Once a fixture in the Top 10, the 33-year-old Ellenberger has struggled of late, entering on a three-fight losing streak and having dropped eight of his last 10 outings inside the Octagon. It’s also a chance to return to his home state of Nebraska to compete in front of family and friends for the first time since 2012, when he fought in Omaha and emerged victorious in a main event pairing with Diego Sanchez.
And then there is the fact that Barberena defeated his twin brother Joe a little less than four years ago.
It’s a lot to consider and could feel like a ton of weight to shoulder, but Ellenberger seems to be taking it all in stride and using it as motivation heading into this weekend’s event at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
“I’m an honest guy. I’ve certainly had some ups and downs and could have easily have been let go by now, which is why I like to reflect on what a privilege and honor this is,” said Ellenberger, who asked for the chance to compete on this card.
“There is no place I would rather fight. My dad lives here in Lincoln. My family is all here. This is where I started my career and spent almost all of my life. If there is a place that is going to bring the best out of me, it’s going to be here, in front of my family.
“Knowing that this guy beat my brother, I love that,” he added. “It’s motivating. I know this is a twisted thought, but if we’re in the Roman Empire and he killed my brother, it’s like, ‘Okay – now we’re going to fight.’ I’d be the first guy to volunteer. I’m familiar with him. I’m sure he’s familiar with me as well.
“I really think this will bring the best out in me.”
It has been a while since fans have seen Ellenberger at his best.
Over the last five years, he’s shared the cage with a collection of the top fighters in the welterweight division – former champion Robbie Lawler, title challengers Rory MacDonald, Josh Koscheck and Stephen Thompson, plus a host of others. More often than not during that stretch, Ellenberger has come away on the wrong side of the results, without the need of the judges rendering their verdict.
The challenging part for the proud father of two is that not only have his drive and motivation never waned, but he’s felt like he’s made meaningful improvements and adjustments over the last several months as well, only to stride back into the cage and suffer another defeat.
It’s the kind of frustrating cycle that could prompt someone with 45 fights spread out across a 13-year career to consider retirement, but Ellenberger isn’t there yet.
“I love competing, I love fighting and I love training,” he said. “I love every aspect because you can’t be disciplined in one area or good in one area because if one part is struggling, that is going to be exposed very quickly.
“The unfortunate part for me is that I’ve had a few setbacks, but I’ve also turned a lot of corners in the last six months – learned a lot about myself, turned a lot of corners in sparring, in training and really dug deep, asking myself why I’m doing this. (The answer is that) I really love getting to do what I’m doing and support my family.
“If I didn’t love it so much, if I didn’t enjoy every part of it, I certainly wouldn’t do it. I’m honest with myself. This is a sport where there is no room for error and unfortunately, one mistake can cost you a fight, like my last fight.
“I turned a lot of corners – physically, mentally, psychologically – but unfortunately I didn’t get to show that because the fight didn’t go that long, but I know myself and I know where I’m at.”
Ellenberger credits his teammates and coaches with helping him continue to make strides and turn those corners over the last several months.
Working with former lightweight champ Rafael Dos Anjos and long-time coach Mark Munoz has reminded him of the importance of mental toughness and the ability to stay committed to winning every minute of every round, in training and on fight night, while training alongside bantamweight kingpin TJ Dillashaw and others at The Treigning Lab in Orange County has brought him back to his days in the Marine Corps, where discipline and accountability were key.
“I think the thing that separates the guys that train at The Treigning Lab is their work ethic,” said Ellenberger. “It good to watch those guys because I can’t say it enough – their work ethic is the thing that stands out the most.
“You could make the argument that TJ is the best mixed martial arts fighter in the world, but I can say from watching him that nobody in this sport works harder.
“It really recharged me as far as needing to work harder,” he continued. “Being around people like that with the work ethic, the mentality, the ‘no quit’ attitude has just made me continue to get better and hold myself more accountable. I was in the Marine Corps and it brings back a little accountability and being disciplined.
“Those guys lead by example and it’s really fun to watch them.”
And it’s those pieces, far more than the recent losses and long-term struggles that have Ellenberger excited to return to the cage on Saturday and confident that he’ll emerge victorious.
“I’m not just looking at it as just win or lose,” he said. “I want to win and everyone wants to win, but for me, it’s all the meaning around it; it’s where we’re at, who we’re fighting for, who we’re fighting in front of and how that will bring the best out in me.
“I think it’s going to go very well. I have no doubt I will get my hand raised.”