Five straight wins have thrust Jake Ellenberger into contention at 170 pounds. | Photo: Sherdog.com
It might be time to dub February “Welterweight Month.” Only a week and a half after the Ultimate Fighting Championship brought us Carlos Condit-Nick Diaz and Josh Koscheck-Mike Pierce at UFC 143, the promotion returns with another pivotal 170-pound encounter, as Jake Ellenberger meets Diego Sanchez in the UFC on Fuel TV 1 main event.
Ever since injury woes hit Georges St. Pierre and Johny Hendricks hit perennial No. 1 contender Jon Fitch, the division has a sort of Wild West feel to it. With Condit now the interim champion, a whole crop of hungry welterweights below him believe now is the time to climb the mountain. Included in that group is Ellenberger, who stopped the durable Jake Shields in September and is one of two men -- along with Diaz -- to go the distance against the “Natural Born Killer” in defeat. Meanwhile, Sanchez is gradually building his resume since a stint at lightweight; a win over the hard-hitting Nebraskan would be his third straight triumph at 170 pounds.
Going down Wednesday from the Omaha Civic Auditorium in Omaha, Neb., the card also features a heavyweight clash between Dave Herman and Stefan Struve, as well as three other main draw bouts, proving that Fuel TV is not just a landing spot for prelims anymore. Here is a closer look at UFC on Fuel TV “Ellenberger vs. Sanchez,” with analysis and picks.
Sherdog Fantasy MMA: UFC on Fuel TV “Ellenberger vs. Sanchez” Free Fan Pick’Em
Jake Ellenberger (26-5, 5-1 UFC) vs. Diego Sanchez (23-4, 12-4 UFC)
The Matchup: Ellenberger is part of the new breed of 170-pound talent that is beginning to find a foothold in the UFC’s welterweight division. The 25-year-old Omaha, Neb., native put himself on the cusp of title contention with his first-round technical knockout victory over Shields at UFC Fight Night 25. Making the win all the more impressive was the fact that Ellenberger was the first person to finish Shields since 2000.
After a brief run at lightweight that included a crack at UFC gold against B.J. Penn in 2009, Sanchez has established plenty of momentum in his return to 170 pounds. Back-to-back wins over Paulo Thiago and Martin Kampmann have “The Dream” looking toward a title shot of his own. A broken hand kept “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 1 winner from facing Matt Hughes at UFC 135, but a win over Ellenberger would likely move him closer to his main goal than a win over Hughes would have. Sanchez’s most reliable assets are his heart and tenacity, as he demonstrated in rebounding from a lopsided beating in the first round of his bout with Kampmann, getting the nod from the judges in the second and third frames.
Sanchez has great stamina, and his ability to set a relentless pace keeps him alive in fights where he might initially appear to be outgunned.
The Jackson’s Mixed Martial Arts product is at his best when scoring takedowns and working his dedicated ground-and-pound. Kampann, who is not known for his wrestling, stuffed 14 Sanchez takedowns in their meeting in March, however, and the physical Ellenberger figures to be even more difficult to wrestle to the mat. Sanchez often relies on bullying and brute strength to impose his will, but as his vacillations between welterweight and lightweight suggest, this tactic does not always work against physically stronger opponents. That is why Sanchez's work rate is key here -- he must constantly pressure Ellenberger with his standup while getting the upper hand in any transitions and scrambles that might ensue on the ground.
Ellenberger has the cardio to weather the inevitable onslaught from Sanchez, and his standup is both powerful and technical. Despite his wrestling background, Ellenberger goes all-in on his punches, which gives him the ability to shift the momentum of a bout with one well-timed blow. His counter left hook that knocked out Sean Pierson at UFC 129 is a perfect example of that power. Sanchez, while normally effective in the clinch, will have to be cautious when pursuing tie-ups against Ellenberger, who showed a dangerous Thai plum in dispatching Shields.
While Sanchez will constantly look to push the pace, expect Ellenberger to be patient. He can sprawl to keep the fight upright and attack with counter punches should Sanchez drop his hands. Sanchez is notoriously durable and is able to recover quickly when rocked. He can take tremendous punishment and still be moving forward in a fight's later stages.
Ellenberger has not faced anyone with the gas tank of Sanchez -- if he tires late, the New Mexico native will be ready to capitalize and potentially steal a round on activity alone. If the fight is close, that could make all the difference.
The Pick: Ellenberger rocks Sanchez early, but “The Ultimate Fighter 1” winner will survive as he usually does. Sanchez’s best chance at victory lies with scoring multiple takedowns, but Ellenberger has the physical tools to stifle his opponent’s wrestling. Sanchez will display plenty of heart in staging a late rally, but it will not be enough as Ellenberger wins a hard-fought decision in front of the home folks.
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