With UFC 158 being one of the most highly anticipated cards of the year, Jake Ellenberger knew he had the perfect opportunity to make a grand statement.
The 27-year-old had been battling his way up the divisional ladder for two years, attempting to solidify himself as a legitimate threat to the welterweight crown, and when he stepped into the Octagon this past Saturday night in Montreal, Ellenberger was determined to put a definitive stamp on the matter.
The Juggernaut's declaration would come at the expense of former Strikeforce welterweight champion Nate Marquardt, and it was a point made in brutal fashion. After dropping Marquardt with a big left hand, Ellenberger unleashed a flurry of rapid-fire shots to his defenseless opponent, bringing an end to the bout.
An impressive knockout victory over the former No. 1 contender to the middleweight crown proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that Ellenberger belongs in the title conversation in the 170-pound weight class. In addition to carving out his place in the divisional hierarchy, the Team Reign fighter also showed the ability to step up when the pressure is on.
The next wave of 170-pound talent is pushing to break through, and Ellenberger's domination of Marquardt on the sport's biggest stage sent a strong message to every fighter in the welterweight division.
Make no mistake about it, the former Marine is flat-out fired up. He believes the time has come for him to make a run at the welterweight title, and that campaign was kicked-off in proper fashion in Montreal.
"I accomplished exactly what I wanted to do with this fight," Ellenberger told Bleacher Report in an exclusive interview. "It happened a bit quicker than I had anticipated, but I wanted to make a statement and I believe I was successful in doing so."
While the battle between the two powerful welterweights figured to be an action-packed affair, once the opening bell sounded it was all Ellenberger. The California-based fighter pushed the pace, as he backed Marquardt up with powerful shots.
It didn't take long for Ellenberger's handiwork to show through, as Marquardt's face became swollen and bloody shortly into the fight. It was clear Nate the Great was struggling to handle Ellenberger's power, but where the surging contender has become over-aggressive in past bouts, he was able to keep his composure in this tilt and finished the fight with a flurry three minutes into the opening frame.
Fighting with urgency front and center and keeping his killer instinct under control are aspects of Ellenberger's game into which he's put a lot of work, and that work paid off at UFC 158.
"Fights are so unpredictable, and you really have to stay on your opponent and control that rhythm," Ellenberger said. "It's hard when to find that rhythm when you let somebody else control the range. It's tough to really know how hurt your opponent is, because you are in the moment and you just have to keep moving forward.
"It's really difficult to tell how hurt your opponent is during the fight. I've been working a lot with my boxing coach, improving my skills and getting faster. That was really what I was focusing on, and not so much the damage I was causing. You can't really afford to guess when you are in the fight. I've had other situations, like against Martin Kampmann, where he was bleeding from his nose, eye, and mouth. There was blood gushing from his face, and you start thinking the fight is pretty much over and all you need to do is connect with one solid punch to finish things.
"Unfortunately that didn't work out, but that is how it is in this sport. MMA is the hardest sport to remain consistent in. I won six in a row and then ran into some adversity against Kampmann. I had to work my way back to where I am now, but when you look at it, I've won eight of my last nine. I've put a lot of focus on staying consistent, but at the same time fighting intelligently."
In the aftermath of the welterweight showcase in Montreal, Ellenberger walked away with a "Knockout of the Night" bonus and a certified spot in the divisional-title picture. That being said, an opportunity to compete for UFC gold will most likely not come in immediate fashion.
This scenario leaves Ellenberger as a contender-in-waiting. With GSP and Bigg Rigg mixing it up later this year, the time frame leaves Ellenberger as the odd man out.
There are a handful of potential opponents such as Demian Maia and Rory MacDonald who could step up and face the heavy-handed welterweight. And as long as the next opponent who steps in comes with a guaranteed title shot, Ellenberger doesn't care who they put across from him.
"It's hard to say exactly where I stand in the division, but I would suspect I'm right behind Johny," Ellenberger said. "Some people are saying I'm third or fourth, but what matters to me is fighting the best competition. I will fight whoever I have to in order to get to that title. I was scheduled to fight Josh Koscheck, but he got hurt and I fought Jay Hieron. I was supposed to fight Johny Hendricks, and then he got out of the fight and I ended up against Nate Marquardt.
"It doesn't matter what happens, I'm always facing top guys and I have to perform. I still have to beat them and I'll fight whoever I have to in order to become the No. 1 contender.
"If the UFC came to me and said you are going to fight "fill in the blank" person to become the No. 1 contender, it wouldn't matter who they put across from me. Let's do it. I'm not wasting my time anymore. I don't want to be in this sport for another five years. I want to win the title and move on."
In Ellenberger's eyes, becoming the UFC champion is the ultimate goal to be achieved, and he will fight whoever it takes in order to make this a reality. Nevertheless, there is one fighter in particular who the Lake Forrest-based fighter has been aiming at for sometime now: Johny Hendricks.
Their paths were originally scheduled to cross this past weekend at UFC 158, but circumstance and opportunity led to Hendricks stepping in to face Condit. While a collision between two of the division's heaviest hitters has been avoided for the time being, Ellenberger believes a bout with Hendricks is an inevitability—and it is going to be nothing short of explosive.
"I was really hoping for the Hendricks fight," Ellenberger said. "Nobody wants to fight Johny Hendricks, but I do. I've been pretty vocal about it, but I can't control certain things that happen in terms of who I face. But now he's fighting for the title, and I'm just waiting to see how things play out.
"Like I've said in the past, I really believe he's had the perfect storm to get to a title shot. He won some fights where I don't think he really should have. I thought Mike Pierce won the fight he had against Hendricks, and when Johny fought Koscheck it was extremely close.
"He's had a couple of quick knockouts, but I believe I have what it takes to beat him. I know his style and I think I have the answer for it. He's not real technical, but he's tough and he's done well. But I don't think it's enough to get him a world title. Some things are out of my control, but I've been saying his name for the past year. The fight was supposed to happen, obviously it didn't, but I know we are going to cross paths sooner or later.
"We are going to cross paths at some point," Ellenberger added. "I'm sure of it. Whether it comes this year, next year, or the year after; Johny Hendricks and I are going to fight. It's a stance I've taken and I'm not going to back off of that.
"Like I said, nobody wants to fight him because he's a wrestler and he has power. I think I have him figured out, and I've been saying his name for the past year and trying to get inside the cage with him. I had the fight, but then he found a way out. I want to fight him so bad and I believe I can beat him.
"I want to wear Johny Hendricks's teeth as a necklace."
Duane Finley is a featured columnist at Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.