Jake Ellenberger did his part. He beat Diego Sanchez, and he kept his name in the conversation.
Ellenberger withstood a late surge from the Jackson’s Mixed Martial Arts export and rode a strong first two rounds to a unanimous decision over Sanchez in the UFC on Fuel “Ellenberger vs. Sanchez” headliner on Wednesday at the Omaha Civic Auditorium in Omaha, Neb. The 26-year-old Nebraskan has rattled off six consecutive victories since his split decision defeat to current interim welterweight champion Carlos Condit in 2009.
A rapidly intensifying force at 170 pounds, Ellenberger’s immediate fate seems tied to the health and recovery of Georges St. Pierre, the longtime welterweight king who underwent reconstructive knee surgery in December. Should St. Pierre’s rehabilitation go according to plan, he figures to face Condit in a unification bout later this year. If not, then Ellenberger becomes the viable alternative.
Let us assume St. Pierre recovers as expected and moves forward with his showdown against Condit. That leaves Ellenberger without a satisfactory adversary, though plenty of viable options are available. Pairing him with the winner of the Martin Kampmann-Thiago Alves main event at UFC on FX 2 in March makes plenty of sense, as it would supply “The Juggernaut” with either a perennial Top 10 foe in Kampmann or a resurgent former title contender in Alves.
Cardio remains the only real question mark surrounding Ellenberger, and it surfaced again late in his encounter with Sanchez. No matter which route the UFC elects to go with him, it should come attached to a five-round fight.
Here are six other matchups we want to see made in wake of UFC on Fuel TV 1:
Stefan Struve vs. Mike Russow: Struve has become a consummate finish-or-be-finished heavyweight, as only one of his 10 UFC bouts has brought the judges into play. His height, reach and advanced submission game have made him a stern challenge of middle-tier big men, and, as he showed in his second-round technical knockout against the talented but enigmatic Dave Herman, he can summon deceptive punching power when necessary. Russow has won 11 fights in a row, four of them in the UFC. He was willing to oblige 2003 Abu Dhabi Combat Club Submission Wrestling World Championships gold medalist John Olav Einemo with an extended ground battle at UFC on Fox 2 and figures to do the same in a hypothetical bout with the 6-foot-11 Struve.
Diego Sanchez vs. Mike Pierce: If Sanchez had been given five rounds with which to work against Ellenberger, his fate might have been different. He had the Nebraskan in real danger in the third round, as he took his back during a scramble and threatened with ground-and-pound and rear-naked chokes. Ellenberger survived, but one can only speculate as to what drama rounds four and five could have held. The defeat did nothing to diminish Sanchez’s place as a viable part of the 170-pound division, with his unlimited gas tank, relentless resilience and heavy top game. Pierce lost a hotly contested split decision to Josh Koscheck at UFC 143 and undoubtedly wants another crack at big name. Sanchez fits the mold.
T.J. Dillashaw vs. Ivan Menjivar: In his first appearance since his failed bid to win Season 14 of “The Ultimate Fighter,” Dillashaw dominated the game but overmatched Walel Watson, outlanding him according to FightMetric figures by a staggering 154-19 count in total strikes.
He may only have half a dozen professional fights under his belt, but Dillashaw, like many of his Team Alpha Male stablemates, wields a polished all-around game, complete with superb athletic ability. He has emerged as an intriguing prospect at 135 pounds. On the other side of the experience spectrum sits Menjivar, a supremely entertaining 29-year-old El Salvador native. He weathered John Albert’s early onslaught in an immediate “Round of the Year” contender, submitting the Dennis Hallman protégé with a rear-naked choke. Could the stars now align for a Dillashaw-Menjivar duel?
Stipe Miocic vs. Gabriel Gonzaga: So far, Miocic has lived up to the hype. The undefeated 29-year-old weathered a few thudding right hands from Philip De Fries and put away the Englishman in 43 seconds, as he returned fire and buried him under a volley of straight rights of his own. Prospect tend to move quickly in a division void of quality depth, so Miocic could soon find himself in bouts with real meaning. After all, Golden Gloves champions with college wrestling pedigrees do not come along every day, especially as heavyweights. Gonzaga, a former UFC title contender, made a triumphant return to the Octagon with a first-round submission against Ednaldo Oliveira at UFC 142 and would provide a worthy test for Miocic as he looks to continue his climb.
Ronny Markes vs. Constantinos Philippou-Court McGee winner: At 23, Markes has nowhere to go but up, with youth, talent and drive on his side. The once-beaten Brazilian extended his winning streak to six fights and cemented his spot on the UFC roster with a hard-fought split decision victory over Aaron Simpson, a decorated amateur wrestler with a powerful right hand. The UFC needs to cultivate its young middleweights, as the division stands to lose its centerpiece, longtime champion and pound-for-pound great Anderson Silva, sometime in the next few years. In that spirit, Markes should be brought along at a pace he can absorb. Philippou and “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 11 winner McGee will tangle at UFC on FX 2 next month. Throw Markes the winner.
Jonathan Brookins vs. Jim Hettes: Brookins pieced together a brief but flawless performance against Vagner Rocha, as he stuffed a takedown attempt from the Brazilian jiu-jitsu ace, moved into a dominant position and scored a brutal knockout with a series of violent ground strikes. It lasted just 92 seconds. Hettes was equally impressive in his last outing, as he captured a one-sided unanimous decision from Nam Phan at UFC 141 in December. With the two featherweights at relatively similar stages of their development, perhaps the time to pit them against one another has arrived.