During the last days of his UFC 173 training camp, Jake Ellenberger was hit by a small wave of nostalgia. Speaking with an old coach, the 29-year-old thought back nearly a decade, when he occasionally used to make the 300-mile drive from Omaha, Nebraska to Bettendorf, Iowa. A long ride made with an important purpose: to train with that coach, Pat Miletich, and what at that time was the preeminent team in the sport, Miletich Fighting Systems.
"There were so many studs in the gym at that time," he told FOX Sports. "It was a killer room."
Among those who called it home: Matt Hughes, who at the time was still wearing the UFC welterweight title belt; Tim Sylvia, then one of the best heavyweights in the world; Jens Pulver, Spencer Fisher.
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And then there was the other kid, the quiet southpaw who was already in the UFC, cast in the role of the next big thing.
Robbie Lawler was a prodigy, and from time to time, he was an Ellenberger training partner.
Fast forward to the present day, and much has changed. Ellenberger is based in California; Lawler trains with the Florida-based American Top Team. But all this time later, a lifetime in MMA years, really, Ellenberger and Lawler are more relevant than ever.
In the most recent UFC welterweight rankings, Lawler is listed as the No. 1 contender while Ellenberger is four slots behind at No. 5. Which means when they meet at UFC 173 on Saturday night, there will be very real implications to their respective careers. The guys who met all those years ago in Iowa now stand in each other’s path to the belt.
"It’s going to be hard not to have an exciting fight," he said. "There’s absolutely no way this couldn’t be an exciting fight. We’re both familiar with each other. There’s no secret to either guy’s skills. We’re two guys who are dangerous. He knows where I’m good and I definitely know where he’s good. It’s going to be who’s more disciplined in the later rounds, in my opinion."
There’s no ignoring the first part of his answer as it pertains to entertainment value. Coming off a three-round decision loss to Rory MacDonald in a bout that was roundly characterized as a stinker, Ellenberger can’t afford a similar outcome this time.
That’s mostly because tops among that fight’s critics was UFC president Dana White, who when asked his opinion simply said, "that fight sucked so bad."
No fighter wants to hear those words after a lengthy camp, but it seems mostly to be water under the bridge now. For one, Ellenberger has since signed a contract extension he was thrilled with. For another, White called himself to offer the Lawler fight, and was "extremely excited" to make the match, according to Ellenberger. That means there can be no disappointing the boss this time around.
"Dana is the most honest guy you’ll meet," he said. "It was a disappointing fight. We both got chewed out a little bit and that’s it. But he’s the first guy to tell you,’ Hey, don’t dwell on this. Move on, get back to training and refocus.’ As i expected, Dana’s all about it. He wants to see us succeed. After that night it’s over. Unfortunately, that’s what competing is. One guy wins, one loses, and we happen to be in the toughest sport in the world."
In my mind this is my world title fight right here. I have to succeed at this. Every fight is important but I haven’t looked an inch past this fight. This is it. This is my world title fight right here.
The 10 months between then and now have given Ellenberger a rare break, allowing him time to improve his health, focusing on postural strengthening and a nagging knee injury. It also offered him a new perspective on his career. While he continues to work with longtime team Reign and renowned coach Rafael Cordeiro, around the start of 2014, he joined forced with trainer Edmond Tarverdyan, who is most well known for his work with women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey.
Ellenberger characterizes Tarverdyan as a "brilliant mind."
"The difference that stands out between him and other coaches is his constant communication," he said. "In a sport where details are so important, you can’t communicate too much. That individual attention, that extra level of communication, that’s the biggest value to me. He understands distance, he understands so much about the striking game. We just clicked."
Whether or not the union works as a long-term arrangement, it certainly has some utility against Lawler, who makes no secret that his striking style is heavily influenced by boxers like Evander Holyfield. That fusion style is right up the alley of Tarverdyan, who teaches several standup arts.
Like Ellenberger, Lawler is known for throwing bombs.
The resulting matchup of Ellenberger and Lawler is one of power — both each have 18 career knockouts. Still, Ellenberger believes it’s not KO power but intelligence that will decide the outcome, which is why any little edge could make a difference. Those fine details that are a Tarverdyan trademark? One of them could provide the final piece of the puzzle.
The winner’s prize includes a possible date with champion Johny Hendricks, but in MMA, most successful athletes learn never to focus on dates too far ahead or dwell on what’s already been left behind. That’s why that winner’s prize is so easy to ignore for Ellenberger. It is a maybe, a possibility when there is something so tangible standing before him. His past brought around full circle into a measurement of how far he’s come and where he stands.
"In my mind this is my world title fight right here," Ellenberger said. "I have to succeed at this. Every fight is important but I haven’t looked an inch past this fight. This is it. This is my world title fight right here."