Unlike boxing, where there are often four “world” champions per division, the UFC only crowns one man or woman as the best in their particular weight class. That means as the years go on, there will be world-class fighters that never get to hold that gold belt in the Octagon, but that also will be remembered as long as the world is talking about mixed martial arts.
For more than 18 years, Ellenberger fought the best of the best on the regional circuit and in the UFC. From his early battles against Gil Castillo, Jay Hieron, Jose “Pele” Landi-Jons, Pat Healy and Rick Story, to his UFC days where seemingly every bout was against a killer, “The Juggernaut” is a key example of a fighter who will be remembered not for his record or accomplishments, but for how he made you feel on fight night.
The 33-year-old Ellenberger, who retired with a 31-15 record after a loss to Bryan Barberena on Saturday, was always expected to bring a fight, and he always delivered. Midwest in attitude and approach, he wasn’t pulling off spinning moves or anything resembling flashy, but when he hit you, it made an impact on your body and soul.
It’s why the Nebraska native’s list of UFC knockout victims includes the names Mike Pyle, Jake Shields, Nate Marquardt and Matt Brown. Add in his Fight of the Night war with Diego Sanchez in 2012, and his wins make it very clear that from 2009 to 2013, he was one of the best 170-pounders in the game.
46 pro fights. 21 inside the Octagon.
Losses began to add up after an 8-2 start to his UFC career, but he never stopped fighting killers, engaging in bouts with the likes of Robbie Lawler, Rory MacDonald, Kelvin Gastelum, Stephen Thompson, Tarec Saffiedine, Jorge Masvidal, Mike Perry and Ben Saunders. The way he saw it, there was nothing to be gained from fighting lesser competition. If you’re in the UFC, a real fighter wants to fight real competition each and every time.
And win or lose, that will be Jake Ellenberger’s legacy. In 21 UFC bouts, he never backed down from a challenge. And there’s something to be said for someone who shows up to a fight every time his name is called. A fight.
“People get this misconception of what fighting is,” he told me in 2015. “It’s not a baseball game where everyone gets a ribbon and a snack at the end of the game. Somebody’s gonna lose, somebody’s gonna get hurt or knocked out. And that’s the most important thing for me as a fighter – how I view this sport. If I look at it as a sport and say I’m going to outpoint this guy and win all three rounds, that’s not the way it’s gonna work and usually it’s not gonna come out the way you hope it does.
“It’s been too much of a position battle,” Ellenberger continued. “Nobody likes to watch that. In fighting, people don’t pay $55 to watch a Pay-Per-View of a guy who’s going to outposition a guy. That’s the reality. And to finish fights, you have to take risks and that’s one of those balances you have to find. You gotta be able to touch that dark side of yourself and really become a soulless freak.”
When he said that, it took me back a bit. I told him as much, wondering how one of the game’s nice guys turned into Darth Ellenberger.
“That’s my damn problem. I’m too damn nice.”
Well, at least until he was locked into an Octagon with an opponent for 15 minutes. Then that other guy came out. And we couldn’t wait to see it.
“It’s the way I’ve always fought – when the switch is on, it’s time to work.”