Welterweight contender discusses the emotions of a hometown win over Diego Sanchez and what he wants next
Growing up in West Omaha, Neb., some things are difficult to imagine.
In a community where the biggest concerns involve harvest and livestock, it’s a far stretch to envision yourself reaching the heart of a city and being elevated to the status of local hero. In some places that label is reserved for the guy whose best days are far behind him, enshrined somewhere in a trophy case. But on Wednesday night, Omaha native Jake Ellenberger raised the bar for the world to see.
Nearly 7,000 fans were standing on their feet, cheering and stomping so hard the floor shook in the Omaha Civic Auditorium at UFC on Fuel TV: Sanchez vs. Ellenberger. They were there to support one of their own as he headed into the Octagon to face one of his toughest challenges to date. With every step he took toward the cage, the cheers became louder, the sound deafening. The Omaha crowd wanted Ellenberger to know it was him they came to see.
In proper Midwestern fashion, Ellenberger returned the favor by putting on the type of performance that makes him a solidified contender in the UFC’s welterweight division. The sky is now the limit for “The Juggernaut,” and now that the dust has settled, and he has had the opportunity to take it all in, Ellenberger spoke exclusively to HeavyMMA about the experience.
“I had played it out in my head quite a few times before, but it was nowhere remotely close to what it was actually like,” Ellenberger said about his walk to the cage. “It was just surreal and blew every expectation I had out of the water. I’ve been to so many UFC events and have been a part of some really electric crowds, but what happened that night was overwhelming. There were only 7,000 people there, but it felt like 50,000. In places like Toronto, the crowd is really spread out. But in the Civic, everything is right on top of you. You could feel every one of those people cheering and giving their support.
“It was difficult to stay focused. When I walked out, it felt like I was coming on stage at a concert at Woodstock and opening with a crazy song the fans love. The reaction they gave nearly knocked me over. I was overwhelmed, but I had to stay focused at the same time. It was an unbelievable experience.”
Once inside of the Octagon, Ellenberger paced back and forth as Diego Sanchez made his way to the cage. The intensity on Ellenberger’s face was obvious, but internally, a struggle to keep passion and emotion separate from what he needed to do became a fierce battle. He knew a war with one of the UFC’s toughest fighters was just moments away, and Ellenberger had to push the moment aside to get down to business.
“Keeping your emotions in check is tough, and it’s something every fighter has to deal with,” Ellenberger said. “For me personally, it’s about keeping your composure. It’s something you have to train and work on to keep control over. It doesn’t matter how skilled you are – if you lose grip of your composure, you start making mistakes and bad things happen. I’ve done that before when I fought Rick Story. I completely fought with emotion. It wasn’t very smart, but I learned from that experience. It’s something you have to continually train.”
Once the action got underway, Ellenberger looked sharp and on point. His footwork kept Sanchez’s pressure at bay, and his speed and power scored early damage. Past the midway point of the opening frame, Ellenberger landed a solid combination that put Sanchez down on the canvas. But much like he’s known for doing, Sanchez bounced right back up and returned to the fray – none of which surprised Ellenberger.
“I kind of expected that toughness from Diego,” he said. “I’ve seen him fight before, and I knew he was going to be tough. But he exceeded my expectations. He was there the entire time. There wasn’t any moment in that fight where I was comfortable. Not one minute. He’s a guy you can’t rest or relax against because he’s dangerous at all times. I have a lot of respect for him. He was taking it and giving it. Just as much as I would throw at him, he’d fire right back at me.”
The second round was more of the same as Ellenberger moved in and out behind power punches and pressure of his own. Battered as he was, Sanchez began to find success with his right hand before Ellenberger landed a fierce takedown in the middle of the cage. With the clock ticking down, Ellenberger dropped two nasty elbows that landed clean on Sanchez’s face, forcing the crowd to the next level of insanity.
When the bell rang, Sanchez returned to his feet slightly wobbled. But no matter the circumstance of being down two rounds to none, Ellenberger knew Sanchez was bringing everything he had in the final frame.
“I ended that second round pretty hard, but I knew what to expect coming out in the third,” Ellenberger said. “Diego is known for his ability to bring it at all times. It doesn’t matter who he fights, or if he’s down two rounds, I knew he was coming full bore and right at me. That’s exactly what he did, and I tried to stay relaxed and keep my composure so I didn’t do anything stupid.”
For the majority of the final round, Ellenberger was able to keep Sanchez’s charges in check. It appeared as if he was going to cruise to a unanimous decision victory until Sanchez got the best of a bad position and put Ellenberger in trouble. He took Ellenberger’s back and appeared to be close to pounding out a stoppage. As the final moments of the fight ticked away, Ellenberger found his escape and the fight ended with both men throwing furiously.
Ellenberger would go on to win the unanimous decision two rounds to one on all cards, but that didn’t stop the critics from blaming Ellenberger’s gas tank as the reason for the late-fight trouble. It is a criticism he strongly refutes.
“I’ve had that question a lot about me getting gassed or tired, but that wasn’t the case in this fight,” he said. “When I fought Carlos Condit, I gassed. I reached a point where I hit a wall – but against Diego, that never happened. I took him down and was behind him when we were up against the fence. I was too high on his back and slipped off, and that’s when he took my back. He has skills and I had to work through it. But it was more the case of a (bad) position than me gassing.”
In his post-fight interview with Joe Rogan, Ellenberger was asked who he wanted to face or what fight he believed should come next. Ellenberger offered up a humble response, putting the onus on the UFC brass to make the ultimate decision. With Condit now the interim welterweight titleholder, and recently announcing he intends to wait for champ Georges St-Pierre to become healthy, the next move for Ellenberger is unclear. Even with that being the case, he has a clear focus on who he wants to fight and why an interim title has no value.
“I think I should’ve been clearer on what I want and who I want to fight,” Ellenberger said. “I think I can beat Carlos Condit, and that’s really the fight I want. That’s the fight I’m hoping and praying for – but it’s not my decision. It’s absolutely what I want, though. I’ve fought him before, and now I’m a completely different fighter. I know I can beat him and it’s definitely the fight I want. Carlos has said he wants to wait, and while I can understand his position, it doesn’t stop me from wanting that fight.
“I would rather stay active than not fight. I guess everyone is a little different, and it’s circumstantial. Some people don’t want to risk their chance of losing their title shot or their interim belt, but a long layoff is tough and it’s hard to come back from. If it were me, personally I would stay active.
“To be honest an interim belt doesn’t mean anything. It would be cool to wear around and say you were the interim champ, but at the end of the day, you are not the king. Georges St-Pierre is the king, and until somebody beats him he’s still the true champion of the division. Even if I were in that position, it would be the same thing. If I go out and beat Carlos Condit, I’m not the champion of the division because Georges St-Pierre is the reigning champion and unless you beat him, then you aren’t. It’s that simple. You have to beat the champ to become the champ. Georges is that guy.”
Outside the competition of sports and the hum-drum daily roll-about of Midwestern life, Ellenberger’s ambitions of happiness and success never involved notoriety. All he ever wanted to do was test himself, and after taking his first mixed martial arts fight on a whim, he realized fighting was the truest test available. Now, after a streak of success on the sport’s largest stage, that focus is locked squarely on championship gold. Even though the road ahead is going to be tough, the division is filled with new blood and it is a journey he is looking forward to.
“The new look of the division is kind of refreshing,” Ellenberger said. “I’m not new to this sport at all. I’ve had 34 fights, and it’s really starting to click for me now. It’s all coming together for me and the next few years of my career are going to be very important. There are definitely guys out there who are hungry, and Johny Hendricks is one of them, Rory MacDonald, and a bunch of studs that are coming up who love to compete. It’s great to see these things, because GSP has been the reigning champ for so long and to be considered a threat to him is definitely a compliment.
“The sport keeps evolving in every weight class, and it’s awesome to see. The sport continues to grow and there is always that hungry lion right under you. One of my favorite sayings is, ‘There is plenty of room at the top, but there is nowhere to sit down.’ There is always going to be someone who wants it just as bad as you do directly behind you. There is definitely a new wave coming through.
“To become the champion – that’s the plan. We’ll see how it all shakes out. If my next fight isn’t going to be Condit, then it will either be the winner of Hendricks vs. (Josh) Koscheck or (Thiago) Alves vs. (Martin) Kampmann. There is nothing easy ahead of me. In the UFC, there are no easy fights – and once you win a few, it only gets more difficult. That’s the way I prefer it and wouldn’t have it any other way.”