These are consequential times for UFC welterweight Jake Ellenberger. He's likely one fight - two at most - away from a title shot. He's also coming off a winning performance against veteran Diego Sanchez at UFC on Fuel. Without equivocation, Ellenberger is gearing up for the most important bouts of his career.
The Nebraska native, though, doesn't feel like an experienced fighter. He's learned lessons, yes, but as the challenges increase, so does the recognition of the limits of self: am I ready? Do I have the skills for the next challenge? Do I have what it takes?
"I'm learning each fight," Ellenberger told the SiriusXM Fight Club on Thursday. "I feel like I've almost been fighting for seven years, but I feel like I just started."
"I keep learning more about myself each fight and I keep wanting to get better," Ellenberger admitted. "I'm still growing and I'm still hungry and excited."
He'll need to be as much for the next chapter of his career. The UFC announced this week Ellenberger would face Martin Kampmann - a fighter with a renowned capacity for capitalizing on opponent's mistakes - in a five-round main event at The Ultimate Fighter Live Finale.
After Kampmann's thrilling comeback victory over Thiago Alves at UFC on FX 2, Ellenberger knows any impurities to his game could cost him. "You can't count him out. You can't make mistakes," Ellenberger readily acknowledged. "You gotta fight smart and like I said, he's always in there. He's always dangerous, so I gotta keep that in mind for sure."
Unlike his bout with Sanchez, Ellenberger could be forced to go two extra rounds against Kampmann. The high school diver turned fighter is adamant it's a challenge he'll be ready for against Kampmann. It's also one he believes he was capable of handling against Sanchez, despite some critics suggesting otherwise.
"Yeah for sure I'm definitely in the best shape I've been for this fight," Ellenberger said. "I know if we had to go four or five rounds I could."
"People like to talk about 'Oh, I know you were getting tired'", Ellenberger noted in response to post-Sanchez fight criticism. "Yeah, sure I was but you know what? You can do a lot more than you think you can. At the same time, he was just as tired as I was. If we would had to go five rounds I know we could have. It would have been exciting for sure."
The opportunity to prove he can go the distance with Kampmann will come. For the time being, Ellenberger is content to keep getting better and perhaps most importantly, leverage the invaluable perspective he's gained watching his twin brother Joe Ellenberger cope with a blood illness (paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria or PNH) that not only affects every day of their life, but also once nearly took his life.
Although a prize fighter perhaps on the most important climb of his career, what 'lights a fire' under Ellenberger these days isn't just the allure of titles or money or fame.
"It sucks, things like that in life you can't help," Ellenberger lamented. "That kind of makes you realize a lot of things that aren't important in life and a lot fewer things that are and I really started taking things a lot more seriously; training, my career, where I'm going, what I'm doing, why am I doing this, why am I fighting. You ask yourself these questions every day."
"I've watching him compete in the sport of wrestling before I ever even got into any sports at all or martial arts. And I just watched him compete and having that passion to compete, it's someone cool to watch. He really inspired me. He kind of pushed me into competition. He's a big reason why I'm even in the sport, so it's hard to deal with with all the stuff he's going through, but it motivates me to work harder and it really lights a fire for me."
Now that his brother is able to live a mostly normal life with a new medicinal regimen, he's back on the competitive MMA regional circuit. In fact, Jake believes Joe isn't far away from joining him in the UFC ranks.
"We're hoping in the next six months. He's got a whole new focus in training and he's helped me out quite a bit in my last few fights. He'll probably fight maybe once or twice before we get back in there, but he's hoping in the next six months to get back in the UFC."
Jake believes his brother is more than ready for the next level. "He's 13 and 1, " Ellenberger said. "He lost to a guy that he's better than, he's definitely more skilled than."
"It's for sure frustrating. I see there's a lot of a guys in the UFC that don't deserve to be there. That's my opinion, but he's still working."
Whether or not the six month timeline for his brother is realistic or not, Ellenberger is content for the time being for the two brothers to keep their heads down and press forward. Sooner or later, he believes, they'll get to where they want to be.
"We can only control what we can control and he's refocused and we'll get there," Ellenberger affirmed.
"I know we will."