good Rumina Sato was,” Pulver said. “His submission game was so advanced back in the day. I remember [former UFC matchmaker] Joe Silva had the biggest tape collection in the world and he had tons on Rumina Sato. The guy was a huge fan of Rumina Sato.

“He was miles and miles ahead of everybody in the game when it came to submissions. To see Uno battle out of that rear-naked choke and beat him and defend his Shooto belt, it was sort of terrifying. To know that’s who you’re going to fight for the inaugural UFC 155-pound title.”

Thanks to Pulver’s knockout over Lewis, combined with Uno’s resume from Japan, the UFC was putting together the kind of fight that could legitimize the new division and championship being added to the promotion’s roster.

When he was being pitched the fight, Pulver admits that was the best possible selling point as he sought to establish himself as the best in the world.

“I’ll never ever forget this. [Dana] says ‘when people look at this UFC belt, I want them to look at it like the belt.’ Not like ‘there’s this other champion in Japan, or this other champion over here,’” Pulver said.

“So we’re going to go grab the only other 155-pounder out there and we’re going to have the two baddest guys in the world fighting for the title. So there’s no disputing who is the 155-pound champion of the world. I like that.”

On Feb. 23, 2001 at UFC 30 from Atlantic City — the first-ever card promoted by White and the Fertitta brothers under their new Zuffa label, Pulver battled Uno in a back-and-forth war for five rounds to determine the inaugural 155-pound champion.

The fight lived up to the billing with two of the best lightweights in the world engaging in a battle of attrition with plenty of ebbs and flows for both Pulver and Uno.

Pulver remembers one particularly dicey moment in the opening round that sticks out to him above all others because he had to survive a scramble where Uno took his back and started looking for a rear-naked choke — the same submission that put away Sato in their first meeting back in 1999.

“When he had my back, he was so calm, cool and collected and it was like ‘dammit’ cause this is where he beat Rumina,” Pulver recounted. “I had to figure out how to slow it down, not make any mistakes. I was just a sprawl-and-brawl kid. Throw power punches, sprawl and I’m trying to learn submissions and learn jiu-jitsu. Be the wrestler, sprawl down, beat him up on the ground, hold that front headlock and then when he got back up on the feet, he’d be winded.

“I don’t remember how he got my back but I remember thinking this is exactly how he got Sato. This is no good.”

Eventually, Pulver managed to slip free and he continued to put the pressure on Uno with his striking arsenal on the feet. Pulver also put his wrestling background to good use to stuff Uno’s takedowns and then batter him with punches to the body and head on repeated occasions.

“Going into the fight, it was just sprawl, brawl, listen to your corner,” Pulver said. “Don’t listen to the crowd because this was still the Toughman era where if you weren’t punching somebody or trying to bite somebody on the face and cut their throat, if there wasn’t blood, everybody got so mad when you shot a takedown. You had to block that out. It was one of those moments.”

It was a razor-close fight over five rounds but in the end the judges declared Pulver the winner and he was crowned the first-ever UFC bantamweight champion — a name that changed one fight later when the promotion adopted official weight classes and renamed it lightweight.

Looking back now, Pulver can’t remember the exact emotion he was feeling in that moment but thankfully he can watch the video and see the tears come streaming down his face as Bruce Buffer read out his name and a new UFC champion was born.

“Luckily, you can see that moment,” Pulver said. “But I don’t remember as much as waking up the middle of the night looking around thinking that ‘this is real.’ I do remember the pride, seeing the smile on my team’s face, knowing that I made everybody happy.”

Photo by Susumu Nagao/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

The moment when his accomplishment really settled in came later that night when Pulver suddenly woke up from his slumber and he looked over at his pillow to see the UFC title sitting there beside him.

Yes, Pulver slept with his championship belt, and he’s not the least bit ashamed to admit it.

“The best way to describe this is I wake up in my bed [after the event] and I popped up and you bet your ass I had it on the pillow next to me,” Pulver said. “It was right next to me. I looked at it, it was laid out and I’ll never forget this in my life — it was real. This really happened. It wasn’t a dream. I’m the UFC 155-pound champion. I just won the UFC title. This is nuts. I thought it was all a dream. This really happened.

“That’s why when I watch people win that world title, just for a moment I’ll realize I get to be that kid again waking up in that bed thinking ‘I really did this.’ I get to be young again. I get to feel what it was like to become the world champion.”

When Pulver started fighting in the UFC, he had no idea that he would eventually become champion.

In fact, he says the main reason he wanted to establish a 155-pound division was more about giving himself and other lighter-weight fighters a place to compete.

“I just wanted to have my weight class. That’s all I was ever thinking,” Pulver said. “I just didn’t want to keep fighting these heavier, bigger people. I mean fighting at 155 pounds wasn’t my weight class. I was a 135-pounder. I was 135 and then 141 in college.”

The lightweight class is now considered one of the deepest and most established divisions in the entire sport.

There have been nine undisputed champions since Pulver was the first and he’s like a proud parent looking at the division now to see fighters like Khabib Nurmagomedov and Conor McGregor emerge as pound-for-pound greats as well as becoming the biggest draws in the entire sport.

That was almost an unfathomable dream when Pulver was just trying to get people to understand that the smaller fighters in the UFC were just as skilled and entertaining as the heavyweights.

“I always call myself the godfather of the lightweight division and the godfather of all the lighter weight divisions. Because I never wanted anybody to feel like they would be too small to fight in the UFC,” Pulver said. “Now I’m a godfather watching this 155-pound division take the world by storm. You see the O.G.s that create this business or that business. It’s like listening to Art Davie talking about how he could get the money to run the first UFC and to listen to him talk about the woes trying to put together the first UFC. To listen to him put that first UFC together, it’s unreal, the things that he had to deal with.

“As I’m listening to him sit there and say that, all I could do is chuckle. Because I remember that time. I remember being told you’re out of your mind. You’re batsh*t crazy. They don’t even have your weight class. You’re going to do what? There’s no retirement in this. There’s no money. There’s no weight class. What’s wrong with you? Well I’ve got to do this. I made a promise. I’ve got to change my name. My father’s name was Jens Pulver and I grew up abused. I wanted to give my family something to smile about.”

Twenty years have now passed since Pulver was first-ever UFC lightweight champion, but he’s always keeping a watchful eye on the division he helped establish.

These days, Pulver is a mainstay on Twitch — an online community established around gaming, which was another passion for “Lil’ Evil” over the years. He’s even started working with the UFC Twitch channel to host watch parties while hanging out with other fighters and fans from around the world.

There are moments during those sessions when Pulver gets to go back and watch one of his old fights or maybe break down an upcoming title bout like the recent rematch between Dustin Poirier and Conor McGregor that headlined UFC 257 in January.

While his fighting days are now behind him, Pulver can’t help but feel like he’s back in the cage throwing punches whenever there are lightweights competing because he knows he played some part in that.

“For a minute, I get to be 23 years old again,” Pulver said. “I get to be young again. That’s the part I could never prepare for. That’s something I want people to hold onto later, that’s how you create that fountain of youth.”

Pulver knows the lightweight division has moved beyond him now and there are going to be dozens of new champions crowned in the future as well but he’ll always hold a place in history as the first.

That’s something no one will ever forget.

“They’ll always want to go back and see who the first was,” Pulver said. “Somebody said it during The Ultimate Fighter that B.J. [Penn] is always going to be this [star] and nobody is going to remember Jens Pulver. I thought to myself, you know maybe not but they’ll always go back as the weight class blows up, as the weight class becomes what it is today, they’re always going to want to go back and see the first.”

“They may not remember who is the 22nd heavyweight champion in history but everybody will always go back and look at the first.”

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