A key element of any fighter’s repertoire, confidence is one of the biggest factors in the success of welterweight contender Jake Ellenberger thus far. Fight-changing power and a solid ground and pound attack helps too, but without that steely stare that allows him to look through opponents and dare them to make him take a backward step from the imaginary line he’s drawn in the center of the Octagon, you get the impression that he wouldn’t be half the fighter he’s turned into.
It’s not a cockiness though; instead, Ellenberger has gone through enough over the course of his career and his life to realize that if he doesn’t seize the moments he is given, they may not ever be coming back again.
“I have a number of motivators in my life,” said the Nebraska native, who headlines this Saturday’s UFC Fight Night card in New Orleans against Jake Shields. “First of all, I love to compete. My twin brother Joe really got me into the sport and I started training and started winning and then I really developed a passion for it. But some of the things that have happened to me over the last couple years, like my brother being diagnosed with a bone marrow disorder, and things like that, I think those things really made me focus on what I’m trying to do and where I’m going in my life. It kinda just made a more clear picture. We’re not really guaranteed anything in this world, and I’m trying to spend all my time getting to that goal and getting that world title shot. It’s a passion and a fire inside that’s hard to explain.”
He doesn’t need to. It’s written on his face every time he fights. The first time UFC fans saw it was two years ago to the day, when he made his debut in the promotion against former WEC champion Carlos Condit. Already a standout on the local circuit who paid his dues before getting the call to the big show, Ellenberger immediately made an impression in a first round where he hurt Condit a number of times and sent him sprawling to the canvas. Many referees would have stopped the fight, but this time, the bout continued and the resilient Condit made it to the bell ending the round. Ellenberger should have been elated at his strong start, but he wasn’t.
“I remember exactly how I felt between rounds in that fight,” he said. “I was trying to finish him, and I was throwing everything I had. I was so tired and I don’t ever want to feel like that again in a fight. I did a pretty good job of disguising it, but I’ve never been so tired.”
Condit rebounded over the next two rounds to eke out a close split decision. It was a loss on Ellenberger’s record, but one that prompted him to take a new approach to the game.
“That really sparked a fire, and I don’t know where I’d be without that fight,” he said. “I went through that, I learned from it, and I don’t ever want that to happen again. I needed that to move forward.”
So he and Condit are now exchanging Christmas cards?
“I wouldn’t say that,” laughed Ellenberger. “There’s a good chance we will meet again.”
He’s right. Winner of four in a row, Ellenberger won’t get a shot at the only man to beat him in the UFC just yet, as Condit has his own business with welterweight champ Georges St-Pierre in October, but with a decision victory over Carlos Eduardo Rocha and stoppages of Mike Pyle, John Howard, and Sean Pierson, the 26-year old certainly earned the right to call out former world title challenger Shields, and that’s just what he did earlier this year. And it worked.
“I was surprised that with him coming off the fight with GSP that they matched us up, but I was pleasantly surprised and I was excited once I heard about it,” said Ellenberger. So what was it about Shields that made him go on the offensive to get the fight?
“It wasn’t so much his style,” he explains. “I just wasn’t sold that he was the top welterweight in the world. He’s extremely good at what he does, that’s for sure. But as far as an opponent for me, he’s a guy I’ve wanted to fight for some time now. And it’s crazy, but it’s a reality now and I’m honored to fight him.”
With his first UFC main event also comes the responsibility to promote it with more interviews and media appearances than ever before. That’s never a bad thing for an up and coming fighter, but when Shields’ father Jack passed away on August 29th, it added a new dimension to an already intriguing fight. Ellenberger admits that he, like many, thought Shields would pull out of the fight.
“I was expecting him to pull out, to be honest, but he’s clearly ready to go and that’s respectable for him to stay in and fight like that,” said Ellenberger. "It’s sad about his dad passing away. That’s completely separate from fighting, that’s personal, and I’ve been through a lot of similar situations and it’s tough, it really is. So I really feel bad for him and what he’s going through.”
Yet what makes fighters who they are is the ability to put such feelings aside for 15 minutes or less on fight night. Ellenberger must not feel emphatic toward Shields during the fight, and Shields can’t dwell on one of the toughest moments of his life with an opponent trying to knock him out. That’s what the fight game is all about.
“I think the hardest part is being able to turn the switch on and turn it back off,” said Ellenberger. “There are such big fights in the UFC and so many things are just gonna keep your heart rate high and your adrenalin going and it’s really being able to turn that switch off and get your mind occupied or do something else. I really haven’t had a hard time doing that, but once you get in there, I guess it’s the way I’ve always fought – when the switch is on, it’s time to work.”
And after more than six years as a pro, that work is starting to pay off for Jake Ellenberger. That means he has to step it up a notch, and that’s never been an issue for him, especially not now, as he sees Saturday night’s bout as the beginning of the next chapter of his career.
“I keep improving each fight, and I’ve always just been taking it one fight at a time, but I really feel that this is my time,” he said. “I’ve worked really hard to get where I’m at right now, and it’s really just the beginning of my career. I’m excited each day to get up and get better, and to make myself a better person. It’s humbling and an honor to be a main event for the UFC, and making a dream come true, it’s really fascinating to see. I think in the last two, three years, I really started taking it a lot more seriously, and it’s been a pretty emotional rollercoaster. A lot of good things have happened for sure, but instead of just fighting because I love to compete, I’m fighting for a purpose, and I know I have to dedicate my life one hundred percent if I want to be a world champ. So all I’ve been focusing on is getting to that goal.”
Jake Ellenberger - A Ready for Prime Time Player
“I keep improving each fight, and I’ve always just been taking it one fight at a time, but I really feel that this is my time.” - Jake Ellenberger