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Combat sports fans are not nostalgic. Muhammad Ali's career has been nicely eulogized in documentaries and books, but once you get past that reverence, a fighter's value exists only as a reflection of his last fight. Because Jens Pulver has dropped seven of his last eight, you can imagine the level of audience pity at work.
This is not particularly fair. There are several reasons Pulver should be remembered for better days, but none as significant as his win over B.J. Penn at UFC 35 in 2002 (the Paleolithic Era, by this sport's standards). Despite being the UFC's lightweight champion and the owner of a 14-fight professional record, Pulver was the sports book underdog to Penn, who had only three pro bouts to his name. Yet Penn was all anyone wanted to talk about -- that, and the ridiculousness of having two lightweights headline a UFC event for the first time.
Pulver wired a lot of jaws shut that night, even though Penn did exactly what was expected of him: He had Pulver on the ground within 15 seconds and was hanging off Pulver's neck inside of a minute. But Pulver slammed Penn down, worked from inside his guard and eventually made enough of an impression with his fists that Penn did something he hasn't done much since: pull guard.
Pulver would continue popping up off Penn takedowns, either stomping forward on the feet or reversing position and delivering short, chopping strikes to Penn. In Round 2, Penn had the mount. Pulver survived. At the end of the round, he had Pulver in a cinched-up armbar. Pulver hung on for the bell. Judges eventually scored the fight a majority decision for the champion, who left with a parting "Sometimes, hype just ain't enough." Watch those five rounds eight years later and you might be surprised at the level of clean, disciplined technique on display -- how Pulver and Penn grappled and parried in a way that made the sport seem classier than it probably was at the time.
Pulver's career took a precipitous turn after that. He wanted more money. And he was right to demand it: According to Pulver, Penn made nearly as much losing as Pulver made winning the fight. But that head-butting with promoters pulled him into an unwieldy, uneven career that led him back into the UFC only after age and ring wear had set in.
It's a rotten thing, judging a fighter based on his worst days, which are inevitably his most recent. The fight with Penn is the kind that nudged the sport a little closer to respectability. For a lightweight, Pulver did a lot of heavy lifting. Remember that instead.