Jake Ellenberger and Rory MacDonald represent to many the predicted future of the welterweight division.
They are fighters who feature in far more hypothetical matchups against top competition currently than they have in actual ones. And, consequently, there are still a great many unanswered questions about both young men. Both have already picked up crushing defeats—MacDonald being stopped by Carlos Condit and Ellenberger being stopped by Martin Kampmann.
MacDonald is a fighter whom I examined in brief detail last week. Constant comparisons to Georges St-Pierre aside, he certainly shows all the signs of a good prospect. MacDonald follows game plans to the letter and is unrelenting in his pursuit of the victory rather than hoping for Fight of the Night bonuses and coming to brawl.
Scrappers like Chris Leben are a dime a dozen, and they are certainly present on every card for early evening entertainment, but they don't get to the big paydays, and they barely ever get a whiff of a world title.
MacDonald does, however, lack big fight experience—beating Nate Diaz at welterweight as pretty much any elite wrestler will. His only other fights of note are his loss to Condit and his victory over B.J. Penn. While MacDonald made Penn look woefully overmatched, he was, after all, fighting a lightweight who relies on a counter jab to win fights on the feet.
I am sorry to bring it up again, but I cannot quite wrap my head around Penn's thought process when he decided that, as a fighter who relies heavily on his jab, he would fair well in a weight class where he would give up reach to almost everyone he fought.
MacDonald's bout with Condit certainly told us a good deal about his potential but highlighted the fact that it was only potential, and experience and grit can often win out against athleticism and technical prowess.
While we can't take much away from MacDonald's bout with Penn in assessing his striking ability because more than two-thirds of the bout was essentially target practice, going even on the feet with Condit is quite a feat for an elite welterweight, let alone a young prospect.
If anything can be learned from the Condit bout it is that MacDonald—despite his vacuous media appearances and cold, technical game—can be drawn into emotional bouts and exhausted in the process. MacDonald almost tired himself out in his defeat of Penn as he was so keen on making an impression that he resorted to showboating.
Some fighters fight well angry. Most just get distracted from what they are supposed to be doing and swing wild, tense up and gas out.
Between jumping knees, high kicks and swinging hooks while chasing Condit, MacDonald not only expended a lot of energy but ended up shooting in on Condit poorly and getting turned over and beaten down by a fighter who is just far more experienced in bad spots than MacDonald.
Ellenberger, for his part, is equally athletic and well rounded in his offense. Storming into the forefront of the UFC welterweight division, after some wins over middle tier fighters by smashing Jake Shields in the latter's return to action after a loss to St-Pierre for the title, Ellenberger simply overwhelmed and overpowered the veteran with superior power on the feet and a complete disregard for Shields' nonthreatening striking.
Ellenberger suffered a similarly self-inflicted setback to MacDonald's loss to Condit.
Ellenberger's folly came when he met the savvy Kampmann. Kampmann, more than any other fighter in the UFC, is a slow starter. Just a look at his last few fights will confirm this: Thiago Alves beat him from pillar to post before succumbing to a guillotine and, most recently, Johny Hendricks caught Kampmann bouncing around before his feet were able to keep up with his brain.
In Ellenberger's loss to Kampmann, he showed exactly the kind of emotional over-commitment that plagued MacDonald in his pursuit of Condit. After catching Kampmann early, it was all Ellenberger as he swarmed over Kampmann.
With no thought for what was coming back, Ellenberger swung combinations, which became less and less tight. By the time that Kampmann caught a right on his forearm and fired back his own, he could have driven a car through the space between Ellenberger's right swings and left ones.
The short right straight caught Ellenberger leaning in and worked its way straight down to his boots. On wobbly feet Ellenberger was finished by the same brutal collar tie knees that he had used to drop Shields in his biggest win to that date.
As slow of a starter that Kampmann is, these short counters are the kind that can easily fell MMA fighters between their broadside blows. Just yesterday I was rewatching the ageing Archie Moore floor the always passionate and granite-jawed Rocky Marciano with just such a short right.
Both Ellenberger and MacDonald can be pointed to as fighters whose only significant loss came from a lack of discipline under fire.
Ellenberger is a cracking counter puncher, and when he sits back and treats a fight as a hunt he is certainly something special—it is when he gets drawn into a chase that he gets wild and forgets himself. You can swarm all over the Shields of the world because they aren't going to throw anything back, but that's not true of men like Kampmann and Condit.
MacDonald's over-commitment to one-upping Condit—trading front kicks to the face anyone?—in a fight in which he already had two rounds in the bag led him to the point of exhaustion and got him trapped underneath Condit and finished.
These losses ultimately came to two of the most opportunistic fighters in MMA—if you give Kampmann or Condit an inch, they will take a country mile—but these are the sort of flaws that will be tested by legitimate top-five fighters in elite camps. Kampmann and Condit are incredible gatekeepers for this reason.
I, of course, have no idea who will win the bout and wouldn't want to hazard a prediction—indeed, today I was simply throwing out some of my thoughts on noticeable chinks in the mental armor of these two fighters.
As a quick analysis, I would say that the longer the fight goes the better it is for MacDonald, who strikes well in volume and will have more success wrestling Ellenberger down the stretch. I would say that Ellenberger's best bet is to look for his counter punches.
MacDonald often comes in jabbing with his head high and can lunge straight onto punches. Ellenberger has far superior head movement to MacDonald and does good work in exchanges—it is in his interest to get these going hard, and often before the match wears on, MacDonald gets comfortable and can start kicking him around.
With the volatile nature of both men it could well end up being a back-and-forth battle of knockdowns and submission attempts—but it would be nice to see one man show a more disciplined approach and avoid taking unnecessary blows on the way in due to excitement.
Pick up Jack's eBooks Advanced Striking and Elementary Striking at his blog, Fights Gone By.