UFC 35 was supposed to be B.J. Penn's crowning moment. Instead, the evening ended up the first in a chain of events that all but killed the UFC's lightweight division for several years.
"The Prodigy" was one of the first real sensations of the Zuffa era. A world jiu-jitsu champion at 18, the Hilo, Hawaii, native exploded on the mixed martial arts scene in 2001, scoring first-round finishes of Joey Gilbert, Din Thomas and Caol Uno in his first three professional fights.
By the time Penn met Jens "L'il Evil" Pulver at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Connecticut on Jan, 2002, the then-23-year-old was considered all but the uncrowned champ, which was reflected on the casino's sports book, which had Penn a 3-to-1 favorite going in.
Pulver, though, is a product of Pat Miletich's camp in Bettendorf, Iowa, which made its name on willpower and desire. Few fighters epitomized the Miletich Fighting Systems style like Pulver. He didn't have Penn's natural talent but was always willing to go the extra mile.
The end result was a 25-minute battle of attrition, as Penn learned what it was like to go five rounds with a tenacious competitor like Pulver, a natural featherweight who was used to fighting larger men.
The match was the first glimpse at what turned into a Penn pattern in some of his biggest fights. "The Prodigy" came out with guns blazing and took both of the first two rounds, and had Pulver locked in an armbar as the second round ended. But Pulver roared back in the final three rounds as Penn tired, and Pulver left an impression by outbanging Penn over the final five minutes, which was enough to claim a majority decision and retain the title.
While Pulver's star shined brightest after the win, he made a decision several other fighters of the era also made and signed with the better-paying PRIDE Fighting Championships. While some fighters competed in both promotions prior to this point, UFC president Dana White decided to make an example of Pulver and stripped him of the UFC crown.
Penn was rematched with Uno at UFC 41 for Pulver's vacant title, but the bout ended in a draw, leaving the title unfilled. After that match, the lightweight belt stayed on ice until UFC 64 in Oct. 2006, when Sean Sherk decisioned Kenny Florian to claim the crown.
Penn, of course, finally claimed the title in Jan. 2008, six years later than expected, when he beat Joe Stevenson in England.
Pulver wasn't the only UFC 35 headliner who left the company as champion. Penn moved up to welterweight in 2004 and defeated Matt Hughes in what was considered a major upset at the time, then left the company as champion and spent the next two years competing in K-1. Likewise, Murilo Bustamante, who defeated Dave Menne to claim the middleweight title at UFC 35, made one successful title defense against Matt Lindland and then bolted for PRIDE. Bustamante was the only one of the three who never returned to the company.
UFC 35 is remembered within the company as a horror show, as a nasty flu virus tore through the casino that affected everyone from the fighters, including Pulver and Menne, who hallucinated during his loss to Bustamante, to the company staff. But cancelling the card was never seriously considered.
Mohegan Sun Arena is, to date, the only venue UFC has promoted in New England. MMA remains unregulated in Connecticut, but the venue is on tribal lands and fight cards are overseen by the Mohegan tribal athletic commission. The arena was also host for UFC 39, 45, and 55.
Eugene Jackson def. Keith Rockel, submission (choke), 3:46 R2
Gil Castillo def. Chris Brennan, unanimous decision
Kevin Randleman def. Renato def., unanimous decision
Andrei Semenov def. Ricardo Almeida, Ko, 2:01 R2
Chuck Ldidell def. Amar Suloev, unanimous decision
UFC middleweight championship: Murilo Bustamente def. Dave Menne, KO, 0:43 R2 (Bustamente wins title)
Ricco Rodriguez def. Jeff Monson, TKO, 3:00 R3
UFC lightweight championship: Jens Pulver def. B.J. Penn, majority decision (Pulver retains title)