Breaking Through: MacDonald, Ellenberger Emerge at UFC 129

Breaking down the potential of the less-discussed UFC 129 breakout performances

All the talk following UFC 129 in Toronto has revolved around a handful of topics:

  1. Georges St. Pierre’s continuing to win decisions
  2. GSP fighting Nick Diaz
  3. Mark Hominick and his ginormous hematoma
  4. Lyoto Machida crane kicking Randy Couture into retirement
  5. The overall awesomeness of the event itself

Those are all very worthy talking points and items that I have been focused on over the last five days as well, but that’s not to say they are the only subjects we should be discussing.

Lost in the shuffle of GSP’s fourth-straight five-round decision win and the massive growth coming out of Hominick’s forehead were a series of performances that should be getting more attention.

Pablo Garza, John Makdessi, Jake Ellenberger and Rory MacDonald all announced their presence to a larger audience last weekend, each winning in their own impressive fashion. While they’ve all experienced different levels of success up to this point in their UFC careers, their victories Saturday night in Toronto were their biggest and most visible to date, and should propel them each to new heights in the near future.

How far can the breakout stars of UFC 129 go? Let me tell you what I think.

Pablo Garza

While I didn’t expect his fight with Yves Jabouin to end the way it did, I also don’t think anyone would have called “first-round flying triangle choke” as the finisher if given the opportunity. What I do know is that as I forecasted in my preview of the event, this was an entertaining fight and Garza is a nightmare matchup for anyone in the featherweight division moving forward.

Garza’s size was the deciding factor in the fight, and that isn’t going to change any time soon. Being 6’1″ in a division where most fighters fall between 5’6″ and 5’9″ is a huge advantage for Garza, who can use his long limbs to keep space against faster opponents.

The former TUF 12 hopeful (he lost in the qualifying round to finalist Michael Johnson) also appears to have a flair for the dramatic. Each of his last two fights have been historic bouts, and Garza has finished both in memorable fashion. He won the first featherweight contest in UFC history with a beautiful flying knee, and followed it up with Saturday’s Submission of the Night in the initial UFC bout in Ontario.

His penchant for finishing in impressive fashion should bode well for Garza, especially considering the overall lack of depth in the featherweight division. There just aren’t enough fighters in the 145-pound ranks that audiences recognize, and with back-to-back bonus-winning finishes, Garza should get more of a push than some of his colleagues.

If George Roop can get himself onto the main card of Fight for the Troops 2 and serve as the man standing between Hominick and a title shot, Garza should be pretty excited about his future potential right now. Roop is a solid fighter, but his placement opposite Hominick in January goes to show how shallow the overall featherweight talent pool is right now, which should provide Garza with ample opportunity to continue climbing the ranks, especially if he keeps adding new clips to his personal highlight reel.

John Makdessi editor-in-chief Matt Brown would like everyone to know that he picked Makdessi as the fighter on the UFC 129 undercard who has the potential to be a household name within the next six months. And yes, he did it long before the Tristar product pulled out his spinning backfist knockout of Kyle Watson.

All the reasons Brown cited in support of Makdessi on the UFC 129 edition of Fight Day rang true on Saturday night. He is an extremely talented striker with a great kickboxing and tae kwon do background, and there is no quicker path to recognition than a knockout that lands on SportsCenter and/or YouTube.

Shonie Carter’s name has lived on thanks to his spinning backfist finish of Matt Serra, despite the fact that the fight is now a decade old. More recently, Anthony Pettis went from being a relative unknown to headlining next month’s Ultimate Fighter Finale thanks to his “Showtime Kick” at WEC 53.

In addition to being an explosive striker, Makdessi’s nationality will help him earn more opportunities as well. The UFC loves Canada and has expressed their desire to hold even more shows north of the border in the coming years. In addition to annual pay-per-view events in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal, smaller shows could find their way to Calgary, Edmonton, Hamilton and Ottawa, which would mean create plenty of openings for Canadian fighters.

The depth within the lightweight ranks will also work in Makdessi’s favor, as the Nova Scotia-born, Montreal-based fighter can be given ample time to develop. There is no reason to rush a promising young talent along in the 155-pound division, as there are plenty of other options to choose from at the top end. While Makdessi is certainly in line for a step up in competition after his second consecutive UFC win, he won’t be thrown to the wolves.

He’s undefeated, Canadian, relatively young (26), has tremendous striking and works with a great team of coaches in Firas Zahabi and the group at Tristar in Montreal. All those things combine to make Makdessi a guy to keep an eye on over the next year in the lightweight division.

Jake Ellenberger

In less than two years, Ellenberger has gone 4-1 inside the Octagon with victories over Mike Pyle, John Howard, Carlos Eduardo Rocha and now Sean Pierson. As if those wins alone aren’t enough, the lone loss on his UFC record came via razor-thin split decision in his UFC debut against Carlos Condit.

The short and the quick of it is that Ellenberger is the real deal and a man who could make some noise in the welterweight division over the coming months.

I’m actually a little surprised that more people aren’t on the Ellenberger bandwagon already, since it’s obvious that the UFC thinks highly of the Nebraska native. Prior to B.J. Penn’s speedy knockout of Matt Hughes at UFC 123, Ellenberger was scheduled to face Jon Fitch at UFC 126.

Though the cards got shuffled and “The Juggernaut” ended up outlasting Rocha at UFC 122 instead, the fact that the company was ready to line him up opposite a consensus top 5 talent like Fitch says a lot about their thoughts on Ellenberger and his potential.

The blistering knockout Ellenberger delivered on Saturday night was just the kind of performance he needed to break through to the next level. Stopping Pierson after taking the fight 16 days prior in front of the largest audience in UFC history, not to mention more than one million viewers watching the Prelims Live broadcast on Spike TV, is precisely the kind of display that takes you from being fringe contender and critical darling to a guy that hardcore and casual fans can’t wait to see again.

After being briefly partnered with a perennial contender like Fitch in the past, I would expect to see Ellenberger taking on a top 10 opponent on the main card of a pay-per-view or in the co-main event slot of a television broadcast; anything less would be a step backwards and a wasted opportunity.

As for long term potential, Ellenberger has all the tools to remain a top 10 contender in the 170-pound division for the foreseeable future.

Rory MacDonald

The crazy thing about UFC 129 is that Jake Ellenberger wasn’t the most impressive breakout welterweight. That honor belongs to MacDonald, who absolutely rag-dolled Nate Diaz in the third round en route to a unanimous decision win.

MacDonald might be the best prospect in the entire sport.

What’s not to like about this kid? He literally has everything working in his favor right now:

He’s Canadian
As was discussed with Makdessi, the Canadian MMA market is booming and the continued expansion across the Great White North will give MacDonald the chance to become a star quicker than normal. See Dan Hardy and UFC UK Expansion for more details.

He’s only 21-years-old
I could barely handle the pressure of writing final exams at that age, yet alone competing for the premier organization combat sports and excelling. The fact that MacDonald is just 21 also means he’s still five or six years away from being in his athletic prime.

He’s been training MMA since Day One
Macdonald isn’t playing catch up on any disciplines, trying to integrate grappling into his striking game or vice versa.

He trains at the Tristar Gym in Montreal
Iron sharpens iron, and MacDonald works every day with the best welterweight in the sport and a collection of truly world-class competitors and coaches.

He’s already 2-1 in the UFC
MacDonald debuted in the UFC at age 20 and submitted “Joker” Guymon in the first round. We just saw him have his way with Diaz last weekend, pacing himself through the opening two rounds before opening up on the former TUF winner in the final frame. Even his loss to Carlos Condit at UFC 115 was an outstanding performance; MacDonald won the first two rounds before tiring, allowing Condit to capitalize and finish in the third.

When you add the fact that MacDonald is a humble kid who hasn’t let his meteoric rise to stardom get anywhere near going to his head, you have the makings of a fighter with almost limitless potential.

If MacDonald continues to progress the way he has to this point, a championship reign wouldn’t be out of the question.