Trap fights can be broken down like this: you have a fighter who’s a decided favorite taking on a little-known challenger or a journeyman, usually to keep busy while standing in line for a title shot.
Jake Ellenberger, hovering in the top welterweight periphery, enters this territory at UFC 129 in Toronto. He is stepping in on short notice to fight an Ontario local -- Sean Pierson -- in a fight he’s a clear-cut favorite to win. What Ellenberger stands to gain should he win is not equal to what he stands to lose if he doesn’t.
Those stakes are completely reversed from Pierson’s perspective -- here’s his chance to make a name for himself at Ellenberger's expense.
Add to that the fact that both men like to mix it up, and you have the crux of the trap.
But you know what? Ellenberger, who retains his dogged wrestler’s mentality from his days at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, isn’t really worried.
“I think it would be a trap fight if I hadn’t been training,” Ellenberger said just before heading to Toronto. “Mentally I feel stronger than I’ve been, and I feel ready. I just think [Pierson] has a lot more to worry about than I do. There’s not a lot of stress on my part.”
Ellenberger is standing in for Brian Foster (who was forced to withdraw with a brain hemorrhage) on just over two weeks' notice. Pierson, a one-time Toronto cop who decisioned Matt Riddle in his UFC debut in December, is riding a six-fight winning streak. In other words, he’s pretty far from being a can. The advantage is still Ellenberger’s, but we’ve seen recent examples of how far odds-makers are off in patchwork bouts, and just how speculative it all becomes when literal force is in play.
Wasn’t Evan Dunham supposed to mop the canvas with Melvin Guillard (who was standing in for Kenny Florian), just the same as Chris Lytle was supposed to drop stalwart Brian Ebersole (who filled in for Carlos Condit)? Dustin Poirer (replacing Jose Aldo) was nothing more than pabulum for No. 1 contender Josh Grispi, yet Grispi took a giant leap backwards after getting completely worked over for three rounds.
In thrown-together fights, with the abrupt change of focus and recalculated circumstances, it can become the simple equation of one man’s hunger versus another man’s willingness. Intangibles can’t help but get dragged into an impromptu fight setup, psychological and otherwise.
For Ellenberger, this is the part he likes.
“Actually, it’s sort of nice to be a late replacement,” he says. “You get to avoid the whole 8-10 weeks of mental stress. I feel better for this fight than I have for any of my fights with the UFC. I actually just met with one of my coaches -- Dr. Jack Stark, who's also a sports psychologist -- and he talks about the advantages I have. He calls it the laser-point focusing. I don’t have a lot of distractions. I’m just having more and more fun each time I get in there. Pierson’s fighting in his hometown, his family is there, his friends -- he has a lot more outside distractions.”