"I know Robbie is a great fighter and one of the top guys in our division, but I also know he doesn’t want this as bad as I do." - Jake Ellenberger
There are few elements in life more simplistic in application, yet as complex in nature than motivation. It is an intangible resource that pulses through the fibers of everyday life, a common thread that everyone in every walk of life shares yet is something unrecognizable from one person to the next. The reason behind one individual’s push to succeed will greatly differ from the impulse that fuels another to sacrifice at a level others cannot wrap their heads around.
Nevertheless, it would be difficult to find someone who had no grasp on the definition of motivation, although the exact nature of their specific drive could be one that has absolutely eluded them. While Jake Ellenberger has never been a man short on goals, the substances that have powered those quests have never been quite as specific as they are right now.
The 29-year-old Nebraskan is currently standing at the most crucial juncture of his professional career, and in a business as unforgiving as the one the where he plies his trade, having an understanding and grasp on both the passion and the fury can be the difference between a dream lost and greatness realized.
After nearly a decade spent settling the opposition in the heat of battle, “The Juggernaut” has arrived at place dictated by circumstance and anchored with the caliber of potential he couldn’t have fathomed several years ago. Where his twin brother Joe once convinced him that fighting for “a couple bucks” would be a fun way to spend a Saturday night in what was ultimately a masked effort to get him to understand his potential, the Team Reign fighter is now within reach - or potentially one strong step away - from competing for a world title on the biggest stage in mixed martial arts.
The welterweight staple will face fellow Midwestern powerhouse and recent title challenger Robbie Lawler this Saturday at UFC 173 in Las Vegas in a bout that will hold heavy implications on the immediate future of the title hunt in the welterweight division. While the high-profile bout against Lawler is one that immediately sparked the fires of motivation for the perennial contender, it stirred something deep inside of him as well.
Where success has come in solid clips throughout his climb up the welterweight ladder, the elevation of his personal status in MMA and the continued evolution of his skill set also served to amplify his need for personal growth. Ellenberger had always considered himself to be a man driven toward achieving his goal of becoming a UFC title holder, but that particular goal and the journey to get there began to take on a much different meaning.
Ellenberger knew he needed to approach things in a different manner, and in order to take a good look at things, he was going to have to break everything down to the foundation.
“I’ve always been one to kind of look at the bigger picture in a matchup and that includes my own weaknesses,” Ellenberger said. “I look at it as if I were a guy who was studying to fight me, where would I put my focus? What areas would I be attacking and looking to exploit? Throughout this process you also recognize the areas you are strong in and what things people are probably going to try to avoid. That is one of the biggest things that have helped me grow.
“One of the biggest things that has been a real game changer for me is the work I started doing with a really good Sports Psychologist. I was never really a big believer in tendency and how one guy will do this and another will do something else, but when I met with this Sports Psychologist, it really changed the way I think after I talked with him.”
Like many other athletes who compete at the highest level of their sport, Ellenberger decided to speak with a Sports Psychologist to help him in the discovery process. While he had heard positive feedback from friends and colleagues, commonly used methods in the field like visualization were of little interest to him. Nevertheless he showed up to the appointment and the conversation that followed immediately altered Ellenberger’s perspective.
“I had heard a lot of good things going into our meeting, but afterwards it truly made me look at things differently,” Ellenberger said. “He talked so much about motivation and why you do what you do. It was interesting to me because the first question he asked me was ‘Who is the most important person in your life?’ I told him it was my brothers and he laid out a very specific scenario that put things in an entirely different perspective. He made me look at how different things would be if what mattered most to you hung in the balance. It would change everything. It would change the way you train and change everything you put into the fight because you would give everything you had to reach that specific outcome.
“It was such an interesting point of view and it changed the way I think. Everything you do is based off motivation. You aren’t doing this for you and you aren’t doing this to be called a winner. You are doing this for what matters the most and you are going to do everything in your power to reach that specific result. It takes the doubt and questions out of your mind because you know there is nothing you wouldn’t do, no boundary you wouldn’t cross to make sure to protect what matters the most to you.”
With his newly realized sense of motivation he will step in to face an opponent who is also looking to continue a resurgence of his own in Lawler. Last February, the former Strikeforce title challenger seemed to be one step away from the “Swan Song” performance on a career marred by potential unfulfilled until he starched former welterweight contender Josh Koscheck in the first round of their bout at UFC 157.
From there, “Ruthless” went on to pick up two more impressive victories that earned him the opportunity to face Johny Hendricks for the vacant 170-pound title. While the Iowa product was riding the biggest wave of momentum he’d ever known in his decade-plus career, the crashing tides were not enough to topple “Bigg Rigg,” as the former two-time Div. I national champion wrestler emerged from their bout at UFC 171 with the split decision victory.
That said, throughout the five-round battle with Hendricks, the former Miletich Fighting Systems product proved he was still as dangerous as ever. Ellenberger is well aware of the weapons his opponent will bring into the Octagon in Las Vegas and he believes it will allow him to unleash the beast he’s been holding behind the gates.
“The big thing is that he’s very dangerous,” Ellenberger said. “There is no secret to that. I’m a very logical person and at the very minimum I have to be able to defend well and move my feet. As far as building a strategy, things are pretty straightforward in that department. I was actually Octagonside when he fought Johny Hendricks back in March and he’s definitely a gamer. He moves forward and he really likes to fight. Strategy is absolutely going to play a huge role in this fight, but I don’t like to count on anything. When I fought Rory [MacDonald] I thought it was going to be an engaging fight and it really wasn’t. That was a situation I had to learn from. Sure there are things I expect to see from Robbie but who knows? He’s hungry and always motivated, but at the same time I’m really just focused on myself. I feel I’ve gotten so much better and have grown more as a mixed martial artist in this past year than I have in the last five years.
“When there is a certain element of danger in a fight it is going to bring out the very best in you. That is one of those things that is so true and resonates on a deeper level. I hate to bring up the same fight, but when I fight a guy like Rory I’m not really worried or afraid of getting knocked out. But then you have guys that are absolutely powerful and can do some serious damage and you become motivated by that fear, and having that element of fear front and center kicks in that primal response of ‘fight or flight.’ When the fight begins it really does come down to the same thing that happened when you were a kid on the playground and someone is trying to start a fight with you. Are you going to fight or run? I’m going to fight and I’m going to fight with everything I have.”
There are times when a matchup between two fighters is almost a near-lock to be an action-packed scrap and Ellenberger versus Lawler is certainly of that variety. Both men posses one-shot put away power and a sharp sense of “killer instinct” that has given them the ability to finish their opposition in punishing fashion.
Yet, while both welterweights possess similar skill sets, there is one department Ellenberger believes he will hold a decisive advantage in when it comes to their respective desire to win. The Southern California transplant is not discounting his opponent’s hunger and love for the fight by any means, but he absolutely believes the things that lay in the balance for the victor are rewards he’s far more determined to obtain.
“I know Robbie is a great fighter and one of the top guys in our division, but I also know he doesn’t want this as bad as I do,” Ellenberger concluded. “He’s had his opportunity and now it is my turn. He is the man standing between me and that opportunity and standing between me and the rest of my life, to be perfectly honest. He’s in the way of my goal and lifelong dream of becoming a world champion.”