LAS VEGAS – Excuse Jens Pulver for believing he somehow found himself on the set of Groundhog Day.
Life seems to be replaying itself in an eerie way.
B.J. Penn is the center of the mixed martial arts universe as he prepares to fight Pulver on a UFC card on Saturday at the Palms Hotel & Casino. Accolades are flowing freely in Penn's direction.
Dana White, the UFC's outspoken president, said Penn is the most talented mixed martial artist in history. Saturday's bout is being pushed as Penn's shot at redemption.
It's the same story Pulver heard 5 1/2 years ago, when a largely unproven 23-year-old nicknamed "The Prodigy," was widely expected to lift the UFC lightweight title from Pulver.
But Pulver won then and, he insists, he'll win again. He's angry, though, that he has had to take a backseat to Penn, just like he did on Jan. 11, 2002, when he defended his belt against Penn.
It's nothing, though, that Penn has said directly that has raised Pulver's ire.
"I guess what really started the animosity was this compilation of voices and ideas that was all B.J., all the time," Pulver said. "There was no straw that broke the camel's back, so to speak, that set me off. Personally, he's never done anything to me.
"But I've had enough. I'm tired of being the nice guy and turning the other way. I've had enough of all of this adoration of B.J. Penn. What's he done? Well, I'll tell you one thing I know for sure he's done: He's lost to Jens Pulver."
The UFC set up Saturday's rematch by having the two serve as coaches during the current season of its reality series, The Ultimate Fighter. Nathan Diaz will meet Manny Gamburyan – both of whom fought on Pulver's team, Pulver quickly points out – in the finals on Saturday's undercard.
The hard feelings were evident between the two immediately when Joe Rogan interviewed them in April during an Ultimate Fight Night event in Las Vegas when it was announced on Spike TV they would be the coaches.
Penn sneered at Pulver the entire time as Rogan sat between them. Penn had no hard feelings toward Pulver before or after their first fight, he says, and only developed animosity toward Pulver when he felt Pulver was slow to grant him a rematch.
Their first fight was close and, in some quarters, the result was considered controversial, but Pulver rallied after falling behind early and pulled out a five-round decision to retain his belt.
"After a while I was like, 'Hey, what's happened to that rematch?' " Penn said. "I understand how things go, but he just wouldn't do it. And I was like, 'C'mon, man. I think I've shown I deserve it.' But he never would do it."
While the reality show was being filmed, the tension between them was palpable. White said he was always concerned that something would set them off and they might brawl on the set.
Indeed, Pulver said he had to resist the urge to slap Penn on numerous occasions, particularly during the selection of the teams when Penn asked the 16 fighters to raise their hands if they wanted to be on his team and wanted nothing to do with Pulver.
It was, Pulver said, the type of disrespect that has left him burning for the chance to get his hands on Penn once again.
"It was nauseating being around him as much as I was," Pulver said. "I literally can't stand seeing the guy now. It's sickening. I just want to do it again and get this guy out of my life."
No doubt, Penn feels the same way. And though he realizes they might fight a third time if he wins on Saturday, he said he won't wait more than five years to give Pulver a rematch.
Penn, who has been working with a nutritionist and has cut down from a high of 191 pounds during filming to 159 pounds on Wednesday, said he realizes he hasn't gotten everything out of his talent.
White said he felt it would be best for Penn, who has frequently spoken of holding three UFC titles at once, would concentrate on dominating the lightweight division before he looks to any other divisions.
Penn said he's made a mistake jumping divisions and plans to compete for the time being as a lightweight.
"There's a lot more for me to do," Penn said. "I know a lot of people had a lot of great expectations for me, saying I'm the best this and the best that. But you know what? I want to prove those people right. I want to get all of what I have out of me and maybe I haven't done that yet.
"It's a growing experience, this sport. No matter how talented you are, you can't learn it all in one or two years. I'm just coming into my own now and, without a doubt, I haven't reached all of my goals and the pinnacle of greatness that some people thought I would. Winning this fight would be a start."
Pulver's motivation comes from feeling overlooked a second time, so he doesn't need anything additional to ensure he's at his best on Saturday.
But if he can do something to topple Penn from his perch, he's happy to do it.
"Everything the guy does is disrespectful," Pulver said. "I feel in a lot of ways I've been treated like a little kid. But this little kid is coming with a lot of passion and a lot of intensity. He'll find out soon enough it was no fluke."
- Jens Pulver