SAN ANTONIO — Yancy Medeiros. Vagner Rocha. Frank Trevino. Johnny Case. Bryan Berberena.
No, that isn’t the new starting five of Phil Jackson’s New York Knicks. Each one of those names was supposed to be Joe Ellenberger’s first opponent in the UFC. For various reasons, mostly injuries, all of them withdrew. Rocha even got hurt when both he and Ellenberger were already in Baltimore for UFC 172.
So you’ll have to pardon Ellenberger if he wasn’t completely enthusiastic this week in San Antonio ahead of UFC Fight Night on Saturday (FOX Sports 1, 10 p.m.). The UFC found James Moontasri as a short-notice opponent, but it took Ellenberger to finally step on the scale Friday at weigh-ins to actually feel like he might be fighting soon.
"It was hard to get excited the last couple of weeks with all the changes," Ellenberger told FOX Sports.
You wouldn’t blame Ellenberger for thinking that his first UFC fight would never happen. He was initially set to sign with the organization all the way back in 2009 when he was diagnosed with a rare blood disorder called paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria (PNH). Some cases are life threatening and Ellenberger’s wasn’t. But it was enough to make him put MMA aside for almost two years.
I think you gain a lot of perspective in life and a lot of wisdom, the older you get, the more experience, the more adversity you have to overcome. We’re not strangers to adversity. Nothing at this point surprises me.
Ellenberger, 29, is still battling the disease today. There’s no true cure. He does have it in check enough for doctors to clear him for competition, though. Maybe having five opponents drop out isn’t so bad when there was a time when you thought you might never fight again — or worse.
"I think you gain a lot of perspective in life and a lot of wisdom, the older you get, the more experience, the more adversity you have to overcome," Ellenberger said. "We’re not strangers to adversity. Nothing at this point surprises me."
Ellenberger (14-1) said his twin brother Jake, a top UFC welterweight contender, is probably more nervous for his UFC debut than he is.
"He thinks I should have been here a long time ago," Ellenberger said.
Maybe he should have, and a long time ago doesn’t mean April in Baltimore. It means 2009. Who knows what would have happened if Ellenberger never got PNH? He could be a top lightweight in the world right now.
But he’s really not dwelling on it. And those five names that he was supposed to fight are water under the bridge. Ellenberger’s boxing coach freaked out because Barberena was a southpaw, while the previous four opponents were all right-handed. Ellenberger laughed it off.
"It’s not that big of a deal," he said.
This first UFC fight is, though. It’s what he has been dreaming about for more than five years. It’s what fueled him when he was fighting PNH.
So if Moontasri slips on his soap in the shower Friday night and has to pull out of the bout, Ellenberger will be fine waiting. He already has this long.
"I always try not to focus on the negative aspects of it," Ellenberger said. "The longer they give me to prepare, the better I’ll be."