There are very few fighters who are so likable and respected that even when they fight your favorite fighter you wish them the best. Two of them are Cub Swanson and Jens Pulver.
Cub Swanson embodies loyalty, hard work and one of the most fan-friendly personalities and fight styles. Pulver’s work ethic is almost second to none. The “undersized” lightweight has always been a fighter’s fighter. It’s the type of main event that even other fighters on the card hope to see fight live.
Pulver was the first to capture the UFC lightweight title all the way back at UFC 30. At the time of his victory over Caol Uno for inaugural gold, Pulver was cutting a whopping three pounds and simply outwilling and out skilling all of his opponents. With the UFC’s lack of a proper weight class for him, Pulver was outsized in every fight of his career. Looking back at what David was able to do to all of the Goliaths he shared the cage with, it might be a good thing that there wasn’t a featherweight division in Lil’ Evil’s prime.
In 2001, the WEC opened their doors. Unsure of what their identity was, WEC was playing host to fighters like Dan Severn, Frank Shamrock and Shonie Carter in the early days before finally finding their groove as the host to smaller weight classes. The Chael Sonnens and Brian Stanns turned into Eddie Winelands and Demetrious Johnsons and opportunities were now available for all the fighters like Pulver who were sick of fighting guys who had 25 pounds on them.
One of the up-and-coming fighters was Cub Swanson.
Spending the first two years of his career in the same position as Pulver, Swanson finally found a home with promotions who hosted featherweight divisions. Show after show, the quiet but violent Swanson was becoming one of the most popular fighters on the California regional circuit.
One of the hottest prospects in the sport, Swanson found a home in the WEC and made his debut at WEC 26 and sunk in a first-round guillotine. Less than three months later he put on one of the most exciting fights the WEC had seen against Micah Miller and proved to the world that he wasn’t just the most popular fighter in his backyard. Swanson was a hungry contender with the wind at his back.
Twenty days before Swanson’s Fight of the Night showing, Jens Pulver waved goodbye to the UFC for good with a loss to BJ Penn. The lightweights were getting heavier and heavier. It was finally time to find a home. It was only right that the two would cross paths.
The stars aligned both metaphorically and literally. The path to WEC gold and immortality would go through either Pulver or Swanson at WEC 30.
“When you’re coming up on the regional scene, you have your own fans,” Swanson recalls. “You don’t really get booed. You’re pretty much liked. At the time I didn’t really have any reason for anybody to not like me. Then I got that fight. Me and my manager saw he was coming into the WEC and we were both really excited; we pushed to get the fight and we got it.”
It was adding up like a Cinderella story for the SoCal boy, but unfortunately to make it to the next chapter he would have to fight one of the best to ever do it. Digging deep was nothing new for Swanson, but he would need to use every possible opportunity to get a leg up on Pulver even if it was a spur of the moment passing in a Las Vegas hotel.
“I saw him at the old Hard Rock Casino in the little gym they had. I thought to myself, ‘Man, I’ve got to do a run right now.’ I’m either going to run as hard as I can and get in his head or I’m going to act like I’m struggling,” Swanson said. “I was like, ‘screw it, I want to get a workout in.’ I don’t know if I’ve ever ran that hard and that long on a treadmill and I could see him just watching me, lifting weights. He just stared at me the whole time.”
After scraping together the money to put the fight camp together, Swanson delivered the most heated pre-fight interview the WEC ever saw. The filter was taken out. The hardest fighter to dislike sharpened the corners like he had never done before.
“He thinks this is a joke, this ain’t a joke. I’m going to hurt him. And I’m going to kill him,” Swanson said in the interviews.
With the help of his wife providing “extra motivation,” Pulver was seeing red and just as clearly shooting back barbs even more venomous.
“It was the first time and the only time my wife did this, but she printed out these pictures of Cub and I’ll never forget this. I remember looking at my water bottle like, ‘what the…is this?’ She had this s**t on the cupboards and it worked. By the time I finally got there I was like, ‘I cannot wait. I’m so tired of looking at this dude.’”
As likeable as he was, Pulver had no problem hitting where it hurt in the name of defending himself. A harsh interview with the risk of ruffling feathers was nothing to him. Swanson’s position of the bad guy was completely uncharted territory, however. And it came with a heavy price.
“I was turned around into being the bad guy and that was the first time I got hate,” Swanson said. “It just messed me up mentally and I had to push through the training camp and eventually the fight came and it kept getting bigger and bigger and everybody kept building it up and I froze.”
Swanson shot for a takedown in seconds, and in just over 30 seconds, he was inside of a Jens Pulver guillotine and he tapped out. The most heated buildup of his career, his path to WEC gold and the payoff of two training camps was over in less than a minute.
“That might have been about the most intense situation,” Pulver said. “I was pretty heated. It was bad. There was even fighting going on amongst the crowd right there. Not like punching, but there was a lot going on.”
Pulver would go on to fight Urijah Faber for the WEC featherweight title seven months later in arguably the biggest fight in WEC history and Swanson would never earn a shot. The closest to the title he ever was had been erased in 35 seconds.
“It was out of my character. I was just so broke and frustrated and annoyed at the whole situation that somebody could just decide to push the fight back,” Swanson explained. “I was just starting to make it and still a fanboy, myself. I was excited about the opportunity and thought that I was being kind of played with.”
Well over a decade has passed and the two have never addressed the bad blood. The MMA circle is small and the two have crossed paths but no ill will exists. Despite leaving the WEC without a shot at the title, Swanson fought for the WEC until the merge with the UFC and has fought 19 times under the UFC lights.
Without ever missing weight or having public disputes or meltdowns, Swanson remains one of the most popular fighters on the roster. With eight performance bonuses and a “Fight of the Year” distinction to his name it’s not hard to see why the 37-year-old is still stealing the show.
Pulver would lose his title shot to Faber but go on to fight four more times in the WEC and would later retire from MMA altogether.
The WEC’s most intense rivalry would go largely unnoticed. Those who did notice have likely forgotten. There’s no public outcry for Pulver and Swanson to officially bury the hatchet but the fact that two of the beloved fighters of all time aren’t at odds after all these years is as much of a feel good story as we may get as long as the door to resolution stays open.
“I know he had a rough go at life as well and I feel like we might have a lot in common,” Swanson explained. “I’m a fan of him. Just at that particular moment in time he put me in a really bad spot. I had no money. I had to borrow money to do another training camp and I think he made like 50 or 60 grand and I made five. Then he got to fight for the title, and I didn’t. It was my failure that made me bitter. I blamed that on him for a long time but at the end of the day it’s on me.”
Catch the entire WEC library NOW on UFC FIGHT PASS!