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UFC 180: Hunt vs. Werdum - Toe to Toe Preview: Jake Ellenberger vs. Kelvin Gastelum

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Phil MacKenzie and David Castillo break down one of the few honest to goodness scraps on the main card with Jake Ellenberger up against Kelvin Gastelum.

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Kelvin Gastelum vs Jake "The Juggernaut" Ellenberger

One-sentence summary?

Rising welterweight star takes on a perennial top-10 power-puncher

OR

Previously rising prospect turned veteran takes on previously rising prospect still prospect.

Stats?

Weight class: Welterweight (170lbs)

Kelvin Gastelum
9W-0L (4W-0L UFC)
3 (T)KOs, 3 submissions
UFC ranking: #11
Fighting out of: Yuma United MMA
Odds:

Jake "The Juggernaut" Ellenberger
29W-8L (8W-4L UFC)
18 (T)KOs, 5 submissions
UFC ranking: #8
Fighting out of: Reign Training Center
Odds:

History lesson / introduction to the fighters

Phil: Kelvin Gastelum came up through the surprisingly good Season 17 of the Ultimate Fighter. Throughout, his wrestling and submission prowess was overshadowed by the more flashy kickboxing of Uriah Hall, and his likable puppydog enthusiasm was occluded by Hall's ratings-grabbing neuroticism... right up until the point where Gastelum beat him to win the season.

Since then, he's extended this to a flawless 4-0 UFC career, and has looked increasingly three-dimensional and dangerous, quickly establishing himself as someone to watch.

David: Kelvin really surprised me on the show. He was like Amir Sadollah. It was impossible to know what to expect. Hall's presence and performances were overwhelming. Everyone makes fun of Hall now, but you couldn't watch TUF and not come away impressed.

Phil: Jake Ellenberger was one of the new breed of young gun wrestlers making their way up through the division a few years ago, alongside Rick Story and Johny Hendricks. The three of them jockeyed for position and relevance, and each seemed poised to distinguish himself at one point or another: although it seemed like Ellenberger was poised to pull away after finishing Jake Shields, he now finds himself on a two-fight losing skid and fighting for his position as an elite competitor. Story managed to right the ship against Gunnar Nelson... can Ellenberger do the same against Gastelum?

David: Ellenberger has 8 losses in his career, which is a number that jumps out at me for some reason. Maybe it's his skillset. I don't like being reductionist, but I think it says a lot about a fighter that his best performance was in defeat. Jake seems capable of taking a step towards fighting for the title, but just doesn't seem mentally able to make the leap.

What are the stakes?

Phil: With a win over Ellenberger, Gastelum establishes himself as maybe the brightest elite prospect at welterweight. While I do think that Rick Story is perhaps already a better win and a tougher out than Ellenberger (rankings be damned), a win over the Juggernaut would speak volumes for Gastelum's ability to fight against different looks from tough opponents.

Ellenberger, on the other hand, needs this win. Badly. Not only for his ranking, but for his confidence. He looked utterly mentally crushed in his last two fights, and it's very easy to see a Gray Maynard-esque nose-dive from relevance in his near future.

David: Yea. Jake just can't afford to lose, and yet he's fighting a guy with momentum behind him. It's weird to talk about Ellenberger like a pink slip fighter, but that's where he is. Although Gray fell because of his age, and his chin/lack of defense failing him. Jake still has all his faculties, but right now they're not in sync.

Something something Kelvin turns up the heat, something something stop the Juggernaut!?!1

Phil: The match-up starts out as a pretty classic contest of volume vs power. First up: it cannot be overstated that Ellenberger is a nightmarish, lights-out hitter. He is one of those rare fighters who can leave opponents board-stiff or puking their guts out with a single blow. He's capable of hurting opponents with both hands (witness his left hook knockdown of Martin Kampmann), but normally favours the tried and trusted right (most of his other KOs). He backs this up with a lovely double leg takedown, and has been extraordinarily difficult to take down himself throughout his UFC career.

His first problem has been consistency. The elements of his game have sort of floated around, pieces coming together for good performances, then separating and drifting away in bad ones. He showed a devastating clinch against Shields, which subsequently disappeared. He put together a ground and pound clinic on John Howard, but has shown little inclination or ability to inflict any damage from top position in pretty much any fight other than that.

He's spent some time being trained by Rafael Cordeiro, and the aggressive combination punching and rugged chains of offense which are characteristic of Kings MMA are sometimes in effect (more of that in our Hunt-Werdum breakdown), but like many of the other elements of his game, they are worryingly disconnected and sporadic, and he just doesn't seem to have the hard-nosed fearlessness to keep that kind of approach up.

The constants for Ellenberger are his mind-numbing power and the takedown game, but both of these unfortunately lead to his second weakness: cardio. He's gassed out in the past, and appears to try and ameliorate this by dropping his output, sometimes into near total inactivity.

Kelvin does not have this problem.

David: Not only has Jake gassed, but he takes some legitimately baffling decisions in the middle of fights. I just can;t forget his performance against Rory. I'd imagine walking around with the kind of power in his right hand is like being armed with a Lawgiver at all times. Except instead of being set to Double Whammy, it's set to Signal Flare. He just doesn't know how to integrate his weapons into an intelligent performance.

I'm still not sure what he was doing against Rory. If you were gonna get jabbed and not throw punches, couldn't you at least attempt some takedowns? It's the one reason why I can't pick Jake with any confidence in any fight.

Insight from past fights?

Phil: The Story and Musoke fights were simultaneously laudable and worrying for Gastelum. On the one hand, he got put in bad situations. On the other... he still won both contests, showing both the ability to hold onto a point lead, and the ability to bring one back. In extension of this, if there's one thing which defines Kelvin it is "will to win."

This could feasibly work against him: when fighting Story, he kept throwing back fearlessly, even when he got tagged pretty hard and wobbled. Story then proceeded to knock him down, and almost finished him. If this sequence was replayed with Ellenberger's punching power on the other end, Gastelum would be splattered all over the cage.

David: This is an easy one. I'm glad you mentioned the Story fight. I'm still in awe of Kelvin surviving that shotgun blast to the face. I thought Story killed the guy. However, his jab was lights out, and it was an amazing performance for at least one half of the fight. Splattered is a generous word though. More like deatomized.

However, just the same, you can look at Ellenberger's fight with Martin Kampmann. While Martin has zero in common with Gastelum, he is a volume puncher like Kelvin. The real story of this fight will be whether or not Kelvin can jab his way into unsuccessful takedowns in order to minimize the striking exchanges. As low as I am on Jake's ability to win a tough, calculated contest...he's got too much raw ability to swiftly lose to a fighter who is raw altogether.

X-Factors?

Phil: Weight cuts! Gastelum abandoned the dietary "genius" of Mike Dolce for his last fight, and looked... not good. He doesn't appear to be a particularly large welterweight, but whether his diet is a weak spot, or whether he just struggles to lose weight as he's getting old and fat (he's an ancient 23 at this point), he absolutely cannot afford to come in looking turgid and slow against a hitter of Ellenberger's caliber. One shotgun-blast right, and he'll be waking up with the stink of cordite and his own blood in his nostrils.

David: There are a lot, that's for sure. Jake's menality, and approach, Kelvin's defense and Dolce on his mind.

Prognostication:

Phil: Just looking at these two men in their recent fights, one of them is in ascendance and one of them is slumping. One of them displays a powerful will to win in every situation, and the other folds under adversity. From Story to Kampmann to MacDonald to Lawler, Ellenberger has never functioned particularly well or consistently against pressure fighters, and while his power remains a constant threat, Kelvin Gastelum by TKO, round 2

David: Man. I've been just as harsh on Jake, but I feel like this is still a bridge too far for Gastelum right now. Not only that, but his back is absolutely against the wall. Jake may not be perfect, but he's not a pink slip fighter. Not yet at least. Jake Ellenberger by TKO, round 2.