In a sure-fire dogfight that many are anticipating more than the Demetrious Johnson vs. John Moraga headliner, Rory MacDonald meets Jake Ellenberger in the UFC on Fox 8 co-main slot. The pivotal welterweight bout is one of four main-card pairings slated for the Fox channel's broadcast, which begins at 8:00 p.m. ET on the heels of the 8-fight preliminary card that's spread out between the FX Channel (5:00 p.m. ET) and Facebook (est. 3:30 p.m. ET; will likely be pushed back to 4:00 ET).
Jake Ellenberger (29-6), who's typically a pretty laid back sportsman, has uncharacteristically pulled no punches while verbally lambasting Rory MacDonald (14-1) in the weeks leading up to this collision. "The Juggernaut" has snickered at the popular sentiment that MacDonald is the next Georges St. Pierre, he's deemed MacDonald's lofty welterweight ranking "ridiculous", he's cautioned the 24-year-old Canadian that "this isn't a Tears for Fears lookalike contest" and suggested he prepare for some "horizontal television time" and the pair have been freely trading barbs on Twitter and in the media for a while now.
It could be the genuine makings of a bad-blood rivalry. It could be completely manufactured drama to hype up the fight. It could cause one competitor to take it personal and freak out. Or it could have absolutely no impact. Regardless, the buzz surrounding this influential match up between perennial contenders, which has a great chance to unfold on competitive and mutually violent terms, is resonating well with fight fans. And for good reason.
After dropping a contentious, coin-toss split decision -- in what was a see-saw-paced mutual massacre -- to future interim champion Carlos Condit in his Octagon debut, Ellenberger trudged on to cleave a commanding 8-1 swathe through the 170-pound pack. The hot streak sparkles with five stoppages by TKO, an impressive three of which were exacted in brutal fashion against fellow division big dogs in Mike Pyle, Jake Shields (now at middleweight) and Nate Marquardt. Overall, Ellenberger flaunts 18 wins by TKO with 5 submissions and 6 decisions for a respectable 79% finishing ratio.
Ellenberger's lone hiccup on that journey was a surprising TKO loss to Martin Kampmann. The Dane, who owned a mediocre 7 TKO's out of 19 wins at the time, became the first fighter to finish the then 36-fight vet with strikes, as a perfectly timed and placed knee put Ellenberger out in the 2nd round.
MacDonald is among the rare very breed with either the prodigious drive or lack of sensible advisement to begin a professional fighting career at age 16. But it's hard to knock the ballsy move when it started with four straight submission wins in the 1st round, blossomed into accruing the King of the Cage Canadian lightweight championship and then crescendoed when he became overall promotional lightweight champ in just his first seven outings. And, as the icing on the cake, Rory finished all seven of his opponents with a nice balance of strikes and submissions.
After foraying to welterweight and notching two more stoppages, MacDonald got the call and dispatched Mike Guymon via armbar in his Octagon debut. It was then that MacDonald's sustained aura of invincibility was tarnished for the first and only time: down two rounds going into the third, Greg Jackson broke character and simmered off some sort of motivational voodoo that allowed Condit to channel the spirit of long-dead Muay Thai gods. "The Natural Born Killer" erupted in the final frame, wildly buzz-sawing MacDonald down with blistering strikes and eventually inspiring the referee to intervene with just seven ticks left on the clock.
Returning under watchful eyes after his enduring his first career loss, and one that particularly stung at that, "Ares" has since pieced together a 4-fight roll punctuated by utterly dominant thrashings of longtime tough guys in Nate Diaz, B.J. Penn, Mike Pyle and Che Mills.
But let's get to the actual face-punching already.
Ellenberger is the archetypal wrestle-boxer ... which sounds unfair, because he's probably one of the best wrestle-boxers in the sport right now. Here is Bloody Elbow's resident wrestling specialist Mike Riordan on Ellenberger's wrestling resume:
"Jake does not have elite wrestling pedigree, he only has about half a season's worth of division 2 competition under his belt (his brother was a D2 all-american). That being said, D2 powerhouse Nebraska Omaha brought him on as a coach which suggests that he can wrestle well enough to compete with some of the best of NCAA division 2. Based on this I would make the prediction that he would compete respectably against lower level Division 1 competition in pure wrestling."
Ellenberger's wrestling has clearly translated well, as Condit is the sole opponent to land a legit takedown on him -- though Carlos Eduardo Rocha put Jake on his back with some clever sweeps and submission grappling artistry. Along with welterweight and wrestle-boxing counterpart Johny Hendricks, Ellenberger easily has the heaviest hands and most feared knockout power in the division.
Perhaps because he grew up training MMA as a whole, the core of MacDonald's game is somewhat difficult to nail down. He's a lanky and athletic welterweight who just does everything well: his striking started out as a basic curtain-puller with ground-and-pound but, especially after the Penn fight, has now evolved into a pretty complex assembly of rangy punches and kicks. Though lacking a notable wrestling pedigree, MacDonald has been able to impose his will with frightening clarity against notoriously slippery opponents in Condit and Diaz, and his track record authenticates his grasp of submissions.
That also makes the young Canadian phenom pretty damn depressing to prepare for. Beyond exhibiting nary a flaw, the only time he's really been out of the driver's seat was the last round vs. Condit, whose performance might've only substantiated the benefits of summoning poltergeists. The fact that Ellenberger will surely look to keep things standing and attempt behead MacDonald with strikes signifies implementing his strong suit rather than exploiting any kind of weakness.
Conversely, Rory's amorphous style lends a handful of different opportunities when he puts Ellenberger on the drawing board. Knowing he'll intend to stuff takedowns, move into toe-to-toe range and squeeze the trigger, MacDonald affords the luxury of cycling between his crafty kicks from the outer-fringe of striking range (a location from which Jake has few weapons), his gangly but tight boxing at standard range, imposing his vice-like clinch control at contact range or bowling Ellenberger over when he least expects it with takedowns.
In addition to those myriad options, MacDonald has become quite adept at faking any one course of action to set-up another. Even though Ellenberger stands an inch taller (6'0" vs. 5'11"), MacDonald will enjoy a 3.5" reach advantage (76.5" vs. 73"), and against Condit, who's considered an effectively rangy striker, MacDonald orchestrated the tempo by convincingly dictating his range -- he'd move backwards and spear mile-long front kicks and sweeping low kicks from outside with the occasional straight one-two sprinkled in, then change levels, charge forward and dump him when he rushed in too far while compensating for the distance dilemma.
Rory's ability to draw from his extensive toolbox and adjust to the flow of the fight is his best asset. He knifed into range and buried Mills under a hail of leather on the canvas when the striking exchanges weren't to his liking, he engulfed Diaz with his devastating clinch and rag-dolled him effortlessly from the rear waist-lock, and he was perfectly content to stay outside and pelt Penn with a dynamic kickboxing onslaught.
And all that explains why MacDonald is a hefty favorite over Ellenberger -- he simply has more pathways to victory. Of course, that one path for Ellenberger has still been pretty damn reliable.
MacDonald's past opposition is noticeably devoid of two key aspects: top-level wrestlers and lights-out power punchers. You'd have to assert Pyle as the best wrestler he's encountered, and Pyle is much more of a cunning technician in the clinch than a traditional wrestler, and Mills or Penn would be the biggest power punchers, but they lacked either size, range (Penn) or the wrestling acumen to stay afoot (Mills).
That, in turn, might pose some problems for MacDonald match-up wise. Not only is Ellenberger harder to move around and control in the clinch, his dirty boxing and clinch knees are vicious, meaning Rory's usual tactic of tying up to nullify his opponent's striking might just bring him closer to the epicenter of Ellenberger's power. While Rory has a better handle on submission grappling, we've really only seen him on his back in the Condit fight (per my recollection), so Ellenberger could use the potency of his boxing to set up surprise double-leg takedowns from outside.
MacDonald is the deserving favorite but I think the lines should be a tad closer. Perhaps picking more with my heart, I'm going out on a limb for Ellenberger here. I expect MacDonald to slice long strikes from outside -- both out of respect for Ellenberger's close-range thunder and to exploit his lack of a distance weapon. Eventually, however, I feel Rory will have to close distance or that Ellenberger will lure him into a combination, though a single takedown from MacDonald could drastically change the fight's complexion.
My Prediction: Jake Ellenberger by TKO.