Tobin Dorn for Sherdog.com
Just four months ago, the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s welterweight division was suffering from a case of top contender blues.
Jake Ellenberger’s knockout against Jake Shields at UFC Fight Night 25 on Saturday puts him and the promotion in great position. We have already explored the New School-Old School cleave in the division, and Ellenberger’s performance opens up fresh possibilities while dynamiting away some of those promotional cul-de-sacs.
The UFC can now sit back, assess the winner of the Oct. 29 Nick Diaz-B.J. Penn clash and decide whether or not that victor should get the next title shot before Ellenberger. Consider how dreadful the welterweight list of challengers seemed in April, when champion Georges St. Pierre put together a one-sided yet anticlimactic decision over Shields. Essentially, the UFC will be two-deep in marketable challengers after Carlos Condit battles GSP at UFC 137; it is not quite the ultra-deep lightweight ranks, but it has improved considerably.
After his five-round snoozer over Shields, St. Pierre, in registering his fourth consecutive decision win, had faced a crop of top challengers in Jon Fitch, Josh Koscheck, B.J. Penn and the just-defeated Shields. Rankings wise, it would have been hard to make a case for anyone else at that time belonging in the Top 4. The problem was St. Pierre had gone 6-0 in fights against those fighters, and the marketing prospects for rematches against them was somewhere between negligible and none.
It is entirely understandable to allow one’s self to be drawn into prefight hype and the slickly produced UFC “Countdown” shows, even when the patina of an overhyped challenger sell is glaringly obvious. We afford ourselves the suspension of disbelief that the challenger will, indeed, give the fight of his life, even though hardcore fans can debunk the hype GSP’s foes receive. I cannot tell you how many times I have watched a Countdown show and heard this thin ice that passes as incontrovertible truth, often uttered by the ever-complimentary champion himself: “He’s the best wrestler I’ve ever faced” or “the toughest guy I have ever fought,” while thinking, “He must have a half-dozen ‘Zuffa Employee of the Month’ plaques on his wall for saying that with a straight face.”
Then the fight happens, the disconnect between hype and reality is made eminently clear and GSP dominates another contender who does not come remotely close to fulfilling the threats he allegedly represented. Secretariat blowing away the rest of the field at the Belmont Stakes was a fantastic event, precisely because it happened once, not every four months.
St. Pierre is that good, but at the end of the day, he needs a challenger willing to go out on his shield if he is going to get maximum credit for the second-best title run in UFC history. A consistently filled silent agreement between an outmatched contender willing to cede trying to win and a champion content to dominate and win by decision is a lousy long-term prescription for everyone involved, and I am of the firm belief that St. Pierre is not moving to middleweight anytime soon.
With the emergence of Condit and Ellenberger, GSP has some fresh challenges ahead, and, more importantly, compared to the Old School group, they may have the kind of fighting style most likely to give him a stiff test. Condit and Ellenberger look to destroy opponents, and the guess here is that if the champion is unseated, it will be by an aggressive challenger who knows better than to come in thinking he can win on points. I am not sure GSP will ever lose by decision at welterweight, at least not while he is in his prime. We will watch these Countdown specials actually believing they will go in there and try to take his head off.
The New School-Old School dynamic was also why Jon Fitch was recently matched with Johny Hendricks at UFC 141. Among the Old School cadre, Fitch presents the greatest combination of a guy who is tough to beat yet tough to market for a title fight as long as GSP rules the roost. Hendricks has the best combination of wrestling and punching power needed to cancel out Fitch’s grinding attack. Plus, even if Hendricks is bested by the far more experienced the American Kickboxing Academy ace, he, despite being 6-1 in the UFC, is not a big enough name to help Fitch make the case for a title shot, particularly if the bout unfolds as virtually anyone would reasonably expect: clinch, takedown attempt, sprawl, shower, rinse, repeat.
It is no accident that Fitch is being given Hendricks, and Ellenberger’s knockout of Shields was a promotional jackpot on two fronts; the Old School member has to be moved out of the way with the highest amount of risk for the veteran fighter and the lowest reward possible should he win. It is the only move, at this point, that makes promotional sense for the UFC. I cannot even imagine trying to put together a Countdown show of GSP against anyone in the Old School at this point, unless Penn beats Diaz inside the distance.
I picked Ellenberger over Shields for a couple reasons. He punches exceptionally well for a wrestler, which is not always a natural transition. Many wrestlers tend to go through the motions and do not commit fully on their shots, instead reverting to something between a pantomime of standup and the real thing. However, Ellenberger throws hands like a guy perfectly comfortable going blow-for-blow.
He is also tactically smart and picks his spots to explode with the confidence of a man who can finish a fight at any time. Openings in MMA can be fleeting, even invisible to the casual eye, but a fighter with a deep grasp of the transitions between the various phases of the game -- standup, clinching, ground work and submissions -- can seize upon them to brutal effect. Ellenberger did so in drilling Shields with a knee as the former Strikeforce champion tried to tie up with him. That may be exactly what he will need to defeat St. Pierre, but, fortunately for us, the ultra-aggressive Condit gets the first shot.
I would make Condit a 2-to-1 underdog against the likes of Fitch or Koscheck; their wrestling and takedowns make them wired to shut down and decision the explosive former WEC champion. However, Condit, who has recorded an incredible 26 of his 27 victories inside the distance, is a lot more likely to beat certain people because of his all-in approach.
As an added subplot, Condit only seems to get tougher when sucked into a dogfight. Whether it is rallying from the extensive trouble Hiromitsu Miura gave him or the thrilling third-round surge he put together to take out Rory MacDonald in a dramatic come-from-behind victory, Condit just fights harder the more one beats him up. Over five rounds against GSP, that is the recipe for a different kind of welterweight title defense altogether.
Fittingly, the only person Condit has beaten without a knockout or submission is Ellenberger, who lost a disputed decision to him in an outstanding scrap in 2009. If “The Natural Born Killer” cannot turn the trick against the champion and barring an epic struggle and victor in the Penn-Diaz bout, Ellenberger has earned the next crack at the title.
Jason Probst can be reached at Jason@jasonprobst.com or twitter.com/jasonprobst.