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Pulver a fighter and survivor

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports

Jens Pulver reaches a finger up to his cheek and flicks a solitary tear that is dribbling down his face.

His eyes are red; his head bowed. His voice, always raspy, is soft and crackling.

"Sorry," he says, to no one in particular. "Sorry."

He looks up but he doesn't see you. He's locked in another place and time.

It might be the time he learned his 16-year-old cousin had committed suicide. It might be when his alcoholic, drug-abusing father lined up his three sons and nearly slaughtered his family with a gun.

It might be back to the time as a high school junior when he learned his mother was shopping for groceries an hour away from her home so as to save him the embarrassment of having his friends learn his family survived on food stamps. Or he could be drifting back to the minute he was leaving the state prison where his brother was housed and likely would be for the remainder of his life and knew it would be the last time they ever saw each other.

It might be one of those places; it could be all of them.

Jens Pulver has managed to survive each episode and is, as he says with a cockeyed grin, "only a little crazy."

Now 32 and one of the world's finest mixed martial arts fighters, the former UFC lightweight champion has a penchant for video games and a passion for motivational speeches.

His life is an extraordinary series of turns and events that has made him doubtful of organized religion but deeply spiritual.

He's exceptionally wary but incredibly open.

He's tough yet fearful; bitter, yet tender.

"He's a guy who had an unbelievably horrifying childhood which has, in part, helped shape the type of person he's become," said Tim McKinnon, who now counts himself among Pulver's closest friends and is the author of the recently released book about Pulver entitled, Never.

"Once he knows you and trusts you and you manage to break through that rough, tough fighter mentality, he's simply one of the kindest people I've ever met in my life. He has an incredible passion for kids and a huge desire to help them. He literally aches whenever he sees anyone go through any kind of misery, no matter how small. He wants to right every wrong in the world, it seems, because he cares so much."

But for the time being, he realizes he needs the bully pulpit that being a successful professional athlete brings.

Pulver has dropped to featherweight and will fight Cub Swanson in World Extreme Cagefighting on Dec. 12, location to be determined.

The bout was to have been on Sept. 5, but after surviving a potentially fatal staph infection, he injured his left knee on Aug. 17. That was the first day of training after his return from the infection, and the torn medial collateral ligament forced him to withdraw against Swanson.

He wanted to prove his toughness, as he had wanted to so many times as a child when his father, renowned jockey Jens Pulver Sr., was abusing him. He insisted he could continue.

His manager, Monte Cox, knew it would be a mistake.

"You can't afford another loss," Cox told Pulver, who has lost two in a row and three of his last five.

The bully in Pulver, the guy who sought out the toughest challenges and routinely took on men 20 pounds or more, argued with Cox. The brainy side of him quickly realized Cox was correct. Reluctantly, somewhat angrily, he pulled out of the bout.

"As a fighter, you never want to say no and you never want to back down," said Pulver, whose foot got caught in the shorts of his close friend and training partner, Brandon Adamson, and twisted his knee awkwardly.

"But this fight is one I absolutely have to have. So many times in my life, I've given up something to my opponent because I'm a no excuses guy and I just want to fight. But this was one of those times where sanity prevailed, because this fight will have major consequences in my career and I can't afford to lose."

But to those who know him, even if he never wins another fight, Jens Pulver will always be a winner.

He's scarred – who wouldn't be after one's father sticks a pistol in your throat and then pulls it out, saying you're not worth the bullets? – but he's made it a point to channel his anger.

He isn't ready to announce his retirement, but he's closing in on 33 and knows the end is closer than the beginning.

Retirement, whenever it comes, won't be an end but a beginning for him.

He wants to make a living as a motivational speaker, particularly focusing on troubled youth.

"I can go see a group of bad kids who have done who knows what and they're incorrigible and they hate everybody, but I can relate to them and for some reason, I can get through to them," he says. "The first thing is, I take away that intimidating persona they might try to show. They'll say, 'I'll kick your ass. I'm going to beat you like you've never been beaten in your life,' but I can look at them and laugh.

"Because doing what I do for a living, I know that's not true. I just look at them calmly and say, 'No you can't,' and they know I'm right. But if they want to puff up and bluff, I'll offer to go outside with them right then and there and prove who's right."

There have yet to be any takers.

He says he's never sure of what he's going to say and said he's always best when he has someone leading the way, asking questions.

McKinnon said Pulver is magnificent with children and incredibly free with his time.

Pulver, who said he rarely attended organized church services when he was a child, meets weekly with a group of men dubbed the Wednesday Group in Bettendorf, Iowa.

This motley collection of professional fighters, physicians, carpenters and unemployed men reads a Bible verse and then discusses the impact God plays in their lives.

"This is where I'm supposed to be," Pulver said of the Wednesday Group. "We just talk and discuss God. I can't do conventional church: Put money in the basket, sing for 45 minutes and do it all again the next week. That's a glorified show. It may be for some people, but it's not for me.

"This is a place where these guys are not in your face, they're not pressing on you, getting in your grill telling you how it has to be. You just learn. I said, 'Now, this is church.' Here, I can sit back and learn about God. I found out I'm not as unworthy of being a Christian as I was led to believe because I didn't read the book every day."

He rarely says no to a request for help. In two weeks, he's flying to New Jersey to attend a fund-raiser for a child with a disability.

He's a sucker for a sob story because his entire life has been a sob story. But as he enters the final phase of his fighting career, he's as together as he's ever been.

Pulver has come to grips with his June loss to bitter rival B.J. Penn and hopes one day to get another shot at him. He's preparing to open his own MMA gym. He's anxious to see his 4-year-old daughter enter kindergarten.

His mind is a revolving door of ideas, most of which involve dedicating his time to someone else.

"It's great that people give money to important causes, but a lot of times, no matter how much money it is, money's not the answer," Pulver said. "I give my money, but I really try to donate my time. I was there once, and I know how much it means to have someone there who cares and who will listen and not be judgmental.

"I've been through the highs and the lows and the good and the bad. There isn't a thing in life I haven't been through. That's why I can have an impact. No matter what you're going through, I'm going to be able to relate to you on one level or another."