Thursday Water Cooler: Looking Back at UFC on Fuel TV: Sanchez vs. Ellenberger

Stefan Struve (Josh Hedges/UFC)

Duane Finley delves into UFC on Fuel: Sanchez vs. Ellenberger

“Omaha … somewhere in middle America.”

Anyone who watched the UFC’s debut on Fuel TV had to have that song run through their heads at least once. If not, then you are lying and should be ashamed of yourself.

This week’s journey into the MMA world took me smack dab into the middle of the Great Plains. I’m from the Midwest, and I have always thought of Illinois and Indiana as the epitome of Midwestern charm. But after spending a couple of days in Omaha Neb., my mind has been changed forever.

People have been known to describe cities in several ways. Here in Indy, the travel guides say, “A big city with a little city feel.” It’s the tourist department’s way of convincing people they won’t have to deal with the traffic or congestion of Chicago, New York or Los Angeles, but they can still get everything they need.

In those terms, Omaha is not of this variety. It seems to be one of those places where a group of people decided it was a good spot to gather. This, of course, is completely without historical reference to why the city was settled in its specific location. I’m simply road weary and writing things that sound good to me.

This was the UFC’s second visit to Omaha, and the organization’s reasons for coming into the city were made clear on fight night. Not only did the main event feature local hero Jake Ellenberger, but the city in general is filled with MMA enthusiasts. But several circumstances hovered above the card (Wednesday show, small market promotion) that left those of us in Omaha questioning what kind of turnout we were going to see.

During a typical fight week in a larger market, the streets are crawling with fight fans. Eventually, word will get out as to where the fighter hotel is located and you can’t walk through the lobby without seeing small clusters of MMA fans looking to get a picture or autograph with one of the fighters on the card. This wasn’t the case in Omaha. While there were a few stragglers here and there, for the most part the fighter hotel was tame – which left me personally wondering if anyone in Omaha was going to turn out.

As it was its return to the market, the UFC knew exactly how to handle it. They picked the perfect-sized venue and put together a solid card for smaller show built around a main-event that was sure to deliver. In larger markets, fans tend to fill in closer to the televised card – but in the quiet nook of Omaha, they were ready to go from the jump.

It was a good decision made by the Omaha collective, because they were able to see some of the UFC’s newly signed talent, a few nasty stoppages and a dog fight of a main-event. By the card’s end, the crowd was pleased and the UFC’s debut on Fuel TV went off without a hitch. As the clock ticked down, I finished up my notes and hit the road, leaving the Cornhusker state in the rearview.

Here are my thoughts on UFC on Fuel TV: Sanchez vs. Ellenberger.

Jake Ellenberger: Since coming into the UFC in 2009, Ellenberger has been nothing short of impressive. His only loss has come via a split-decision to current interim champion Carlos Condit, and even in defeat it has a golden glow because he took a top-ranked fighter like Condit to the wire on only two weeks notice. The biggest issue surrounding Ellenberger isn’t his success in the cage, but moreso the lack of impact he’s made with UFC fans along the way. Ellenberger has been a monster and Wednesday was his opportunity to break out of the mold and carve his place as a top contender.

With the table set, the Omaha native shined with a solid performance against Diego Sanchez. His power was on point as he dropped Sanchez early, and his wrestling pedigree shined when he was able to take Diego to the ground and score with some nasty elbows. The only damper on his performance came in the third round, when Sanchez was able to put him in a bad position and appeared to be close to finishing the fight. It could bring his cardio into question, but then again he was fighting Diego Sanchez – a fighter who has to be finished in order to erase the threat. Since no one has ever knocked him out or managed to submit him, Ellenberger had to know Sanchez was coming out full blast in the third. Despite Sanchez having his back, Ellenberger managed to escape in the final moments and the fight ended in a flurry of fisticuffs. When the decision was announced, Ellenberger had his hand raised and took his place as an official contender in the welterweight division.

Diego Sanchez: In my humble opinion, never has there been a fighter who walks to the beat of his own drum more than Diego Sanchez. It doesn’t matter what people think about his outspoken stance on his religious beliefs, or his penchant for grunting and throwing out “YUSS!!!” cartwheels, the man is a fighter through and through. Since winning the inaugural season of “The Ultimate Fighter,” Sanchez has consistently put on exciting performances and last night’s fight against Ellenberger is another notch on that belt. While Sanchez may not have walked out of Omaha with the victory, several things impressed me about the Albuquerque, N.M. native.

For starters, there is absolutely zero quit in him. With the current rate of the UFC schedule we see a ton of fights – and there are plenty of examples of fighters losing the first two rounds, becoming frustrated and allowing the trend to continue into the final frame. They ultimately walk away with the unanimous decision loss and an “it just wasn’t my night” quotable attached to the post-fight interview. This is not the case with Sanchez. After being beaten up in the first, and mauled on the ground at the end of the second, Diego came out guns ablaze in the final frame. He hadn’t found much success anywhere in the first 10 minutes, but this didn’t stop him for going for broke and doing all he could to win the fight. His willingness to go all out will always make him dangerous, and as Ellenberger discovered last night, there is no such thing as playing it safe when fighting him. Win, lose or draw, it’s full-tilt Sanchez, and in my humble opinion, when his career comes to an end he will be known as one of the most exciting fighters in MMA history.

Stefan Struve: After a period of time, the prospect label either wears off or gets erased in MMA. And last night was that moment of reckoning for Struve. While he has looked impressive in several outings, he’s also been brutally KOd in a seemingly equal fashion. The UFC has always touted him as a fighter who has the potential to become a force in the heavyweight division and with the pressure on, Struve delivered. After a slow start where Dave Herman was able to put his hands all over the Dutch skyscraper, Struve found a groove in the second round. He has been vocal about working diligently on both his strength and striking and last night dividends were paid as he was able to finish a tough opponent in Herman. What stood out to me wasn’t only that he was able to put Herman away, but the crisp combination he used to put Herman on the canvas. For a fighter who has always been somewhat rigid, Struve used a stiff jab, leg-kick, uppercut combination to sit Herman down where he finished the fight with a full-mount ground-and-pound assault.

At the post-fight press conference, Stuve seemed down on himself and even apologized to Dana White for his performance. Following the presser, White informed the media he believed Stuve had nothing to apologize for. He won his fight with a solid stoppage and the action remained consistent throughout. The lingering issue with Struve, and an area he knows he has to improve on, is using his distance correctly. The first round saw him come out flat footed, and he allowed Herman to get deep inside the pocket several times without making him pay for it. Struve spoke at the press conference about feeling jetlagged and not getting the proper amount of rest, and while these things very much could have been major factors, the inability to use his distance correctly in the first had to be a factor he was self-critical about. The biggest positive for Struve remains that he did score a TKO against an opponent known for his toughness, and bigger and better things will be on the horizon for the soon to be 24-year-old Dutchman.

T.J. Dillashaw: After getting put down by John Dodson in the TUF 14 Finale, the hot lamps were on the Team Alpha Male fighter to come out and perform in Omaha. Facing a game and lengthy opponent like Walel Watson is no easy task, but Dillashaw made it appear to be exactly the case. While he didn’t stray from his wrestling base, Dillashaw was able to get underneath Watson, put him on his back and keep him there. The takedowns were strong, the slams were powerful and he was able to score with solid ground and pound while avoiding Watson’s submission game. Dillashaw moved from Watson’s back to full mount throughout the fight, and despite not being able to finish the bout, it was a strong performance. Teammates Urijah Faber and Joseph Benavidez have proclaimed Dillashaw to be a future star at 135 pounds, and his performance against Watson was a step in the right direction.

Stipe Miocic: Going back to the previous statement about prospects, Miocic is currently wearing the label. Although early in his career, he has ended all but one of his eight fights – with the lone decision coming against human zombie Joey Beltran. Wednesday night, he put Philip De Fries out in the first, earning him a Knockout of the Night bonus and a bit of a buzz in the MMA world. The only check on Miocic’s performance came in the early going, when he ate a few shots from De Fries. Other than that, it was flawless. “I need to keep my hands up,” Miocic joked at the post-fight presser, and if he’s going to face some of the tougher competition in the UFC heavyweight division he will have to do exactly that if he hopes to continue his climb.

In the final wrapup of the night’s card, Jonathan Brookins bounced back from his loss to Erik Koch with a knockout over Vagner Rocha and John Albert and Ivan Menjivar battled like wild cats. Despite a wacky moment where the referee appeared to be attempting to call timeout due to an illegal knee thrown by Albert while Menjivar’s knee was down, the savvy Canadian went from being in a load of trouble to winning with a rear naked choke. Last but not least, I think Tim Means should change his nickname to Tim Means “Business,” as he took the scrap to Bernardo Magalhaes and made a strong debut.

An interesting aside occurred at the open workouts, when Diego Sanchez’s training partner asked me if I knew what the name of the large building in the center of the downtown area was called. In jest, I said, “They call that the big building.” The very next day, after I finished up an interview with Johny Hendricks outside of the hotel, curiosity about the building got the best of me and I decided to ask a local passing by what the building’s name was. Much to my surprise, he told me they call it the “big building downtown.” I was only one word off, and I leave the city feeling somehow good about this.

All in all, Omaha was an excellent experience. Great people, good food and the atmosphere in the arena when Jake Ellenberger walked out registered as unforgettable to this humble writer type. I’m also pleased that Team Hurricane Awesome and the newly assembled Team Thunderstorm Badass were able to agree on a peace treaty. While said treaty is shaky at best, hopefully we will be able to continue to exist harmoniously without having to go to Tijuana to settle this dispute.

Peace out Omaha.



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