SAN ANTONIO — No, it wasn’t the UFC debut of his dreams. But Joe Ellenberger will take it after a long road to get here.
Ellenberger defeated a very game James Moontasri by split decision (29-28, 28-29, 29-28) at UFC Fight Night on Saturday at AT&T Center. The scorecards were somewhat controversial and Ellenberger clearly lost the first round, where he was almost finished.
"I was a little off," Ellenberger told Jon Anik afterward.
Moontasri was Ellenberger’s sixth potential opponent. The five previous pulled out due to injury. Ellenberger, the brother of UFC welterweight contender Jake, was initially supposed to fight at UFC 172 in April, but Vagner Rocha got hurt during fight week in Baltimore.
It has been a difficult path for Ellenberger (15-1) otherwise, too. The Omaha native was supposed to sign with the UFC in 2009 when he was diagnosed with paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria (PNH), a rare blood disorder that can be fatal. Ellenberger’s case was not life-threatening, but he did have to stop competing and training in MMA for two years.
After treatment and being cleared by doctors (PNH is not curable), Ellenberger went 4-1 on the independent circuit and finally got his call earler this year. Moontasri, also making his UFC debut, showed off strong striking skills and almost played spoiler with a right hook in the first round that put Ellenberger on his back.
Moontasri (7-2) dominated the entire first round and the cageside doctor had to check Ellenberger in between rounds for a concussion. After being allowed to continue, Ellenberger scored a takedown and returned the favor, dominating Moontasri for much of the second.
Both athletes were tired and clearly wobbled in a slow-moving third round. It appeared Moontasri did a little more — he finished the round in top position — but two judges gave Ellenberger the nod in a Fight of the Night contender.
Moontasri was visibly emotional after the decision was announced, clearly thinking he had won. Ellenberger was just soaking it all in.
"Listen to this," he said of the crowd. "This is awesome."