With Nick Diaz on the shelf for an indeterminate amount of time after failing a post UFC 143 drug test and current UFC Welterweight Champion Georges St. Pierre expected to be out until at least November, Jake Ellenberger has moved into pole position to be the next challenger to interim champion Carlos Condit's 170-pound title.
That is assuming, of course, that Ellenberger can get past Diego Sanchez in this Wednesday's UFC On Fuel main event, something he is favored heavily to do. He is clearly at the top of a mediocre pack of welterweights, a group marred by inconsistency, drawing power and a lack of notable wins.
Going into February, Ellenberger (26-5, 5-1 UFC) was the division's hottest challenger outside of Diaz. After dropping a tight split decision to Condit in his September 2009 debut, the 26-year-old finished four of his next five opponents by T/KO including Jake Shields in just 53 seconds last September. Even if Diaz hadn't been suspended, an argument could be made that another win would put him in title contention. Now it's undeniable he'd be the No. 1 contender.
While Condit hasn't been warm on a rematch with Ellenberger, he might not have a choice. It's unrealistic that the new champ is going to wait 10 months to fight Diaz when there's money and reputation to be made with a summer title defense. There's been some residual damage from the style in which he beat Diaz, a reason why the talk of a rematch this week made a lot of sense. Sitting on the sidelines for GSP doesn't make sense. Condit has to compete again before a title unification bout can happen.
Following a surprising 13-second knockout of Jon Fitch in December, the Oklahoma State wrestling champion finds himself in another surprising position: title contention if Ellenberger loses. Hendricks (12-1, 7-1 UFC) has flown under some radars but since his August 2009 debut, he's only lost once in eight Octagon battles. The Fitch KO capped a big year and the Diaz situation may open up a much bigger door for him in 2012.
The poster boy for the eternal winning vs. entertainment argument, the Hendricks loss greatly hurts him if Ellenberger loses. We all know the deal: Fitch (23-4-1-1, 13-2-1 UFC) isn't a box office draw and constantly has had to defend himself for his fighting style. After his loss to GSP in his only title shot, Fitch won five in a row before going to a draw to B.J. Penn. With the defeat to Hendricks, the UFC has their out in not giving the AKA product another title opportunity, thus avoiding a potential champion that's perceived as bland. Fair? No, but it's reality.
So what of Ellenberger's opponent this Wednesday? Would a win put Sanchez (23-4, 12-4 UFC) in Dana White's mix? It's an outside possibility as it would be his third win in a row after consecutive losses to Penn (lightweight fight) and John Hathaway. While some saw his unanimous decision win over Martin Kampmann as a gift, he also has name value and at 30 years old, White may be tempted to pull a surprise and give him a chance with an impressive win over Ellenberger.
The outsider of the group, Koscheck (17-5, 15-5 UFC) does have consecutive wins over Matt Hughes and Mike Pierce, but the latter wasn't convincing and the fight public isn't clamoring for another Koscheck title opportunity after his eye was busted up by GSP in December 2010. Stranger things have happened, but it would take a lot for Koscheck to be considered a viable opponent for Condit this summer.
When it comes to getting a title shot, Ellenberger simply needs to follow the mantra of the late Al Davis: just win, baby.
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