One week ago, it seemed like the direction of the welterweight division was set, with interim champ Carlos Condit and Nick Diaz headed for a rematch, and linear champ Georges St. Pierre likely to face the winner. But everything was thrown into chaos when Diaz flunked his post-UFC 143 drug test.
Out of disarray may come opportunity for the UFC on FUEL main event winner.
Jake Ellenberger (26-5) seemingly became an overnight success story when he knocked out Jake Shields last September, but he's quietly labored away in the MMA game for nearly seven years. A win over Diego Sanchez will certainly make the UFC consider him as the next challenger for Condit as long as Condit decides not to sit on the sidelines and wait for St. Pierre.
Ellenberger's success has been predicated on his crushing power and a fast-developing all-around game. Once primarily thought of as a wrestler, his standup skills have sharpened to the point where he's become comfortable standing up with anyone, and for long stretches of time.
Each of his last two knockouts have come from the standup, but exhibited his versatility. The Shields KO came during a clinch, with Ellenberger taking advantage of a momentary mistake by Shields to secure a Muay Thai plum and land a knee to the face.
Against Sean Pierson, Ellenberger scored the damaging blow from distance, stepping into a left hook that knocked Pierson unconscious.
His striking evolution has fueled his rise up the ladder of contenders. A former collegiate wrestler, Ellenberger always has those skills to fall back on, but adding the extra element into his game has made him much more difficult to prepare for. Besides that, he's not just raw power. The refinements he's made to his punches and kicks have added technical proficiencies that make him capable of out-striking many of the division's best.
At least from a statistical perspective, Ellenberger has the advantage on Sanchez in the standup department. According to FightMetric, Ellenberger lands at a higher rate (45 percent to 38 percent) and suffers far less punishment (he only absorbs 1.44 strikes per minute as opposed to Sanchez's 2.3). The only edge Sanchez holds is in sheer volume, as he throws far more strikes than Ellenberger during an average round.
Surprisingly, wrestling-wise, the numbers are even more lopsided. While Sanchez contends that wrestling is his base, he has struggled mightily in that department overall, completing just 22 percent of takedowns, and stopping only 49 percent of takedowns against him. Meanwhile, Ellenberger puts his target on his back 74 percent of the time while his opponents have only a 10 percent success rate against him.
Numbers don't tell the whole story of course, so it's worth pointing out that Sanchez (23-4) has faced better opposition during the course of his career. While Ellenberger's win over Shields marked his first top 10 opposition, Sanchez has had several such contests dating back years, from Josh Koscheck to Jon Fitch to BJ Penn and more.
That said, most of Sanchez's success comes from his unrelenting pace. When he's at his best, he's overwhelming an opponent with pressure and pace. That makes stamina one of his best weapons.
As we saw in his most recent fight, a close and controversial decision over Martin Kampmann, his activity can make the difference. In that fight, Sanchez was out-landed in total strikes 79-51 according to FightMetric, and landed only 1 of 15 takedown tries but somehow won. How did he do it? Unrelenting pressure. While Kampmann was busy firing off jabs that landed, Sanchez was throwing power shots with even greater frequency. And even though Kampmann out-landed Sanchez, right or wrong, the impression left on the judges was that Sanchez's hard punches did more than Kampmann's precision. Given the state of judging, that type of outcome is always a real concern.
One trend worth noting is that Sanchez has his most trouble with disciplined strikers that don't back down from his work rate. Kampmann knocked him down once. John Hathaway upset him with his precision. Penn used his fearless approach to school Sanchez on the finer points of striking in one of the all-time title fight maulings.
Ellenberger has that kind of presence. He shows no fear of pace or power, and given his wrestling background, he's not likely to be overwhelmed by Sanchez's pressure there. In fact, he's likely to be the better man in that department and is far more likely to be the one landing successful takedowns. Ellenberger's ground and pound is savage. Go back and re-watch some of his finishing sequences and it's easy to see that he built his attack from the ground up.
Sanchez's advantages in this fight can probably be boiled down to his jiu-jitsu as well as his scrambling abilities. But he hasn't finished an opponent with a choke or lock since 2004, and Ellenberger has only one tapout loss in his career. Sanchez also hasn't spent much time on his back during his UFC career. The last time he spent any considerable time in that position came against Jon Fitch in 2007 and that didn't end well for him. It's a scenario that's likely to materialize against Ellenberger.
One final note. Sanchez likes to fight in tight, swarming his foe in the process. There isn't any real transition into it. He just ducks his head and comes forward, sometimes behind a basic combination, but often behind nothing. That will amount to a suicide charge against Ellenberger's power. Sanchez's heart can never be discounted, but nearly everything else in the fight favors Ellenberger. This fight isn't particularly close, but it should be exciting while it lasts. Ellenberger by second-round TKO.