When Jake “The Juggernaut” Ellenberger last emerged from the octagon, it was on the wrong end of a unanimous decision following a bout panned by most for its lack of action.
Since then, Ellenberger, who will face fellow slugger Robbie Lawler on Saturday night at the MGM Grand Garden Arena as part of UFC 173, has made some changes.
One significant alteration has been his time training at the Glendale Fighting Club under Edmond Tarverdyan this year.
“It’s been huge, it’s been a big difference,” Ellenberger said of working with Tarverdyan, whose stable of fighters includes the UFC’s Manny Gamburyan, Shayna Baszler, Jessamyn Duke and, most notably, UFC women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey. “He really sharpened the things I already do. Even more so, he’s brilliant with strategy.
“Strategy’s been a big thing I’ve been implicating more. He’s been a huge help for me.”
Another change in Ellenberger is his level of confidence, as he enters what is likely his most important bout so far more assured than ever.
“I’ve never been more confident going into a fight,” Ellenberger said. “I have more ways to win this fight. And, quite honestly, if you don’t believe you’re the best in the world, you don’t belong in this sport.
“Confident? Absolutely. Can I finish Robbie? Absolutely. There’s no doubt in my mind I’ll win this fight.”
The 29-year-old Ellenberger, ranked fifth in the UFC welterweight rankings, is looking to climb the ladder against the 32-year-old Lawler (22-10), who’s ranked No. 1 in the division following a close decision loss to Johny Hendricks in March for the then-vacant UFC welterweight title.
“It’s [easier] to get motivated to face a guy who’s ranked No. 1,” Ellenberger said.
There’s little doubt the fight will be a hard-hitting affair.
Twenty-nine of Ellenberger’s victories have come via knockout, while Lawler, long known for having some of the heaviest hands in all of mixed martial arts, owes 18 of his 22 career wins to knockout.
Though his defeat to Rory MacDonald, characterized by a lack of action and aggression, was hard to watch for most fight fans, it was very much an aberration when compared to Ellenberger’s previous fights throughout a career highlighted by wins over notables such as Nate Marquardt, Jay Hieron, Diego Sanchez, Jake Shields, Mike Pyle and Pat Healy, among others.
His win over Shields, a stunning 53-second knockout of a former Strikeforce champion and UFC title challenger, was part of a six-fight UFC string of wins that had Ellenberger seemingly on the doorstep of being a title challenger. But that ascent was derailed by a well-placed knee from Martin Kampmann that delivered Ellenberger his first and only knockout loss. He then strung together two wins before his loss to MacDonald, but a win over Lawler would bring him right back into the title hunt.
“I’m not worried about Jake, but he brings a lot to the table,” Lawler said. “He’s got good knees, he’s a power puncher and his wrestling’s good.”
Ellenberger also trains with Rousey at the Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy in Torrance. It was Rousey who headlined UFC 157 on Feb. 23, 2013 in Anaheim against Liz Carmouche in a historical event that featured the two in the first-ever women’s fight under the UFC banner. The event was also the beginning of Lawler’s renaissance.
On the pay-per-view undercard, he scored a first-round technical knockout over former UFC welterweight title challenger Josh Koscheck. Then Lawler knocked out Bobby Voelker in July of 2013 before earning a split-decision over top-five contender MacDonald in November at UFC 167. Then came the aforementioned title shot against Hendricks in the wake of longtime UFC welterweight kingpin Georges St. Pierre vacating his title. The loss was a close one for Lawler and one that’s helped with his motivation going into Saturday.
“It was all about getting better,” Lawler said of his focus. “I concentrated on all the things I did last fight that I can improve on.”
Thus, Ellenberger, long regarded for his strong wrestling base and heavy hands, goes into Saturday with plenty of confidence, but just as much awareness of his foe in front of him.
“He’s very mentally tough, he’s very mentally strong and he’s gonna be there for the entire fight,” Ellenberger said. “You just gotta be ready for that. He’s always gonna be dangerous.”
The pay-pre-view portion of UFC 173 begins at 7 p.m. PDT and is headlined by a UFC men’s bantamweight title fight between champion Renan Barao and TJ Dillashaw.
Follow Grant Gordon on Twitter: @TCNGrantGordon.