On the groundbreaking premiere of TUF, Diego Sanchez (23-4) was pretty hard to miss. Amidst the alcohol-fueled shenanigans of pillow-spritzing and rampant vandalism, Diego would be the fella peacefully meditating in his room or out in the parking lot doing Yoga in a thunderstorm to harness the lightning. Before appearing on the show, Sanchez had already constructed an undefeated, eleven-fight record and a strong rep as a legit up-and-comer in King of Cage, where he'd just snared the promotion's welterweight championship.
In his early days, Sanchez was one of the rare few who excelled in both wrestling and submission grappling, commonly devouring his opponent with explosive double-legs and showering them with ground and pound or snatching power-subs like kimuras and lion-killers from dominant positions. He always exuded what would eventually become his trademark style, which is battling at a frenzied pace with heaps of unending aggression. He tidied up Alex Karelexis and Josh Rafferty with first round rear-naked chokes, dotted standout wrestler Josh Koscheck with ground strikes and then hammered an undersized Kenny Florian by first round TKO to become, along with light-heavyweight Forrest Griffin, the first "Ultimate Fighter."
Having competed on the show as a middleweight, Sanchez returned to welterweight and rattled off five impressive victories: he forced Brian Gassaway to tap to punches, earned the judges' nod over John Alessio, engaged in ultra-entertaining decision wins over top-caliber welterweights Nick Diaz and Karo Parisyan and demonstrated improved striking with a stiff right hook and flying knee to vanquish Joe Riggs. Sanchez would be handed consecutive defeats from Team AKA, as Josh Koscheck dabbed him up with a sprawl and brawl strategy for a unanimous vote and Jon Fitch out-hustled him in a tight split-decision.
Diego bounced back with two stoppages (David Bielkheden, Luigi Fioravanti) before setting his sights on the lightweight division. Two exciting and competitive decision wins later (Joe Stevenson, Clay Guida) and Sanchez found himself facing alpha-lightweight B.J. Penn for the title. Ascending to the highest point of his career would once again result in falling back down, as Penn battered him for a TKO in the fifth and John Hathaway spoiled his return to 170-pounds with a convincing decision defeat. Sanchez has since notched two in a row, both action-packed decisions, over Paulo Thiago and Martin Kampmann.
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No longer an unknown fighter, Ellenberger dabbled with his first taste of upper-echelon welterweights and hit a rough stretch of road, splitting his next six with losses to Jay Hieron, Derrick Noble (both of whom would eventually fight in the UFC) and submission specialist Delson Heleno, who is the only fighter to this day to finish Ellenberger (armbar). Lemons became lemonade, as Ellenberger won six of his next seven that included a vicious KO over Vale Tudo legend Jose "Pele" Landi-Jons and a decision over crafty grappler and current Strikeforce fighter Pat Healy, with another UFC-level adversary accounting for his sole loss (Rick Story).
He faced former WEC champion Carlos Condit in his Octagon debut and flattened him twice in the first round. Condit showed amazing resilience and battled on, eventually turning the tide in later rounds and winning a split-decision that could've gone either way. Ellenberger has cut a five-fight swathe since then, scorching four by knockout (Mike Pyle, John Howard, Sean Pierson and the tank-chinned Jake Shields) along with a split-decision over Carlos Eduardo Rocha; a decision plagued by one utterly unfathomable score card.
Gifs and analysis in the full entry.
Though these are older gifs from the Riggs encounter back in 2006, this marked a pivotal stage of Diego's evolution because he'd seemed to have rounded out his ground-oriented strategy with a fierce striking game. And this is definitive evidence of that: his stance, balance, defensive guard and punching form shows substantial improvement here.
Some fighters drift away from their raw ferocity when developing finesse and more polished technique, but Sanchez sprinted across the cage and went airborne with a highlight-reel-worthy flying knee to conclude the sequence to the right.
However, sculpting your fundamentals to a more adequate level is not the same thing as being a good striker at the UFC level.
Really, if you gather up all of Sanchez's past performances in the Octagon, his entire strategy consists of charging forward with a blinding series of looping rights and lefts and then dropping levels for a double leg against the cage. He wins when it works and loses when it doesn't. This trend first materialized against Alessio, who was expected to be trounced but nearly upset Sanchez.
After Alessio, Koscheck devised an intelligent sprawl and brawl that consisted of avoiding the wild bull-rush, anticipating the takedown that always followed it and lancing tight punches through his permeable defense.
Don't get me wrong -- there will always be a place for primal and unbridled aggression in MMA and the plan was (and, at times, is still) effective, but I don't think it's too far-fetched to isolate this approach as highly predictable and the catalyst for his UFC losses. Kampmann attended to this habit well on most fronts but still allowed himself to be contained on the fence and take punishment.
Ellenberger has never been the kind of guy to dance deftly out of range while flicking out a few mediocre-powered counters, so the Machida-esque strategy is out. He absolutely has, however, the medley of wrestling and striking to formulate the perfect antidote for Sanchez, along with Goliath punching power and an impenetrable chin to boot. He is also the type that happily embraces down-and-dirty, in-your-face warfare, which lends scintillating appeal to this match up. Prior to meeting Ellenberger, Shields had lost just once by TKO, which was in his third pro-fight in 2000, so the scene to the left is a testament to his power.
As opposed to back pedaling, Ellenberger thrives in the role of being an assertive counter puncher.
His intentions are to hold his ground, calculate his opponent's tendencies and map out the best trajectory in which to stream his rocket-fueled fists directly into their jaw.
He's accomplished this with both his left and right hands along with the brutal knee he finished Shields with, making him a multi-dimensional knockout threat with excellent timing, instincts and accuracy.
Once he holds his ground and makes a statement that he won't retreat, Ellenberger is even more of a head-hunter when moving forward.
When he's countering, he takes a little mustard off his punches so he can maintain balance and stay light on his toes, which allows him to fend off takedowns and cut angles to counter. When he's on the attack, he spools up sickening power and throws everything into his hands.
That's what we see to the left against Condit, who protects his right side well when throwing the knee, but not so much with the left side.
Overall, I can't help but see this as a horrible match up for Sanchez. Ellenberger has never been knocked out, he's the more credentialed and accomplished wrestler and he has more power and better technique on the feet. Plus, he's a purple belt himself, which leaves only a narrow advantage for Diego in his other specialty of scrambling and grappling transitions.
I don't see many ways that Diego can impose his will, as I think Ellenberger will oblige a brawl, but will not do so in a stationary position against the cage where Diego is most effective. Diego has been difficult to stop with punches so a decision might be more likely, but I'm guessing Ellenberger can land a big bomb and finish with damage or pounce with a stream of leather to elicit an intervention from the ref.
My Prediction: Jake Ellenberger by TKO.
Sanchez vs. Riggs gif via Sherdog Forums
Ellenberger vs. Condt gif via MMA-Core.com
All others via Zombie Prophet of IronForgesIron.com