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Jake Ellenberger embracing do-or-die set-up for his return home

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Gallery Photo: UFC 158 Press Conference Photos Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

In keeping with the fight game’s warped sense of humor, Jake Ellenberger’s upcoming fight with Bryan Barberena checks a lot of boxes. Here is a longtime welterweight staple returning home to Nebraska on Aug. 25 for the first time in nearly six years, to face the very man that retired his twin brother, Joe, back in 2014. Perhaps that wouldn’t seem as twisted if Ellenberger himself — who has fought in the UFC since 2009 — weren’t battling for his roster spot, or trying to preserve the last glowing embers that made up “The Juggernaut.”

Ellenberger has gone just 2-8 since 2013. He has been finished in his last three fights, the last coming against Ben Saunders just two months ago in Utica. That fight, which he trained for over a prolonged period of time, has haunted him through the summer months. It isn’t so much the idea that this could be his last fight in the Octagon, because his last fight could have been the last and he knows it. It’s that he didn’t get to show that even at age 33 you can still teach dogs new tricks. Ellenberger truly believed he had added some wrinkles to his stand-up, and less than two minutes into the fight realized he wouldn’t have the chance to showcase a damn thing.

That’s why even if the UFC had cut him right then and there, Ellenberger says he would have been compelled to let his fists fly elsewhere.

“I was so ready,” he told MMA Fighting. “I was like, the UFC can let me go, I don’t care what happens, I’ll go fight somewhere. I’ll go fight for nothing, I’ll go fight in the smokers, I don’t care. For me, I’m so displeased with how things went [with Saunders], I was ready to fight anywhere.”

Luckily the UFC didn’t let Ellenberger go. Instead, with the first ever visit to Lincoln circled on the calendar, Ellenberger was given his wish to once again fight in the state he grew up in. It will mark the first time he has fought in Nebraska since 2012, when he beat Diego Sanchez in a Fight Night main event. And it’s a quick turnaround bout that he understands may look to the outside world like nothing more than a stay of execution.

In fact, having experienced the highs of at one point being a top five contender — back when he put together a five-fight winning streak between 2011-2012 — Ellenberger actually finds it somewhat exhilarating to find himself on the other end. The “do or die” cliché works a different set of motivational levers.

“It’s kind of what makes this sport great,” he says. “But as far where I’m at, I used to think of stuff like that. I used to think about it a year or two ago, but I don’t even think about it anymore. The reality is I could be done fighting tomorrow. They could have let me go a long time ago.”

Gallery Photo: UFC 173 Weigh-in Photos
Jake Ellenberger weighs in ahead of his his bout with Robbie Lawler at UFC 173 back in May 2014
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Ellenberger has been training at the Lab in Anaheim, California, while splitting some time at RVCA. He has been working on improving his stand-up behind closed doors, and says his boxing coach Jason Parillo is bringing the best out of him daily. As long as his coach believes in him, Ellenberger says, he has every reason to reward him faith.

“The hardest part for me was, all the progress and progression, literally all people see is either you get your hand raised or you didn’t,” he says. “It’s as black and white as that. If you’re not turning corners in sparring and training, then certainly you can’t even think of it happening in a fight. But we really had a lot of progress over the last five months, and that’s what was hard. Unfortunately no one sees that. My team and everyone around can see that, they’re like, ‘this is the best I’ve ever seen Jake.’ I’ve come so far over the last year. I’ve dealt with some losses from bad strategy, making bad decisions. But as far as my mentality, things have certainly progressed.”

Because his last fight ended in such quick fashion — Saunders landed a heavy knee to Ellenberger’s body, and put him away moments later with punches — Ellenberger did a quick reset. He didn’t dwell on what happened so much as what didn’t. The things that didn’t happen kept him up at night.

“There’s no reason to clear the white board,” he says. “We don’t need to change a lot, other than strategy, little things. I still love it, I still love training and I still love fighting. I’m still extremely competitive. And I know there will be a day when I wake up and I’m not going to have that kind of fire in my heart, but that day is not here. Even that last fight with Saunders showed me that. I’d wake up in the middle of the night and think, I’ve got to do something, I can’t sleep — I’ve got to go run.”

And here Ellenberger says the key for his camp with Barberena was to fall back into lockstep with what he was doing before the fight with Saunders, yet while nursing a rediscovered idea — that he still has the want in him to fight. That he still wants to prove himself, and get better, and — for God’s sake — get his arm raised again because all those elements came back together on fight night.

“People go through these ups and downs, and trust me, you feel everyone of them. They’re hard. But you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. The thing is, I’ve been fighting for 13 years. I know how to fight. I know how to get in shape, and I know how to fight. At the end of the day sometimes things don’t go your way, and strategy plays a huge role. For me, I got a little complacent in position and it cost me the fight.

“You know, you look at a guy like Saunders, I fight him 10 times I beat him nine times out of 10. It is what it is, but that one was a hard one to swallow. It kept me in the gym. I can’t leave. I can’t even think about exiting [the game] after something like that. I was telling my coach, I have a bigger chip on my shoulder than I’ve ever had in my career. I will put it all out there. I have nothing to lose.”

But back to the twisted set-up, the business of fighting the man who beat his brother Joe. It’s not just that Barberena won the fight and Jake was in his corner that night to see it, it’s that Jake has as wicked a sense of humor as the fight game itself. He loves that fate has dropped him in such crosshairs, and is well aware that Lincoln will be on his side. His father will be at the arena to see his son see it, and dozens of other friends and family. Everyone is there to see Jake avenge Joe, but more importantly, to see Jake shine like he used to.

“[Barberena] might think that he’s getting me at the end of my career, and you know what, think what you want,” Ellenberger says. “Sure, I’ve been beat. I don’t give a damn. I’ll die. Try me. Some guys, they don’t know. I’ve been in his shoes, I’ve been the up and coming guy. And I’ve been in the top five. That makes the story that much more meaningful.”

Barberena has of course kicked over music boxes before. It was him that derailed the Sage Northcutt hype train, and Ellenberger knows Barberena would have absolutely no problem spoiling a homecoming — nor of putting the punctuation marks on another Ellenberger’s UFC career.

“I know he’s a tough cat,” Ellenberger says. “He fought my brother, so there’s a little bit of history there. So I love that. It makes it even a little bit more of a story. I know he’s been out a little while, but I expect him to be at his best. There’s no easy fight. It’s you versus you. It’s always how can we bring the best out of yourself.”

With his back against the wall, that’s where Jake’s head is at.

“It’s been rough,” he says. “This sport’s crazy. It’s been an up and down couple of years. But going back home is huge.