Pound-for-Pound: Ellenberger Shines

Ellenberger makes his case as No 1 contender.

Chad Dundasby Chad Dundas

Mixed martial arts fans got pretty much exactly what they expected from Diego Sanchez on Wednesday night: No quit.

Long regarded as one of the UFC’s most relentless (and hardheaded) fighters, Sanchez took a 13 minute, 50 second pounding from Jake Ellenberger in the main event of the UFC’s first live fight card on FuelTV and not only came back for more, he made things interesting during the final minute.

Unfortunately, Sanchez doing as Sanchez does was not altogether positive, either. Aside from his sheer gameness, the fact the longtime UFC veteran couldn’t do much to surprise us (or his opponent) was ultimately his undoing. En route to dropping a unanimous decision, Sanchez again proved that his striking isn’t quite advanced enough, his wrestling not quite effective enough and his game plans not quite nuanced enough to compete with the elite of the welterweight division.

Meanwhile, it was Ellenberger who truly amazed.

Granted, the former University of Nebraska-Omaha wrestler came to this fight in his hometown as something approaching a 2-to-1 favorite, but he still managed to exceed expectations.

We’ve known all along that Ellenberger’s wrestling prowess and heavy-handed striking made him an intriguing talent at 170-pounds. Now there is at least some evidence to suggest that his technical stand-up game is improving rapidly enough that he might prove to be the most difficult matchup in the welterweight division for interim champion Carlos Condit, or even – gasp! – for Georges St. Pierre.

Ellenberger didn’t manage to finish Sanchez – one of the sport’s most resilient fighters – but he did thoroughly undress him with a surprisingly deft kickboxing arsenal and timely takedowns. Ellenberger rattled Sanchez with power shots at range, foiled his wild flurries with well-timed counters (almost turning out the lights with a hard right near the end of the first round) and when Sanchez charged forward in his patented, never-say-die blitzes, stuck a crisp jab in his face.

Like he’s known to do, Sanchez took it all and hung around. In the final 70 seconds he even capitalized on a slip by taking Ellenberger’s back; very nearly pulling a huge upset with punches and submission attempts. “The Juggernaut” weathered the storm and by the time the final horn sounded, Ellenberger had wormed out of danger and was back on his feet firing punches at Sanchez’s face.

Did the final minute of the fight raise red flags about Ellenberger’s fitness as a top contender?  Maybe. When you fight with the kind of high-octane power that he does you’re always going to be at risk of fading down the stretch, as he did in his only UFC loss, a split decision to Condit in Ellenberger’s promotional debut in Sept., 2009.

Since then though, Ellenberger’s won six fights in a row and the improvements are obvious. If the situation surrounding the UFC 170-pound title weren’t already so murky, he’d probably be a shoe-in as the next in line for a shot at the gold.

So far however, the UFC has held firm that it will allow Condit to sit out and wait for St. Pierre to return from a knee injury. That could take most of this year and, if the decision stands, Ellenberger will probably have to fight once or even twice more before the championship carousel spins his way.

If he stays on course and keeps improving as steadily as he has thus far though, it’s hard to imagine we wouldn’t see him vault his way to the front of the line sometime early in 2013.