March 2011, a Saturday night. Illinois is deep in cloud cover, awash with snow and icy rain. Forty minutes west of Chicago, inside the Odeum Expo Center of Villa Park, ex-champion Jens Pulver is hounding local palooka Wade Choate around the ring. It’s the closing minutes of the three-round main event, a mixed martial arts fight, but the arena is already half emptied out.
Pulver can’t bother himself with the audience now, though. He’s been eating jabs the whole round and, with only a few minutes left in the fight, he’s desperate to make an impression. Pulver needs this win. Up until just recently, the featherweight went three years without a single victory, and hasn’t won two consecutive fights in nearly half a decade. Suffice it to say, Jens Pulver has seen better days.
Indeed, around the turn of the century, Pulver, known as “Li’l Evil,” was considered by many to be the best lightweight mixed martial artist in the world. In a combat sport that combines, among other things, the martial disciplines of boxing, wrestling, and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Pulver excelled, and in February of 2002, he took the lightweight title in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, or UFC, today the world’s biggest and best mixed martial arts organization. Even back then, though, the undersized Pulver was never seen as the most talented fighter. He fought up the ranks tooth and nail, pulling off surprising victories thanks to a granite chin, explosive hook, and the gravel in his guts—that gritty, inexhaustible will that is his trademark. But, where today his will remains vigorous, Jens Pulver’s body betrays him. After so many years of hard competition, Jens Pulver is, at only 35, an old man.
Pulver and Choate fight it out for a final, lonely couple of minutes before a thinning, indifferent crowd. When it comes time to hear the judges’ decision, Pulver heavily favors his left foot as he walks to the referee. It’s a close fight to call, hard to tell who’s ahead on the judges’ scorecards, but people are nevertheless crowding the exits. Win or lose, it’s clear that there’s been no resurgence for Pulver. We may not have known it at the time, but we didn’t buy tickets to witness some great comeback. We’ve come to see the darkening embers of a once great career.
Arriving in Villa Park, IL, we are presented with a contrast in prosperity. Three-story houses with large picture windows and sprawling lawns stand across the street from discount clothing outlets and dreary ninety-nine cent stores. We’ve pulled into town with an hour until doors open at the Expo Center, and decide to kill some time at Swap Mart, an indoor flea market.
Rows of booths are set up in an echo-y, cement-floored space. The vendors’ shelves are crowded with squirt guns and stuffed animals, airbrushed portraits and votive candles, soccer cleats and blue jeans with rhinestone butterflies on the rear pockets. Life-size statues of a Roman solider, of Elvis Presley and of John Wayne, are posted around the market, apparently not for sale, but not for taking pictures with, either (that’s prohibited). Today, Swap Mart is hosting something called Metal Fest, a battle of the bands with a metal theme. The sounds of crash cymbals and muddy guitar work emanate from the back of the building, drowning out the vendors’ little radios. It’s time to go.
As it happens, we’re destined to hear the musical stylings of at least one more would-be Metallica. Inside the Odeum Expo Center, a live band is screaming and grunting their way through a cover of “For Whom the Bell Tolls” while, backstage, the fighters warm up. Compared with the makeshift bar set up at Swap Mart, this band got the prime gig.
Men of Illinois, pot-bellied, barrel-chested, carry beer five plastic cups at a time. They take seats next to their wives, and on their knees they bounce little sons and daughters who cover their ears against the arena’s blaring stereo system. Someone’s girlfriend is arguing with a security guard, something about them being caught in the wrong seats, when the house lights dim and a spot light shines on the fenced-in ring, the cage. We settle into our hard, plastic stadium chairs as the evening gets officially underway.
The undercard, the night’s earliest bouts, tend to be populated by inexperienced fighters. The novices tonight are mostly small, pale and slight of frame, skittish but resolute young men fighting out of towns called Northlake, Granite City, and Buffalo Grove. Into the cage they carry the old, hard names of their families: the names Pitz and Graves, Grindstaff and Kreigermier. An aficionado would call them rough, or green, or raw. They take chances, throwing wild punches while leaving their own jaws exposed. Many are wrestlers in the Midwestern tradition, and dive for their opponents’ legs, dragging them to the mat. From there, they latch themselves onto their opponents’ backs before sliding an arm under the chin. With bicep and forearm they constrict the carotid arteries in a popular submission hold called a rear naked choke, forcing their opponents to either tap the mat in surrender or go unconscious.
It becomes immediately apparent that this event is more of a family affair than one might expect. In a small town, at an event like the Chicago Cagefighting Championships tonight, most of the audience can be broken down into factions of family and friends, each dedicated to the support, invested in the fate, of one young fighter, be that a son or nephew, grandchild, neighbor boy, or old high school buddy. With the introduction of each fighter, these groups, in small pockets across the arena, erupt in applause. Across the aisle to our right, elderly men and women cheer for lightweight Will Brooks of Libertyville, Illinois, who, in his second professional fight, obliges the calls of his mother in the stands—“Put him to sleep!”—and submits fellow novice Guillermo Serment with a rear naked in the second round.
Down in the floor seats, Carson Beebe’s mother is less fortunate. The twenty-two year old bantamweight’s family falls silent as the previously unbeaten prospect passes out inside Giovani Moljo’s inverted triangle choke, a complex Brazilian jiu-jitsu maneuver that involves using one’s legs to clamp down on an opponent’s neck. Beebe failed to tap, and now his legs have gone stiff, stuck at a gruesome thirty degree angle in the air.
Such personal stakes, such family drama, lend a strange intimacy to the populous arena, and for a moment I feel like I’m intruding. And it’s the absence of such personal stakes that determines the audience’s boredom in the main event. Now fighting in the lighter featherweight division, Pulver has recently relocated to a new training camp in Illinois with the hopes of rejuvenating his career. However, he’s originally from Nampa, Idaho, and he has no hometown contingent to support him. By the time he makes his entrance, the remaining audience has grown a little chilly.
For Pulver, having just snapped a six-fight losing streak last January, this fight is his first chance in nearly five years to put two wins together and begin to change the story of the end of his career. His opponent Wade Choate is in a hole almost as deep. Dubbed “The Last Dog Man,” he also just recently emerged from a stretch of losses, which saw his record fall to 12 wins and 12 defeats, before a victory last August. He’s a little younger than Pulver, but he’s never reached the heights the former UFC champ has seen. As if he’d like to erase the past two years of his career, Choate’s introduction states his record as it stood in January of 2009, before his five-fight skid: twelve and seven. It’s easy to imagine how desperate he is to string a couple of wins together, and though outside the cage he may have observed Pulver’s recent downward spiral with due sympathy, in the fight it’s every man for himself. Hence Choate’s stubborn adherence to a stick-and-move game plan that sees him make use of his reach advantage, peppering Pulver with jabs while constantly backpedalling out of Pulver’s reach. It’s been surprisingly effective. Pulver’s had trouble chasing him down all night, and the power punches for which he was so famous have come slow and fallen short time and again. It’s enough to draw angry boos from the crowd.
One would think that, having been a former champion, Pulver would excite more fans into attendance. Indeed, if mixed martial arts websites and message boards are any indication, Jens Pulver has almost become more popular, more beloved to the devotees of the sport, since his tumble down the ranks. But it seems that he’s tumbled a little further than most of those hardcore fans would care to admit. The name Pulver holds little weight for these people. His two-tone eyes and crooked grin that so endear him to the diehards fail to tap any vein of sentiment here tonight. Unthinkably, the words “You suck” rain down from somewhere in the audience. Someone behind us asks, “Does the guy in green wrestle much?”
Pulver, in green shorts, limps his way to the final bell. He reveals later that he broke his foot, somewhere in the first round by his reckoning. The handicap nearly sticks him with another loss, but the third judge’s scorecard reads 29-28 Pulver, and “Li’l Evil” scrapes by with a split-decision victory. In his prime, Pulver would have probably flattened Choate in a single round.
Pulver apologizes to the near-empty stands, and confesses that he’s taking small steps to rebuild his career. Strange to see him like this, down in that small-time cage, rendered anonymous before so many small-town Americans. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think that Pulver didn’t mind a bit, as he flashes a smile and says he hopes to fight here again real soon. For whatever reason—a pinch in his wallet or the non-stop ruckus in his heart—Jens Pulver can’t walk away.