MMA: Diego Sanchez

Ross Pearson finds positive in recent loss

August, 12, 2014
Aug 12
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto

Weird as it may sound, Ross Pearson says "the decision" in his last fight has actually been a blessing in disguise.

Two months ago, Pearson (15-7) outclassed Diego Sanchez in a three-round contest at a UFC Fight Night in Albuquerque, New Mexico. To just about everyone watching, Pearson won all three rounds and earned what would have been his third win in four fights.
[+] EnlargeRoss Pearson
Ross Dettman for ESPNIn his last fight, Ross Pearson found himself on the wrong end of a controversial decision to Diego Sanchez.

And then the worst decision in mixed martial arts this year happened. Judges Chris Tellez and Jeff Collins somehow scored the bout in favor of Sanchez (25-7) -- Collins by a score of 30-27, no less -- awarding the hometown fighter the split decision.

Pearson, 29, filed an appeal with the New Mexico Athletic Commission to no avail. Officially, the bout will always be a loss on his record.

Unofficially, however, it has been anything but. The UFC paid Pearson his win bonus and booked him against Abel Trujillo, who is on a win streak, in his next fight. Injury ultimately knocked Trujillo out of the bout and Pearson will now fight Gray Maynard on this weekend’s UFC Fight Night event in Bangor, Maine.

The scoring of the Sanchez fight was so egregious, Pearson says, it has garnered him more attention than he believes a win would have. Attention in MMA is never bad.

"I think it's had a positive effect on my career," Pearson said. "I've built a lot of fans based on it. The media has been talking about it. The only negative effect is that it's a loss on my record."

Prior to his 155-pound fight opposite Maynard (11-3-1) on Saturday, Pearson spoke to more about the Sanchez decision, where he feels he's at 12 fights into his UFC career and the opponent ahead of him this weekend. You spent your entire camp for this fight in England, rather than travel to Alliance MMA in San Diego as you usually do. How did it work out?

Pearson: The last time I held a camp in England was the Spencer Fisher fight, so that would have been Feburary 2011. It was only a four-week training camp. Travel to San Diego is a 12-to-15-hour flight for me. Then travel six hours back to Maine -- it would have been a lot of travel time. It's actually been a great camp and [Alliance coach] Eric del Fiero will still be in my corner. You’ve had back-to-back unfortunate results in your last two fights, with the no contest against Melvin Guillard and the Sanchez decision. What's that done to your sense of momentum going into the Maynard fight?

Pearson: Right now, I feel unbeaten since I signed to fight George Sotiropoulos. I feel like I haven’t lost a fight since then, even though my record speaks differently. I have a lot of momentum, going in there and beating Diego convincingly. I know what it feels like to outclass a guy and that’s exactly what I felt that night.

The only thing I could see is it's made me more eager to get a finish. I need to finish. Going into the Diego fight, we knew it was going to be tough. He doesn't get taken out in the first round. We had to outthink him, outsmart him. I did that, but it goes to show two people can see a fight differently than the rest of the world. More eager for a finish - - but at the same time, you did intelligently beat Sanchez according to most. So, you don’t want to change dramatically off that, right?

Pearson: Yeah, I've been in this sport a long time and the harder I try to finish a fight, the more it doesn't come. That's kind of the balance I'm having with myself. Want the finish, but let it come to you. I just want to flow in this fight. I want to look classy and look comfortable against a ranked guy.

I know for a fact if I land the shots that we've been practicing, I'll take Gray out. His defense is nonexistent. I have to use angles, set it up and land that shot. Maynard has been known as a durable fighter throughout his career, but he's been knocked out in three of his last four fights. You think miles have caught up on him and affected his chin or has he just been hit by clean shots lately?

Pearson: I think it's a little bit of both. I think he's questioning his own abilities and his chin. When I fight, I have no fear of, "this guy might knock me out." I think Gray is worrying about it. He's stressing about his ability to weather a storm. You hit your five-year anniversary in the UFC this year. You’re 7-4 with the promotion. Are you happy with where you're at five years in?

Pearson: I definitely feel like I'm hitting my prime. I guess I'm a bit of a slow learner as far as getting comfortable in the cage -- feeling confident. When I started off in the UFC I was 24 years old. I doubted my ability in wrestling, jiu-jitsu, even stand-up. All I ever watched as a young kid was the UFC, these great knockouts. I felt thrown into the deep end.

Fighting a guy like Aaron Riley with 90 fights. Dennis Siver, ranked No. 1 in Europe for so long. Spencer Fisher, a guy I looked up to. I feel like I didn't get to warm up. Past Maynard, you have any ideas for the rest of the 2014? Any specific card you’d like to fight on or certain opponent?

Pearson: I would definitely love to fight in November. The first half of this year was pretty s-----. I was injured and had to pull out of a fight. I definitely plan on using the second half to make this a big year. I'm getting married in September and I'd love to fight in Australia in November. If I beat Gray impressively, I should get an opponent ranked in the top five.

Melendez, Sanchez delivered as promised

October, 20, 2013
Gross By Josh Gross
video Gilbert Melendez's reaction to the news that UFC wanted him in the cage against Diego Sanchez looked something like this.

A deep breath. A pause. And acceptance.

"When you fight Diego, you get the chills, like, ‘ooh, It's going to be messy here,'" Melendez told media just days before he was scheduled to fight Sanchez on the pay-per-view card at UFC 166 in Houston, Texas.

"He's a guy I know I can beat, but it's a tough situation, its going to be a tough fight," he said. "It's going to hurt, it's going to be a battle and it's a dangerous fight."

The truth, it seems, can literally hurt. Such was the case for Melendez and Sanchez, who conjoined for three incredible rounds that deserves to be neck and neck with Jon Jones stupendous title defense against Alexander Gustafsson for fight of the year in 2013.

"That's what Mexicans do," Melendez said in the Octagon after taking a unanimous decision. "We hold our ground and fight. I'd rather go down on my shield than run in circles. Diego's a warrior. I respect him so much. I slept on his couch before to train with him. It was an honor to fight a warrior like that. But if I can get through any guy as tough as him, I think I can get through anyone in the division."

Reputations are earned, and Sanchez has been in enough wars over the years to gain Melendez's respect. Likewise, Melendez branded himself as a tried and true warrior over the last decade, which is why many people, including UFC president Dana White, said this was the fight to watch in Houston.

"We only have three rounds so we need to get this fight started fast and I believe it's going to be one of the fastest three round fights UFC has seen in awhile and a good one for the fans," Sanchez said Wednesday. Five of the last eight times Sanchez stepped inside the Octagon, he helped deliver a "fight of the night" worthy contest. Make that six of nine.

"Tell me one time you've seen a bad, boring Diego Sanchez fight," White said during a media scrum on Thursday. "There's no such thing. You know how he's going to fight. Guns blazing and it's going to be fun."

The promoter had listed Sanchez's clash against Clay Guida as his favorite. It was an uproarious fight from four years ago. The promoter can claim a new favorite, because Sanchez's fight with Melendez was that mind blowing.

"Without a doubt, the greatest night of fights we've ever had," White said, still visibly amped from everything that played out in the cage over five hours in Houston, including, and not to be forgotten, Cain Velasquez's incredible raging river of an effort over Brazilian former heavyweight champion Junior dos Santos. As good as the heavyweights were, they couldn't match up to Sanchez and Melendez.

Melendez had been the better fighter in recent years, though Sanchez suggested in the lead up to Saturday that his efforts inside the UFC are worth more than his opponent’s body of work outside the Octagon.

Melendez’s record away from the top promotion in MMA is considerably more extensive than almost any lightweight on the planet. Saturday marked bout No. 2 in the UFC for "El Nino," and since he couldn’t best Benson Henderson in the eyes of the judges, a fight many people felt he deserved to win, the 31-year-old Californian entered his meeting with Sanchez feeling as if he had something to prove.

“I think it’s important to fight and win in impressive fashion,” said Melendez, who hadn't departed California to fight in nine of his previous 10 contests. That attitude, plus an always eager opponent, set up a volatile mix.

[+] EnlargeGilbert Melendez vs. Diego Sanchez
Rod Mar for ESPN.comGilbert Melendez's crisp boxing helped sway the judges in his favor.
The opening round was a loud shot across the bow of things to come, particularly the closing seconds when both stood their ground and fired off a flurry of strikes. Round 1 belonged to Melendez. He was eager to exchange and Sanchez allowed him many opportunities. The former Strikeforce champion didn't need to engage like this. Yes, he wanted to entertain. He wanted to prove a point about being the "uncrowned King at 155" after coming up short on the judges' cards against Henderson. And he wanted to pay the proper homage to the man in front of him. But the point still is, this was a conscious decision on Melendez's part. He sought war and found one.

"When you talk about hardcore real Mexican fighters, it was a Mexican world war here tonight," White said. "It was unbelievable."

Melendez did best when he struck off of tie-ups and takedown attempts. He wanted to be first, and usually was thanks to superior hand speed and technique. Yet Sanchez kept coming, something out of a horror movie with a nasty gash occupying the space above his right eye. Down two rounds to none, Sanchez's corner, headed by Greg Jackson, told the Ultimate Fighter 1 winner that he needed a stoppage. So Sanchez went out to find one, and nearly did by catching Melendez with a stiff uppercut.

"You don't feel nothing when you're in here," Melendez said. Nothing but pride, that is. It's was this warrior spirit that bound both fighters, and prompted hellish training sessions four years ago between the pair. That same spirit propelled them to the final bell, which was the only thing that could get them to stop fighting one another.

"I want five rounds," Sanchez said afterwards, his speech slurred some by the difficulty of the last 15 minutes. "I want a rematch."

Of course he does.

Cormier has no room for error

October, 18, 2013
McNeil By Franklin McNeil

HOUSTON -- Several fighters on the UFC 166 main card Saturday night have a lot to lose. But none has more at stake than Daniel Cormier.

Sure, a strong case can be made for main-event participants Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos -- there is the matter of the heavyweight title being up for grabs. But even the loser is expected to remain high on the contender list.

Cormier, on the other hand, has no room for error. He not only needs to beat Roy Nelson in the co-main event, but must do so in impressive fashion. Anything less and Cormier, who plans to begin competing at light heavyweight after the bout, will be forced to make major changes to his master plan.

Despite being ranked No. 3 among heavyweights by, Cormier is opting to leave the division because he wants to become a UFC champion. And he vows never to fight Velasquez -- a close friend and training partner.

So Cormier is heading to 205 pounds to realize his title dream. But at 34, time isn’t on his side.

An upset loss to Nelson will greatly diminish his chances of landing a title shot anytime soon. Even a lackluster performance Saturday night could do harm to his title bid.

"This is the most important fight of my career," Cormier told "I know the Josh Barnett fight was important because I needed to win that [Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix] tournament. But in terms of importance, in terms of keeping my momentum, keeping things rolling in the right direction, this is the one.

"I’ve got to find a way to get through Roy Nelson in impressive fashion, so that I can take the momentum that I’ve built over the past four years and take it with me down to the lower weight division.

"If I don’t do what I’m supposed to do Saturday night, everything was for nothing. It’s back to the drawing board and revamping my plan."

Nelson looks fit and trim heading into his heavyweight showdown with Cormier. But in this case, the looks are definitely deceiving.

The weight loss isn’t the result of physical changes Nelson made, but the stress he felt during camp because of concerns over the health of his trainer, Jeff Mayweather.

"I was more concerned about Jeff Mayweather and the people in my camp," Nelson said. "This has been the crappiest camp that I have ever had. It is what it is.

"When I get depressed I don’t eat. I lost Jeff about two weeks into camp; he was in the hospital. I just tried to make do with what I’ve got."

Mayweather has fully recovered from the rapid heartbeat he experienced after consuming an energy drink. And Nelson couldn’t be happier. He has regained his appetite, which could mean the return of his usual round figure.

"About two days ago [Monday] was the first time that Jeff was back, so I’m eating again," Nelson said. "Maybe I will be 280 pounds and cut weight to make 265."

No. 2-ranked lightweight and former Strikeforce titleholder Gilbert Melendez is a heavy favorite to beat highly aggressive Diego Sanchez.

[+] EnlargeGilbert Melendez and Josh Thomson
Getty ImagesJosh Thomson, left, was narrowly defeated by Gilbert Melendez when the pair met in 2012.
While a setback will drop him a few notches in the 155-pound rankings, Melendez doesn’t seem to be feeling a sense of urgency heading into the fight. Even if Sanchez is able to pull off an upset, Melendez believes he will remain in the title picture. It's one of the benefits of competing in the talent-rich lightweight division.

"There is no pecking order in this division right now," Melendez said. "The No. 10 guy can be the champ any day of the week; the No. 1 guy can lose any day of the week."

Melendez, however, makes it clear that he has no intention of falling victim to Sanchez. He not only expects to have his hand raised afterward, but plans to use this bout as a springboard to start his title-shot campaign.

"It definitely comes down to my performance and what the fans want to see," Melendez said. "If I do well I will definitely be campaigning for that shot."

Flyweight contender John Dodson can still see those punches that either dropped or wobbled Demetrious Johnson during their title bout in January. The images are perfectly clear.

How could they not be? Dodson spent a lot of time during the early rounds of that fight admiring his work. Rather than put the finishing touches on his potential masterpiece, Dodson opted to watch the champion recover.

That proved to be a huge mistake. Johnson would rebound, eventually take control of the fight and retain his title. What took place during that fight remains firm in Dodson’s mind.

He was in position several times to lift the belt from Johnson, but failed to capitalize. Dodson blames no one but himself and says he has learned his lesson. Never again will the man in the cage with him -- starting with Saturday night’s opponent, Darrell Montague -- be let off the hook.

"I have to make sure that I go out there and not watch my handiwork," Dodson told "I watched me hit him, I watched him fall and then I watched my chance to win the title slip through my fingers. I can no longer allow that to happen."

What the future holds for Diego Sanchez

March, 5, 2013
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
Takanori Gomi and Diego SanchezSusumu Nagao for ESPNDiego Sanchez, left, outlasted Takanori Gomi by split decision in a successful return to 155 pounds.
In case you missed it: Diego Sanchez returned to the cage last weekend.

He missed weight in his first attempt to cut to 155 since 2009. He edged Takanori Gomi via split decision, looking just OK in the process ( writer Josh Gross graded Sanchez's performance a C+, which sounds right). Then he called out Nate Diaz.

So, what is there to really take from Sanchez's return? Does Diaz make sense next?

Sanchez (24-5) is an interesting subject, especially when viewing him through a matchmaker's eye. Fans love him. He's one of the originals; a cast member of the first season of "The Ultimate Fighter." He's given us five fight of the nights, some spectacular UFC walkouts and the single greatest moment of any MMA Awards show to date.

In terms of being an elite fighter at this point in his career, that's up for debate. He's 3-1 in his last four, but is he a title contender? Respectfully, no. He's only 31, but hasn't always taken the best care of his body. He gets hit often. He's too small for the welterweight division and too slow for the best lightweights.

Seeing him take on Diaz (whether Diaz defeats Josh Thomson in April or not), I have to say, doesn't excite me too much. Sanchez made a good sell. The fight would deliver action (although, likely one-sided action) and it was a smart move to bring up the win he earned over Nate's older brother in 2005.

My problem is we can pretty much guess the outcome of that fight. Kind of like how we could somewhat guess the outcome of this fight against Gomi. Regardless of who won, we knew the two were evenly matched. We knew neither one is really a title contender. We didn't learn much.

To me, the best way to look at Sanchez now is this: Let's say you've found yourself a good walking stick, but you want to test out its strength before hiking through the mountains with it. So, you go ahead and bash that stick against a rock a few times.

In this scenario, Sanchez is the rock. He's a tough, durable, stationery object. You get a prospect you think is good, but you're not quite sure yet and you bash him against Sanchez. And I'm not saying make him a stepping stone to bolster a younger fighter's career, because I still believe Sanchez wins his share of those fights.

Here are several opponents I'd rather see Sanchez fight next, over Diaz: Edson Barboza, Michael Chiesa, Daron Cruickshank, Tony Ferguson, Khabib Nurmagomedov.

It's probably not a popular list. Generally, fans like to see two guys they're familiar with. If the UFC truly needs to cut close to half the lightweights on its roster though, I'd rather see Sanchez test these guys (and himself) than get lit up by Diaz, who holds such a stylistic advantage over him.

Maia renews emphasis on submissions

January, 30, 2013
Gross By Josh Gross
Eight months after the first loss of his mixed martial arts career, Demian Maia stood across the Octagon from the sport's best fighter with a UFC title hanging in the balance.

Winning his first 11 contests, including five consecutive UFC bouts by submission, had everything to do with Maia’s reputation as one of the top middleweight prospects at the time. Yet so definitive was a 21-second KO loss to Nate Marquardt in 2009 that ousting Maia from the title picture could have been justified easily.

Then a shot against Anderson Silva materialized out of nothing when Maia, who rebounded from the Marquardt fight with a sloppy decision over unranked Dan Miller, was tabbed to replace an injured Vitor Belfort -- mostly because there wasn't anyone else.

Like so many fighters before and after him, Maia failed to do a thing against the iconic middleweight champion. Splitting four fights over the next two years, including a lopsided decision loss to Chris Weidman in January 2010, Maia was propelled to shed 15 pounds and begin anew at welterweight.

“I needed to be reborn,” Maia said over the phone from his hotel room at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, where he’ll meet Jon Fitch on Saturday during the pay-per-view portion of UFC 156. "I felt when I was hitting guys or going for a takedown at 185, sometimes it was like hitting a wall. Now in this weight division, it's more fair for me."

Seeking his third victory at 170 pounds, the 35-year-old Brazilian would step considerably closer to another title opportunity if he bests Fitch in what should be a compelling clash between two of the most effective grapplers in the UFC.

Said Maia of his American foe: "He's able to mentally break his opponents because his will is big. There are other wrestlers with big wills, but I think he has one of the biggest wills. So you need to be aware because he comes to break you."

Fitch, 34, claimed he’s excited to challenge the “monster” Maia after seeing him dismantle Rick Story in Brazil last October. "I was surprised at how big he was down in Rio," Fitch said. The pair picked up wins at UFC 153, and Maia mentioned how eager he is to test himself against a battle-hardened opponent.

All this adds up to more humility from Maia at this stage of his career. Fruits of labor, the long road traveled, is what he’s getting at. When he entered the UFC in 2007, Maia “knew almost nothing about standing up” to fight. Days away from meeting Fitch, the Brazilian jiu-jitsu world champion can confidently claim his striking, wrestling, submission and transition games are as good as they’ve ever been.

Competing at his natural weight (around 185 pounds on fight night) also has helped, as has a renewed emphasis on submissions.
[+] EnlargeJon Fitch
Matthew Williams/ESPNThe closest Jon Fitch, top, came to succumbing to a submission in recent years was against Diego Sanchez in 2007.

“Now that I learned I'm able to do well with boxing, I was able to train more jiu-jitsu again,” he said. “I've come back to my grappling.”

Tasked with taking on “He Who Never Taps,” Maia’s MMA submission credentials would hit new heights if he can strangle or entangle Fitch. The closest the former No. 1 welterweight contender came to tapping in the Octagon was during a Diego Sanchez triangle attempt almost six years ago.

“I didn't panic so much as worry against Sanchez,” Fitch said. “It was late in the fight and I was stuck against the fence, in a position where I couldn't defend properly -- he already had the angle. But he didn't have it on tight and I just postured out."

Maia, of course, presents a higher plane of Brazilian jiu-jitsu than Sanchez (or anyone else Fitch has fought, for that matter). And he’ll step into the cage feeling as if he is doing so for “something bigger than myself,” namely the grappling art that has molded him as a person and athlete over many years.

"My dream is to take the fight down in the first minute and submit Fitch,” Maia said. “That's my dream and I hope it comes true."

If that happens, which would be unexpected even in light of his immense grappling ability, Maia would solidify his status as a top-five welterweight, and would appear a win (or two at the most) away from locking up a shot at the welterweight belt.

"The last time I didn't realize how hard it was to get there, and how big it was," Maia said. "If I get another chance [at fighting for a UFC belt], I understand what it means to be there.

"First, I need to win this fight."
Diego Sanchez appears to be heading back down to lightweight, but if he stays in the UFC welterweight ocean he has a more-than-willing opponent in Dan Hardy. More »

Unlikely contenders emerging in the UFC

June, 5, 2012
Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall
Six months ago at UFC 139, Martin Kampmann was getting by Rick Story to stay relevant in the UFC. In fact, after having lost two bouts in a row to Jake Shields and Diego Sanchez, Kampmann might have needed that victory over Story just to stay employed by the UFC.

That was six months ago, which is an eternity in MMA.

Today, Kampmann is in the penultimate spot to a title fight in the UFC’s welterweight division. There were so many top-name fighters in this weight class that Kampmann barely registered in the fall of last year: champion Georges St. Pierre, Carlos Condit, Nick Diaz, B.J. Penn, Johny Hendricks, Josh Koscheck, Jon Fitch, Rory MacDonald, Shields, Sanchez and Jake Ellenberger. While this cluster of contenders turned on each other, Kampmann -- with his back against the wall -- silently erased Story from the list, then did the same to Thiago Alves in March.

Now Kampmann has done so to Ellenberger, and just like that, Kampmann is a player once again in a division that had long since disregarded him. Ellenberger, with his six-fight winning streak, was the tide-turner for Kampmann, and it looks like he’ll fight Hendricks in a title eliminator next.

To reiterate, the “Hitman” -- left for scraps back when he lost a pair of close fights -- is a bout away from St. Pierre’s belt a little over a year later. That’s how fast the landscape changes in a game of ultimate attrition. That’s how fast careers can reshape and come roaring back to life in the UFC.
[+] EnlargeMartin Kampmann
Rod Mar for ESPN.comNot too long ago, we were ready to write off Martin Kampmann.

While Kampmann is being talked about as a picture of perseverance, he also serves as a reminder that losses don’t necessarily spell the end. This isn’t the BCS.

And if any of this sounds familiar, it’s because we just saw Nate Diaz do basically the same thing at 155 pounds. When Diaz came back to lightweight after losing two in a row at 170 pounds, he was buried behind a full bank of elite names in the UFC’s most stacked division. He too was on the cusp of losing all relevancy. Yet he breezed through Takanori Gomi, then landed 260 strikes on Donald Cerrone en route to a decision, and finally submitted Jim Miller earlier this year, becoming the first ever to do so.

In Diaz’s case, Cerrone was the tide-turner; Miller, the exclamation mark. In Kampmann’s case, the only thing left to do is to punctuate Hendricks.
[+] EnlargeNate Diaz
Ed Mulholland for ESPN.comNate Diaz, left, has been on a tear since returning to the lightweight ranks.

Now Diaz finds himself in position to fight the winner of Frankie Edgar/Benson Henderson, if he chooses to wait. Essentially, momentum is his to do with as he pleases -- and momentum is a funny thing. It’s hard to pinpoint its origins, but somewhere Diaz found momentum when nobody was paying him any attention. Eight months ago, if you said Nate Diaz would be fighting for a UFC belt before his older brother Nick, people would have suspected you were smoking something.

Kampmann is no different.

And all of this underscores the thing everybody knows -- crazy things happen in MMA. Guys get hurt. Guys get suspended. Guys get derailed by guys nobody sees coming while divisions are hijacked with unforeseen circumstances. People appear, people disappear and -- in the cases of Kampmann and Diaz -- people reappear.

In that way, it’s a good thing hype is interchangeable. There are new fighters rushing the flagpole each time we attempt to make sense of a division’s hierarchy. That’s why trying to figure out what’s going to happen six months from now is next to impossible.

And yet looking back the other way, it doesn’t make what Kampmann and Diaz have been able to do any less improbable.

Ellenberger: 'Fatigue won't be an issue'

May, 30, 2012
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
Jake EllenbergerRic Fogel for
LAS VEGAS -- Yes, Jake Ellenberger knows he’s scheduled for an extra two rounds when he meets Martin Kampmann at "The Ultimate Fighter Live Finale" on Friday.

And no, he’s not concerned about slowing down in them.

If there is any potential flaw in Ellenberger’s game to throw under the microscope this week, it’s that he clearly lost the final frames in two of the most crucial fights of his UFC career.
[+] EnlargeJake Ellenberger
Matt Ryerson/US PresswireJake Ellenberger, top, started strong, but seemed to tire late against Diego Sanchez.
Diego Sanchez nearly rallied to a comeback submission against Ellenberger in February. In 2009, Ellenberger lost his UFC debut to Carlos Condit by decision after visibly tiring in the third round (though it should be noted he took that fight on short notice).

Is this a blatant hole in Ellenberger’s game? No, it’s not. But a slight concern, given that a majority of his fights from here on out will potentially be five rounds? Definitely.

“The thing about that [Sanchez] fight is he got me in a bad situation,” Ellenberger said. “He’s a phenomenal fighter. He’s a phenomenal grappler. My shape felt good. I got out of the position. I feel like I could have gone five if I had to.”

Ellenberger (27-5) says one thing he won’t do to make sure his gas tank keeps up is change the way he fights. Known as a power puncher who sets an early pace, Ellenberger isn’t willing to trade early finishes for longer stamina.

“There’s a difference between getting tired and gassing,” Ellenberger said. “If you’re gassing, your conditioning is wrong. If you’re getting tired, you’re working and trying to finish the fight.

“I’m always trying to finish the fight. It’s going to take a lot of work to finish a fight.”

With 170-pound champion Georges St. Pierre on the sidelines due to injury, it’s unclear whether a win Friday would propel Ellenberger to another five-round opportunity in the form of a UFC title shot.

St. Pierre is expected to face Condit, the current interim titleholder, upon his return. While Ellenberger isn’t demanding a title shot this week, Kampmann (19-5) believes it’s pretty clear where the winner of this fight stacks up.

“I think this should be a No. 1 contender fight,” Kampmann said. “I’ve fought some of the best guys in the division and Jake has been on a tear as well. It’s all up in the air with the GSP injury and Condit having the interim title.

“It all depends on when GSP is going to be back fighting again. If he’s going to be out a lot longer, maybe Condit should fight. There are a lot of 'ifs' and 'buts.'”

If the decision comes to Ellenberger, all he knows is that waiting doesn’t appeal to him. Let’s go five rounds this week and another five whenever the UFC is ready.

“I’ve never been one to want to wait, especially when I’m doing well,” Ellenberger said.

“The whole reason I’m in this sport is to become world champion. Getting that fight is ideal, but at the same time I don’t want to sit out six months or a year.”

Welterweight contenders and pretenders

March, 5, 2012
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
Carlos ConditRod Mar for ESPN.comCarlos Condit is one of several 170-pound fighters counting the days to GSP's return.
Is it wrong to kind of like a George St. Pierre-less welterweight division?

Not that we don’t want him back in November, but these last few months have been kind of fun, yeah? For starters, the St. Pierre injury story is great in itself. No fighter has been able to legitimately challenge him in years. Can a knee injury do it?

Because to be honest, the novelty of St. Pierre ho-hummingly dominating opponents one five-round fight after another had started to wear off. It was still an impressive run, absolutely, but -- come on. In sports, we’re supposed to get drama. We like two-minute drills. We like half-court prayers. We like a man on third, two outs in the bottom of the ninth, down by one.
[+] EnlargeThiago Alves and Martin Kampmann
Mark Kolbe/Getty ImagesThiago Alves and Martin Kampmann are fringe players in the vastly deep welterweight division.

What’s been kind of nice about St. Pierre being out to start 2012 is that it’s allowed us to envision a welterweight division without such a dominant champ. And what that vision looks like are razor-thin title fights and a serious group of contenders who would trade the belt back and forth between themselves for years.

From a business standpoint, you don’t mind the St. Pierre model. A dominant champ entices casual fans to watch and see what the fuss is about. Hardcore fans will tune in as well, if for no other reason to make absolutely sure they are watching when he loses.

But from a sports fan perspective, I think most would admit they’re ready to see what “St. Pierre in trouble” looks like again. The eye injury he suffered during the Jake Shields win was certainly adversity he had to overcome, but it’s not like the outcome of that fight was ever in question.

So, here’s the question: Can any of these welterweights we’re getting excited about during St. Pierre’s absence actually beat him when he comes back? As I did in October with the lightweights, let’s sort out which of these guys has the best shot at being the one to end St. Pierre’s reign.

The “if stars align and everything imaginable goes your way then maybe ... but still probably not” Group: Dan Hardy, Diego Sanchez, John Hathaway, Rick Story, Dong Hyun Kim.

Go on, laugh at Hardy even being included on this list. Hey, he’s about as long as a long shot can be. But if the organization is willing to hang on to him after four fairly miserable outings, then what’s to say they wouldn’t reward him with a title shot quickly if he were to get hot again?

Sanchez is interesting because if I’m a UFC welterweight I say to myself, “Man, I should call out Diego. I’m pretty sure I can beat him and he’s a big name to add to my résumé.” The only problem is I do that, then I get to the third round of the fight and Sanchez is still coming forward, spewing blood from the nose I’m pretty sure I broke with my knee in the first round and, suddenly, I’m scared. Not sure of what exactly, but definitely scared. This will happen in the next two years: A rising prospect calls out Sanchez and loses.

The “Any way we could combine these two?”: Thiago Alves, Martin Kampmann.

I think last weekend’s fight summed up both fighters pretty well. Kampmann is a gamer with tremendous will but he lacks elite-type athleticism. Alves is the opposite -- he might be the best athlete in the division but he’s vulnerable to mental lapses.

It’s not a terrible idea to go for a takedown in the final minute of a fight you’re winning to remove the flash KO threat, but in these circumstances (Kampmann has five submission wins in the UFC against one TKO) it was bad judgment. And the worst part is, fair or not, we’ve sort of come to expect this from Alves. For the record, though, of these two, I still give Alves a better shot overall at ever holding the belt.

The potential feel-good story of the century: Jake Shields.

If this were Hollywood, wouldn’t you lay everything you’ve got on Shields having a monster year in 2012 and claiming the belt in 2013? In the movie world, St. Pierre would be made out as a way more sinister foe in their first fight and maybe, after the loss to Ellenberger, movie Shields would go on some month-long drinking/partying binge that threatens to end his fighting career. But by the time the credits rolled, he’d be pointing up to the sky with a title belt around his waist.

It could happen. We know the guy is talented. He’s 33 and hasn’t taken a ton of damage despite a lengthy career. And I still think, for whatever reason, we caught Shields on an off night at UFC 129.

The blazing hot prospect and the simmering hot prospect: Rory MacDonald, Erick Silva.

Some of you will no doubt have MacDonald higher on your list, but I can’t quite pull the trigger on a 22-year-old whose biggest win is arguably over string bean Nate Diaz. Don’t get me wrong, I love MacDonald as a future titleholder, just not sure if you can rank him higher than these other guys right now.

Silva, same thing. He certainly looks the part, but so far both opponents he’s fought in the UFC took the fight on short notice and both came within friendly confines of his home country.

The old faithfuls: Josh Koscheck, Jon Fitch.

These guys have been here for years and they’ll continue to be here through at least 2013. Fitch’s loss to Johny Hendricks could mean nothing. It was 12 seconds. He was facing some serious ring rust. If you think it’s the last we’ve seen of him, it’s probably because you just don’t like him and it’s clouding your judgment.

Koscheck gets the opportunity to avenge his friend’s loss against Hendricks in May. It’s a surprising fight to me because you’re risking a possible No. 1 contender to a guy who, as long as St. Pierre has the belt, can’t really be a No. 1 contender. Koscheck is high on this list because of his skills but frankly, a lot of things outside his control need to happen if he’s ever going to win the welterweight title.

The "highly" unlikely: Nick Diaz.

He’s probably getting a one-year suspension. If that’s the case, he can’t fight until February 2013. What kind of fight does he pull when he gets back? There will still be a lot of interest in a St. Pierre fight, even if St. Pierre isn’t even holding the belt, but do you really like his chances in that fight after such a long layoff? I don’t. So, would he get a “tune-up” fight first? Even if he did, it would be against a legitimate guy with a real chance at beating him. If that happens, he probably needs to win two more fights to get a title shot. Sorry, but there are just enough unknowns right now that I no longer love Diaz’s chances. He still claims a high spot on this list though because when he comes back, a matchup against St. Pierre is so marketable the UFC will so its best to put it together.

The favorites: Carlos Condit, Jake Ellenberger, Johny Hendricks.

In that order. Condit sits at the top thanks mainly to the intangibles on his side. He’s getting the next opportunity to do it -- at least that’s what it looks like. St. Pierre will be dealing with a very long layoff and he’ll be competing for the first time on his reconstructed knee. Stylistically, he faces an uphill battle in my opinion but not an insurmountable one. If he can stay on his feet, he’ll hit St. Pierre. He’ll get taken down but he’s terrific at escapes and he’s very tough mentally. He won’t be intimidated and he’ll keep working even if things don’t go well early.

Ellenberger is actually my favorite to get it done from a stylistic standpoint. I think he’s the most athletically gifted of the three and I like his standup a little over Hendricks’, although they both clearly hit hard. It would be good if he was a little bigger, but St. Pierre isn’t a huge welterweight either. He’d be very dangerous in a fight against the champ, especially early in the fight.

Hendricks is right there as well. He has the game changer in the left hand and, although St. Pierre would frustrate him a bit in the speed aspect, he’s not an easy opponent to control.

When it’s all said and done though, I guess this is all for naught because it’s very difficult to see anyone unseating St. Pierre. My guess is he makes this whole knee-injury, layoff ordeal look easy. That is, after all, the St. Pierre we’ve come to know.

Kampmann's recent career full of 'what ifs'

February, 29, 2012
Dundas By Chad Dundas
Martin KampmannJosh Hedges/Getty ImagesWhen it comes to breaking through, Friday might be the light at the end of the tunnel for Martin Kampmann.
Science fiction writers could probably spend entire careers offering alternate histories for Martin Kampmann.

Example: What if Kampmann hadn’t come out on the losing end of a razor thin decision against Jake Shields at UFC 121?

What if the judges had sided with the vocal majority who thought he should’ve gotten the nod over Diego Sanchez in March 2011 in their bloody, hard-fought cable TV main event?

What if Kampmann’s unanimous decision win over Rick Story three months back -- originally announced as a split verdict, like maybe the judges had considered taking that one from him, too -- had been the cherry on top of a five-fight win-streak instead of a two-bout slump buster?

No long meditation on the butterfly effect is needed to know that if any of the above had come to pass, well, Kampmann probably wouldn’t be taking on Thiago Alves on Friday in a fight that feels like a stretch as a main event, even for one of the UFC’s new live shows on FX. On a Friday night, no less.

If Stephen King can crank out 800-plus pages speculating about a couple of guys going back in time to try to stop the Kennedy assassination, we can take a couple of sentences to acknowledge what Kampmann has learned the hard way during the last year and a half: That the line between contender status and just being middle-of-the-pack in the UFC welterweight division is slim, and the margin for error essentially nonexistent.

If Kampmann had defeated Shields and/or Sanchez (some people believe he rightfully did both) maybe he would have been fighting Georges St. Pierre in late spring or early summer of last year. Or maybe he would have met up with Jake Ellenberger in a No. 1 contender bout in late 2011 or early 2012. Heck, given Kampmann’s 2009 win over Carlos Condit, maybe it would have been him in the cage against Nick Diaz fighting for the interim 170-pound title at UFC 143, instead of “The Natural Born Killer.”

Or maybe not. This is all speculative, of course. It's possible things could have gone off the rails for Kampmann in a thousand other ways. Perhaps his UFC 103 loss to Paul Daley -- arguably his only real misstep of the last few years -- would still have been enough to hold him back.

Whatever the case, instead of finding himself considering the intricacies of the welterweight title picture right now, Kampmann’s current reality is Friday's bout with Alves, where the stakes are, at best, uncertain.
[+] EnlargePaul Daley and Martin Kampmann
Tim Heitman for ESPN.comWhat if Martin Kampmann, right, hadn't lost to Paul Daley way back at UFC 103?

Alves is just 2-3 during his last five appearances and his only two wins since October 2008 came as the middle leg of John Howard’s three-fight losing streak and over a debuting unknown in Papy Abedi. He’s already been to the mountain top, fighting St. Pierre at UFC 100, and came out on the wrong end of a terribly lopsided decision loss. A return trip is starting to feel more and more unlikely.

At this point, the book is out on Alves, who starts like a house of fire and then fades late when his opponents can impose their game plans on him. The only real juice in this fight is the stylistic matchup -- both guys like to bang and Kampmann doesn’t fit the blueprint of the wrestle-first fighters like Story, GSP and Jon Fitch who’ve given Alves all sorts of trouble.

What does it all mean when a 1-2 fighter takes on a 2-3 fighter on cable TV on a night the public isn’t used to seeing fights and just 24 hours before a far more hyped-up women’s bantamweight title bout hits the airwaves? Nobody knows. It’s just one both guys know they don’t want to lose, that’s all.

Losses, we all know, are bad. Even losses that maybe should have been wins. Just ask Martin Kampmann.

Because he’s a professional fighter, Kampmann would likely blame himself for his recent rough turns of fate. He’d probably tell you it was his fault for “leaving it in the hands of the judges.”

Really, though, he’s not to blame, and that makes it hard not to wonder "what if."

While we’re engaging in fantasy, perhaps we could also indulge one where the fighters in our sport in 2012 don’t have to fear “leaving it” in the purview of the judges. Maybe there’s an alternate universe out there somewhere where the rules are better and the judges can be counted on to do a decent job.

Waiting on GSP is right, but it's a bummer

February, 16, 2012
Dundas By Chad Dundas
For Carlos Condit and the UFC, the reasons to wait for Georges St. Pierre are obvious.

St. Pierre is the champ, after all, and fighting him is still the holy grail for any welterweight who harbors ambitions of being recognized as the best in the world. The road to any legitimate 170-pound title has run through St. Pierre since 2006 and it will continue to do so until someone can knock him off his pedestal in a way that doesn’t feel fleeting or fluky.

For Condit, that’s a chance you absolutely cannot pass up. The “Natural Born Killer’s” rise from WEC titlist to middle-of-the-pack UFC contributor to now interim UFC champion is a feel-good story of the highest order. Perhaps more than anyone, his career path was disrupted when Nick Diaz took a rubber mallet to the organization’s welterweight plans. Condit must have felt a little like the last kid picked for playground basketball as he got shuffled through a series of prospective opponents and possible dates while the UFC tried (unsuccessfully) to manage Diaz’s various peculiarities.

Now that Condit has triumphed over all of that and secured a fight with St. Pierre, it’s perfectly understandable that he wouldn’t want to risk losing it. Who would?

For matchmakers and number-crunchers, Condit versus GSP is certainly the most lucrative welterweight matchup the UFC could promote this year, or at least the next best thing, now that any immediate hopes for St. Pierre-Diaz have been dashed. Any time you can get a sniff of some actual competition for the most dominant 170-pound fighter in history -- who, we are continually reminded, is also your best pay-per-view draw -- I suppose you do everything you can to make that bout happen.

Feels like kind of a bummer though, doesn’t it?

Here we have the most intriguing weight class in the UFC building an unprecedented sense of momentum, a talent pool that rivals that of the vaunted lightweight division, and now we have to push the pause button on the title picture for the next 10 months.

Any way you slice it, the decision to keep Condit out pending St. Pierre’s recovery is logical, but it’s not exactly ideal.
[+] EnlargeJake Ellenberger
Ross Dettman for ESPN.comWhat MMA fan wouldn't want to see Jake Ellenberger, left, mix it up with interim champion Carlos Condit?

Why even crown an interim champion if he’s just going to cool his heels for almost an entire year? Isn’t the point of having an interim champ that he’s available to defend the belt while the real champ is out? And if he can't put the title on the line against anyone other than St. Pierre, doesn’t that make Condit more No. 1 contender than champion, interim or otherwise?

Condit made just one Octagon appearance during 2011 and if he waits on GSP until November, it will mean he’s fought just twice in the last 16 months. That’s an awful lot of down time and very few paydays for a guy who will turn 28 in April and who might now sit idly while the most potentially lucrative year of his fighting career passes into history.

It would be one thing if there wasn’t anybody else for Condit to fight, but that’s certainly not the case in the welterweight division right now. Watching Jake Ellenberger rough up Diego Sanchez on Wednesday night, it was hard not to imagine what a five-rounder between "The Juggernaut" and a technical wizard like Condit might look like. Or, for that matter, to wonder if Ellenberger’s mix of physical strength, wrestling prowess and punching power might actually make him the most intriguing matchup for St. Pierre.

Now, we may never know. As it stands, the UFC is holding the line that Condit will likely wait for GSP, that Ellenberger could face the winner of Johny Hendricks’ May meeting with Josh Koscheck and that -- for all intents and purposes -- the welterweight title may as well not exist until this winter.

And yeah, that might be the right thing to do, but that doesn’t mean we have to like it.

Jake heads new class of hurdles for GSP

February, 16, 2012
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
OMAHA, Neb. -- Don’t look now, but the UFC welterweight division is quietly making a case for the promotion’s premier weight class.

Rising 170-pound prospect Jake Ellenberger made another splash Wednesday, outpointing a very determined Diego Sanchez in an early "Fight of the year" candidate. It was a big win for the 26-year-old and yet another significant fight in the division -- a division that’s been in big need of significant fights in years past.

As of late, this group of 170-pounders hasn’t exactly been raising heart rates. Not long ago, fans clamored for a fight between Josh Koscheck and Jon Fitch not only because of the "teammate versus teammate" angle, but because there weren’t many intriguing options left for each of them.

Dan Hardy earned a title shot in 2010 based on a couple split decisions and a knockout of Rory Markham. Jake Shields earned one a year later for being really good in a different division, fighting for a different promotion.

Not only did the weight class fail in numerous attempts to dethrone champion Georges St. Pierre, for 33 straight rounds, it failed to earn a 10-9 score against him.

Not to say the division has been downright awful, but as far as areas where the UFC needed new blood, it was near the top.

It’s safe to say that new blood has arrived.

Ellenberger represents one of the most intriguing future opponents to St. Pierre. Ahead of him on the division’s ladder is interim champion Carlos Condit. Around him are Johny Hendricks, Rory MacDonald and Nick Diaz. Below him are still Josh Koscheck, John Fitch, Thiago Alves, Martin Kampmann and Jake Shields.

Basically, iron sharpens iron. And there’s finally a ton of iron at 170 pounds.
[+] EnlargeJake Ellenberger
Ross Dettman for ESPN.comJake Ellenberger's explosive style has lit up the welterweight division in recent months.

“There’s no easy fight, that’s for sure,” Ellenberger said. “[The division] is stacked with young, hungry guys. I’ve been that guy for awhile.”

The influx of new talent at welterweight has more than likely killed any shot of a super fight between St. Pierre and UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva -- but if that’s a casualty the UFC and its fans should be able to live with.

This division has played a major part in the organization since Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta purchased the company in 2001. Even though it may have never eclipsed the light heavyweight division in terms of popularity, it was widely viewed as arguably the deepest in talent.

“The welterweight division has been a massive division for us since the first day,” UFC president Dana White said. “From Pat Miletich to Matt Hughes to Carlos Newton.”

For the first time in years, the welterweight division is capable of generating the type of excitement it drew during those years. Part of that excitement comes from the perception one of these guys can beat St. Pierre.

“This guy [Ellenberger], in my opinion, is tougher than St. Pierre,” Sanchez said. “He has a better chin than GSP. This guy is strong and he’s a warrior.”

Joe a driving force for brother Jake

February, 15, 2012
Gross By Josh Gross
Jake Ellenberger and Jake Shields Ross Dettman for ESPN.comFighting a motivated Jake Ellenberger is proving to be no fun for his opponents.
Jake Ellenberger looked at Joe, his fraternal twin, and made a promise.

In the grand scheme of things, how much would a win over Mike Pyle mean considering what they were up against? Still, Jake, moments from stepping into the Octagon, offered it up.

“This one’s for you,” he said.

“I remember when he went into the cage for that one,” Joe said. “I did not envy Mike Pyle.”

Ellenberger blasted Pyle to the tune of a second round technical knockout. It was, after a distinguished run outside the Octagon, his first UFC-branded win in two tries. Half a year later, Jake followed up by stopping John Howard. Then in 2011, he outpointed Carlos Rocha and scored finishes over Sean Pierson and Jake Shields.

Technically speaking, this is the path Ellenberger, 26, has taken to Wednesday’s fight in Omaha, Neb., against Diego Sanchez. But that misses most of why he returns home to fight for the first time since 2005, a win away from title consideration in the UFC.

“Every time I get in there, I'm not just fighting for myself,” said Ellenberger, 26-5. “I feel like I'm fighting for my brother, my family. It's so much more than that. It makes you think about why you're doing it.”

“The Juggernaut” would give everything up for his brother’s situation to be different. He freely admits it. The fact is Joe Ellenberger, a heck of a mixed martial artist and wrestler in his own right, has what doctors described as a “one in a million” disease. It took Joe a few weeks to learn how to pronounce paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria, and longer to get diagnosed.

When the call came, Joe was walking to wrestling practice. The voice on the other end asked him to come in, sit down. They finally knew what was wrong. But Ellenberger, a coach at Division-2 Nebraska-Kearney, where he competed on the school’s first national championship wrestling squad, demanded to know right then what the problem was. He wanted to know why his stomach was swollen and painful. Why fatigue knocked him out 12 hours at a time. Why he felt awful through his training camp in the summer of 2009. Through all the working out and wrestling, he couldn't remember the last time he wasn't tired. This was normal, or at least that's how he reconciled what he was feeling at the time.

Then he thought it might be mononucleosis -- which it wasn’t. Blood work came back “totally whacked out.” Doctors in Kearney couldn’t explain why Joe’s urine was cola-colored. Neither could anyone in Omaha. If the Mayo Clinic didn’t find a diagnosis, Joe Ellenberger was destined for medical textbooks. So he just wanted to know.

Enough with the traveling, with having having blood drawn every other day. Plus he didn't want to burden his family anymore. So, he put his foot down. The voice from the Mayo Clinic told him.

“Then it hit me,” Joe said. “This isn't 'how do you solve it.' This is 'how do you stay alive after you're 30-years old.’ I finally took a step back and realized I was so busy wanting to train my guys in wrestling, and train with my brother that I didn’t take a step back to look and evaluate what was going on.”

The Ellenbergers learned paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria, an extremely rare disorder affecting about 8,000 Americans, is terrific at killing red blood cells. Doctors told Joe he'd never participate in a contact sport again the rest of his life.

"You may as well kill me right now," was his first thought. He was understandably lost.

Every time I get in there, I'm not just fighting for myself. I feel like I'm fighting for my brother, my family. It's so much more than that. It makes you think about why you're doing it.

-- Jake Ellenberger

“I felt the most bad for Jake,” Joe said. “I know how much it means to him for me to be able to train with him. It's the brother thing. Even when he's going with good guys, no one motivates or pushes him like when he's going with me.”

This was a month before Jake dedicated his effort against Pyle.

“There was a lot of emotion,” the welterweight recalled a couple weeks ago following a training session that included his brother. “A lot of anger and frustration. Things that are hard to deal with. And there still is a lot to deal with, but he's just such a positive person, such a good leader; definitely somebody I look up to. He deals with it a lot better than I do, that's for sure.”

Joe was in damage control leading up to the Pyle fight. The best he could do was take over-the-counter folic acid, the stuff pregnant women take to boost their red blood cell count. He was prescribed a blood thinner to help prevent clotting, which is among the most immediate dangers posed by PNH. Then he started looking for solutions. He hoped “taking six or seven pills a day” would be enough to take care of it.

It wasn’t.

Just when Joe would have needed it most, he found Soliris -- the world’s single most expensive drug, according to Forbes, at $409,500 per year.

Through a specialist, the Ellenbergers were connected with the National Organization for Rare Disorders, which helped him with the cost.

This is why Jake Ellenberger, ranked No. 4 at 170 pounds by, will say four or five times over the course of a 20-minute interview that he’s not interested in wasting time. He’ll say that means he’s an all-or-nothing guy with a goal to be the best welterweight in the world. But perhaps his time is not what he’s most concerned about.

"We wanted to find out every day who's the tougher brother,” Jake said. “Everything was a competition.”

Jake, Joe and Adam (their older brother by 13 months) competed through broken windows, holes in the walls and multiple stitches. That was life in the Ellenberger household, and, as if there could be any other way, it continues to be today. Only the opponents are different.

Joe will work Jake’s corner Wednesday night in the main event at the Omaha Civic Auditorium -- business as usual for them that will double as a celebration in front of friends and family.

“He is the reason why I'm in this sport," Jake said of his twin.

It could also be said, then, that Joe Ellenberger, a lightweight who like his brother was unbeaten until fight 13 -- and yes, he’s scheduled to fight on the Titan Fighting 21 card in Kansas City March 2 -- is the reason Jake Ellenberger finds himself primed for a potential championship run in the UFC.

Overlooked Sanchez needs statement win

February, 14, 2012
Dundas By Chad Dundas
Diego SanchezJosh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesNo a minute to waste: Time isn't exactly on Diego Sanchez's side these days.
By his own admission, Diego Sanchez was displaced, unfocused and very nearly down and out just a couple of years ago.

Now, the newly rebranded “Dream” can add another adjective to that list: Overlooked.

Few people are giving Sanchez much chance of pulling the upset on Wednesday when he meets Jake Ellenberger in the welterweight main event of UFC on Fuel 1. Oddsmakers see him as more than a 2-to-1 underdog to the streaking Ellenberger, who’ll be fighting in his hometown of Omaha, Neb., and is currently riding high on a wave of publicity after a first-round knockout of former Strikeforce champion Jake Shields in September.

People are already putting Ellenberger in the front row of potential challengers for interim champion Carlos Condit -- depending, of course, on whether or not Georges St. Pierre’s injured knee heals at a pace deemed acceptable by company brass. All Ellenberger needs is one more win, over a fighter who has been inconsistent and slowed by his own difficulties (both physical and mental) recently.

For Sanchez, the stakes are somewhat less concrete. Unlike Ellenberger, he may not be a single win away from a title shot, but -- at 30 years old and 27 fights deep in his MMA career -- he needs this fight to prove he can still hang with the elite at 170 pounds.

The “Ultimate Fighter” Season 1 winner has been back training with Greg Jackson’s vaunted MMA team since 2010, but is still very much mired in the process of proving he’s returned to full strength after a couple of lost years elsewhere.

He split with Jackson in 2007 after the Albuquerque-based trainer began working with St. Pierre, who, at the time, was the dominant titlist in the weight class where Sanchez had championship aspirations. What followed were difficult times, where he says he bounced around gyms in southern California and New Mexico and succumbed to the allures of drugs and alcohol. He also vacillated between two weight classes, suffered three of his four career losses (including a career-defining beating at the hands of B.J. Penn at UFC 107) and has made veiled references to losing $150,000 to a bad investment deal, running afoul of the IRS in the process.
[+] EnlargeB.J. Penn and Diego Sanchez
Josh Hedges/Getty ImagesDiego Sanchez can't afford to absorb a beatdown like the one he took against B.J. Penn.

Sanchez is 2-0 since reuniting with Jackson, but perhaps because one of those wins was a razor-thin decision many believed rightly should have gone to Martin Kampmann, people aren’t quite buying into the renaissance just yet.

A victory, or at least a good showing, against Ellenberger could go a long way to changing their minds.

Even if Sanchez can’t grab the upset over the hard-hitting “Juggernaut” (who arguably does most of the same things Sanchez does, only better) it’s imperative that he doesn’t get run over in this fight the way Shields did five months ago. If not an outright victory, he at least needs a repeat of the too-close-to-call battle he had with Kampmann to prove his brightest days are still ahead of him.

If Sanchez were to somehow force his way back into the title picture, it could present something of a logistical nightmare -- no pun intended -- for the Jackson camp, as Sanchez, Condit and St. Pierre are all teammates there. Jackson has already said he’ll recuse himself and let his assistant coaches handle prefight preparations for Condit versus GSP. At least St. Pierre can do most of his prep at TriStar Gym in Montreal. No telling how Jackson’s crew might handle having Condit and Sanchez in the same room together.

At this point though, that seems like a good problem to aim for if you're Sanchez.

And he’s a guy who already knows a thing or two about problems.

Hendricks making his case for title shot

January, 30, 2012
Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall
Johnny HendricksDave Mandel/"Speak softly and carry a big left hand" used to be Johny Hendricks' mantra.
Jon Fitch was forever the No. 2 welterweight in the field, even if he was treated like an incredibly successful banality the entire time.

So what happens when Fitch, who never loses, gets knocked out by a guy with fresh marketability and a mean left hand? Does knocking out a perennial No. 2 deliver Johny Hendricks to front of the line for the next crack at the interim belt?

That’s either very simple or very complicated in the "up in the air" welterweight division.

Start with the premise of just where the UFC’s 170-pound division is right now. Next week, a placeholder champion will be named while Georges St. Pierre (who’s been on top for almost four years) recovers from knee surgery. The fight will be between Carlos Condit and Nick Diaz, both of whom were booked for dates with St. Pierre before circumstances turned them on each other. After that it’s Jake Ellenberger, who is fighting Diego Sanchez in Omaha on Feb. 15, and Josh Koscheck, who just had a title shot a little over a year ago. Koscheck is set to fight Mike Pierce at UFC 143.

Given the rapidly changing scene, doesn’t Hendricks -- who already beat Pierce and then Fitch in a dozen seconds -- look like the next challenger to the newly accessible interim belt?

He thinks so. And he knows exactly how precious the situation he’s in right this second is.
[+] EnlargeJake Ellenberger
Ross Dettman for ESPN.comJake Ellenberger could leap past Johny Hendricks with a solid performance against Diego Sanchez.

“I’ve been telling everybody I really want the winner of [Diaz/Condit],” Hendricks told while in Chicago. “You don’t get this opportunity too often. Now that I’ve done it in the ring, I’ve got to do it outside the ring. If I don’t promote myself outside the ring -- I mean, there are great fights going on and now they’re happening almost every week. You can be forgotten. So if I don’t say in the news that I want that interim title shot -- there’s a fight this weekend in the 170 class, and [if Koscheck or Pierce] does good, I might get bumped. So I always got to be out there making my case. I want my goal. My goal is to be UFC champ some day, and I know I’m right there. I just need that shot.”

Hendricks has never been one to toot his own horn across media platforms or bad mouth the guy with the strap just to generate hype (they don’t call him Happy Bearded Guy for nothing). Yet since debuting at UFC 101, he has won seven of eight fights and four of them by TKO or KO. His left hand is his volume. He said after knocking out Fitch that “the good lord blessed me with a left hand,” and it’s no longer in dispute.

What might be up for dispute is whether Ellenberger -- who is looking to make it six in a row in the UFC with Sanchez -- might catapult over him.

As far as Hendricks is concerned, it shouldn’t. The Fitch knockout, as quick and anticlimactic and unforeseen as it was to witnessing parties, made him an obvious choice to fight the winner of Diaz/Condit. The timing would mesh schedule-wise for matching up with the next week’s interim title winner. And if he has to confess everything, the truth is Hendricks doesn’t want to roll the dice on fighting an Ellenberger or a Sanchez or a Koscheck in a title eliminator unless he’s made to.

“Here’s the thing. Unless the UFC says, ‘Johny, you have to fight -- we want you to get a shot at the title, but we have some questions, and you need another one first,’ then of course I’m not going to bite the hand that feeds me. I’m going to do what they say.

“But if it’s up to me, I’d much rather go for the UFC interim belt. I’ve seen so many people who are right there, right there to get that shot and something happens ... it never fails, something happens, and they don’t win. And then it takes them three or four fights to get back, which is a year to a year-and-a-half back, and that’s if everything lines up perfectly.”

Not that he lacks confidence against any of those guys, but Hendricks feels he’s done enough to avoid unnecessary trappings. And after letting his fists do the talking, he says he’s going to go full throttle into making his case. The man they now call “Bigg Rigg” is about to launch the happiest campaign to get the title shot. And he started marketing himself by explaining to me that he was going to start marketing himself.

“You’ve got to,” he says. “The best example is Chael [Sonnen]. He’ll do it outside the [Octagon], and also sometimes in the [Octagon]. But if you can sell yourself in the ring, the less you have to do it outside the ring. I don’t want to be that kind of guy, like Chael. He does it awesome, but that’s not me.”

This is as good a time as any for a guy like Hendricks to quietly set up that next big left. And whether it’s Diaz or Condit, it doesn’t matter -- so long as they’re carrying the belt, he’ll continue to be the Happy Bearded Guy.