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Bryan Barberena plans to retire his second Ellenberger brother at UFC Lincoln

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UFC Fight Night: Northcutt v Barberena
Bryan Barberena faces Jake Ellenberger at UFC Lincoln.
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If ever one wanted an example of the sick sense of humor the fight game carries, they’d need to look no farther than UFC Lincoln and the curious case of Bryan Barberena.

It was nearly four years ago when Barberena debuted in the UFC as a sizable betting underdog to a man many considered to be a top prospect in the 155-pound division. Just as he’s done his whole life, Barberena beat the odds and announced his arrival to the MMA stage with a thunderous third-round upset at UFC on FOX 13, picking up the first of what became several eventual upsets over foes touted as The Next Big Thing.

The top prospect Barberena toppled that fateful night? His name was Joe Ellenberger, and just outside the cage sat Joe’s twin brother and cornerman, Jake.

At the time, Jake was a bonafide killer, a welterweight contender with grenades in his hands who was riding a streak of tough losses but still very much in the conversation of the 170-pound elite. Joe’s time in the sport, however, was through. His loss to Barberena wound up being his last. He never again stepped foot inside the UFC’s Octagon and effectively retired from MMA at the age of 29.

Flash forward to the present day and the Ellenberger brothers’ run of bad luck never really stopped. The three-fight slump Jake was struggling through at UFC on FOX 13 ballooned into a nightmarish 2-8 slide that now has Jake flipping through the pages of what appear to be the final chapters of his Octagon career. Of the eight losses he’s suffered over his last 10 fights, Jake has been stopped six times, including five knockouts. The last three of those knockouts have come consecutively and played out in varying degrees of brutal fashion.

So we arrive back to the sick sense of humor the fight game seems to relish in. Of course it is Barberena who is set to meet Jake Ellenberger at his ultimate crossroads on Aug. 25 at UFC Lincoln. Of course it is Barberena who, nearly four years after retiring his first Ellenberger twin, has a very legitimate chance to lay waste to the family all over again. The comedic stylings of the combat sports gods are often otherworldly cruel, but Barberena still has a job to do. He can’t let emotion get in the way of an opportunity there for the taking.

“I have no hard feelings about the brothers, honestly,” Barberena says with a laugh ahead of UFC Lincoln. “I’ve talked to Joe many times since the fight at other fight shows when I’ve seen him with Jake, or just seen him in general and talked to him and caught up and kinda seen how everyone is doing and everything. It just so happens I’m fighting the brothers.

“[Jake] has helped paved the way for a lot of fighters and he’s been in the UFC for a long time. He’s done great things for this sport, as far as helping us, putting on great fights and stuff like that. But this is his last fight. Like, this is it for him. I’m going to put him away, and then he can go pursue other things other than MMA, and I’m sure he’ll do great in everything else he does. But this is going to be his last one, and it’s my turn to step up.”

Barberena understands how cold-hearted the whims of the game can be because he just woke up from a nightmare of his own. The 29-year-old MMA Lab product hasn’t be able to compete for nearly a year because of complications he suffered as a result of a foot injury in his Sept. 2017 loss to welterweight contender Leon Edwards. Simply describing his injury woes as a long layoff doesn’t quite do them justice though. For much of that time, Barberena couldn’t even walk. His weight ballooned upwards and he admits there were days when he fell into a deep malaise over the state of his career.

“I broke my foot, and there’s tendon that runs all the way up your leg that’s attached to the end of the bone that I broke, and that piece was broken and kinda floating in there with the tendon,” Barberena says. “When they went in to do surgery, they were originally going to save the bone, but they couldn’t — it was too mangled — so they had to reattach the tendon to my foot. Then that tendon also had a bunch of tears in it, and it ended up being worse than what they thought it was going to be. So, it took me out way longer [than I expected].

“Right after the surgery, honestly, I don’t know, I just had it in my head like I want to come back right away, and I was hitting up (UFC matchmaker) Sean (Shelby) and telling him, asking him for fights and everything. Then it just turned out I couldn’t even step on my foot for six months. The doctor kinda broke the news, like, ‘Hey, you’re not going to be able to walk for so long.’ I was like, oh... well, damn. So I had to put everything on hold.”

Barberena is confident the worst is now behind him. He’s been back in the gym for roughly three or four months and says he feels even better than he did before the Edwards fight. The time off has done him well. Now he’s ready to continue upsetting the apple cart at 170 pounds, just as he’s done since his 2016 move back to the welterweight division began with a pair of massive stunners over Sage Northcutt and Warlley Alves, both of whom were considered genuine blue-chip prospects at the time of Barberena’s victories.

In fact, Barberena’s résumé at 170 pounds is sneakily good. His only two losses at the weight class have come to two names who at the time may not have been esteemed, but since have proven themselves as legitimate title contenders in the welterweight shark tank: Edwards and interim champion Colby Covington.

“I absolutely feel like I’m overlooked, and I feel like I’ve always been overlooked in everything,” Barberena says. “People just look at me and they’ll think, ‘Oh, that guy has no athletic ability or anything, or can’t do anything,’ but then they get in there with me and they’re like, ‘Holy shit, this guy is the real deal and he’s going to take my head off.’ So I definitely feel like I’m underestimated a lot and probably the darkhorse of the division, and I’m looking to come out in the light.”

In a way, UFC Lincoln marks a rebirth of sorts for the man they call “Bam Bam.”

After starting his Octagon run with a resounding win over one Ellenberger twin, Barberena is set to restart his path against the other. Another thunderous performance and Barberena very could become public enemy No. 1 in the Ellenberger household. But that’s simply the stark reality of the fight game — for every winner, there’s also a loser, and Barberena is confident Jake’s time is about to reach its end.

“This fight, honestly, I think he’s going to come out harder than he has and better than he has for any of those past eight fights,” Barberena said. “Like, I think this is the best he’s going to be. It’s in his hometown, he’s going to have all his fans, his family there, he’s probably training his ass off to win his last fight. And I’m going to be ready. I’m going to be ready to put him away and it’s just not going to be enough, he’s just not going to have enough.

“Whether it’s the first or the second or the third, whatever, he’s getting knocked out. That’s just how this fight ends. And he still packs a lot of power in that right hand, and I’m sure he’s going to try to wrestle me because, I mean, even Leon Edwards, he’s a Dutch kickboxing champion or whatever and he didn’t want to stand with me, he’s shooting for takedowns the whole time, so I expect Jake to throw a little bit, but I expect once I tag him up, he’s going to start shooting for takedowns, so I think I’m going to put him away.

“One-hundred percent, I’m going to put him away.”