It was a dangerous test that came at a crucial time in the welterweight divisional race, but Jake Ellenberger rose to the occasion in brutal and impressive fashion.
The 27-year-old former Marine had been in hot pursuit of a shot at the welterweight title for the past two years, and if those dreams were going to remain alive, the Team Reign staple needed to find victory at UFC 158 against Nate Marquardt.
"The Juggernaut" wasted no time getting down to business as he backed up the former Strikeforce welterweight champion with power shots. After several exchanges, Ellenberger put Marquardt against the cage, then dropped him with a series of well-placed hammers. With his opponent rocked, Ellenberger's killer instinct kicked in, and he brought the action to a close with a flurry of shots that left Marquardt face down on the canvas.
In a pre-fight interview with Bleacher Report, Ellenberger said he was coming into Montreal to "make a statement and put a stamp on Marquardt's forehead." He managed to accomplish both tasks in one fell swoop, and in the process he carved out his place in divisional hierarchy of the 170-pound weight class.
The victory over "Nate the Great" marks back-to-back wins for the Omaha, Neb., native, making him successful in eight of his last nine showings. While the win didn't land him in the No. 1 contender's position, Ellenberger clearly proved he's one of the best 170-pound fighters in the UFC fold.
The biggest question now is: What comes next? With Johny Hendricks slated as the next opponent for champion Georges St-Pierre, Ellenberger will more than likely need one more quality victory in order to make his dream of competing for a UFC title a reality.
With the "unofficial" welterweight tournament knocking Nick Diaz and Carlos Condit out of the immediate title picture, there are only two potential opponents who would make sense for Ellenberger to face. Both present unique challenges for the surging contender, so let's take a look at what could potentially come next for Ellenberger.
A Summer Dance With Demian Maia
UFC 158 may have featured a collection of the top welterweights on the UFC roster, but one fighter who has to be mentioned in the conversation is Demian Maia. Since dropping down into 170-pound waters, the Brazilian jiu-jitsu ace has won all three of his outings against solid competition.
If claiming victory over the likes of Dong Hyun Kim, Rick Story and Jon Fitch weren't enough, the fashion in which the 35-year-old has steamrolled his opponents in the welterweight division has generated a buzz and put Maia on the radar for potential title contention.
In his most recent outing against Fitch at UFC 156, the former No. 1 contender to the middleweight crown controlled the AKA-trained fighter from bell to bell. The former standout wrestler from Purdue University has made a career out of a gritty, grinding attack, but Maia dominated the positional battle with relative ease en route to a lopsided unanimous-decision victory. It was the second consecutive bout where Maia skipped the "feeling out" phase which typically comes in the opening minute of a fight and got right down to business.
During his time as a middleweight, Maia struggled as he attempted to develop his striking attack. Despite the tremendous initial success he experienced on the strength of his grappling, he slowly began to abandon his ground game in the hopes of becoming a more effective stand-up fighter. That being said, since dropping down into the welterweight division, Maia has returned to previous form and has never looked better.
While Maia is a nightmare matchup for any welterweight where grappling is concerned, Ellenberger's strong wrestling pedigree and knockout power make the potential pairing interesting. The biggest hole in the Brazilian's game is in the striking department, and if Ellenberger could keep the action on the feet, Maia would be forced to deal with Ellenberger's proven knockout power.
At the same time, should Maia be able to take the fight to the ground, the four-time "Submission of the Night" winner would have as much a similar advantage on the canvas as to what Ellenberger would posses in the stand up game.
In 35 professional fights, Ellenberger has only been submitted on one occasion. While he hasn't faced an opponent with the credentials Maia brings to the table, the surging contender is no slouch when the action hits the mat, which would only serve to make a potential bout between the two all the more interesting.
Return of the Mac
When Rory MacDonald recovers from his injuries and returns to the Octagon later this year, the talented young Canadian is going to be looking for a high-profile fight. And Ellenberger would certainly fit that description.
The 24-year-old is riding a four-fight win streak and has laid a path of destruction as he's gone from being a highly touted prospect to one of the top welterweights on the UFC roster.
The British Columbia native had his sights locked on redeeming the only loss of career against Carlos Condit, but after a neck injury forced him out of the bout, that opportunity went to the wayside. Following "The Natural Born Killer's" loss to Hendricks in Montreal, remaking the fight between MacDonald and Condit doesn't make a lot of sense at this point.
Condit's loss to "Bigg Rigg" was his second consecutive defeat, and despite how competitive his fights against Hendricks and St-Pierre were, pairing up a fighter on a two-fight skid with an opponent who is on a win streak doesn't make tremendous sense in the grand scheme of the divisional picture.
Where a bout between MacDonald and Condit doesn't line up in the aftermath of UFC 158, a potential throwdown with Ellenberger would be spot on. Aside from both having a solid collection of wins behind them, the stylistic matchup would make for an intriguing fight, as each fighter possesses an interesting challenge for the other.
In his young career, MacDonald has yet to face an opponent with the type of power Ellenberger brings to the table, and it would be interesting to see how the Tristar-trained fighter handles that problem. On the other hand, MacDonald has proven to be a beast on the canvas and possesses a unique and brutal form of ground-and-pound. If MacDonald was able to put Ellenberger on his back, it could be a long night for the California-based fighter.
MacDonald has been heralded as the future of the welterweight division, and with Ellenberger believing it is his time to make a title run, it would be the perfect opportunity to decide who is next in line.