The entire landscape of the welterweight division is in the midst of a shift, and Jake Ellenberger is ready to clear a path to the top.
The heavy-handed Omaha, Neb., native has been a staple in the upper tier of the 170-pound collective for the past three years. Over that stretch, "The Juggernaut" blazed through the welterweight ranks as he claimed victory in eight out of 10 showings, including an impressive run where he notched six consecutive wins.
That said, two setbacks in his past four showings—including a loss to Rory MacDonald in his most recent outing at UFC on Fox 8 last July—have kept him from breaking into title contention.
While the 28-year-old has been within striking distance of a title shot in the past, the circumstances of the divisional race at 170 pounds have drastically changed.
Former welterweight king Georges St-Pierre's six-year reign over the weight class was undoubtedly one of the most dominant in UFC history, but the pound-for-pound great's injury in 2011 and subsequent return in 2012 served to stall an otherwise thriving title hunt—one where Ellenberger was a major player in.
Nevertheless, timing is everything in MMA, and "GSP" would return, and Ellenberger would eventually stumble. But even with two losses threatening to push him out of the title picture, the Team Reign fighter's championship ambitions have never faltered.
With the French-Canadian's recent retirement and Johny Hendricks earning the title by defeating Robbie Lawler at UFC 171, the race for title contention at 170 pounds has never been hotter.
There are a host of top welterweights jockeying for position, and with several having competed on the Dallas card, the road ahead has started to take form.
This scenario will ensure the upcoming tilts on the schedule featuring top-ranked welterweights will take place under the proverbial microscope, and Ellenberger is certainly on the list. He was on hand for the welterweight showcase and had a cage-side seat to see the action unfold.
"The UFC brought me in for the fights, and I was glad I went to the show," Ellenberger told Bleacher Report. "It was a good card with some big fights in my division. But as far as how things look in my weight class right now, things are a mess. It's a big mess. I was paying close attention to all of the fights that were going to have an impact on the picture at 170, and the guys like [Hector] Lombard and [Tyron] Woodley, because they are guys I could potentially be matched up against in the future. Obviously, the same applies to Johny Hendricks and Robbie Lawler as well, but even after all of the big welterweight fights on that card, the division is totally wide open right now.
"It's very unpredictable. I honestly don't think Johny is still going to be the champ in six months and we haven't had that type of situation at welterweight for a very long time. It's crazy right now. The way things were set up for the card, a clear contender was supposed to emerge, but that just didn't happen. And that makes things exciting. I guarantee every fighter in the top 10 right now is just as stoked and as pumped up as I am."
The Southern California transplant will jump into the mix when he squares off with Tarec Saffiedine next month at UFC 172 when the Octagon makes its inaugural stop in Baltimore on April 26.
The matchup between the savvy veteran and the former Strikeforce champion will carry an added element of pressure. The winner will remain in the title hunt, while the loser will be shuffled back into a stacked divisional deck.
"I've been watching and studying him for a few months now, and he's strong everywhere," Ellenberger said. "We were originally supposed to fight in January, so I've had a good amount of time to prepare for him. I'm fortunate enough to have a few training partners that mimic his style and what he does very well. I have one guy who trains with me at Kings MMA that is pretty much the exact same guy and fights the same way Tarec does. This guy fights great as a southpaw and orthodox as well and does an amazing job breaking down why Saffiedine has been so successful with his kicks. He's really helped me prepare for this fight, and I truly believe everything is in the right place heading into this fight.
"I've also started working with a new boxing coach, and he's really put emphasis on the ending and having a concrete strategy as far as where you want to go and why you go there. I'm always trying to evolve, and my coaches are all focusing on fighting a mistake-free fight. I'd love to go out there and knock this guy out in eight seconds, but that probably isn't going to happen.
"I'm going to be ready for whatever he brings to the cage," he added. "Tarec is a great fighter, and he can prepare and put in all the work he possibly can before the fight, but you have to be ready to go when it's time. I know I'll be ready on fight night, and that is all that matters."
Where those hovering circumstances can create distraction and force missteps, Ellenberger finds motivation in the challenges ahead. He knows the Belgian striker is a formidable opponent and believes an impressive victory over "Sponge" will put him right where he wants to be in the race for a future title opportunity.
But in order for him to lock in on the tasks ahead of him, he's embraced a new mindset to harness his potential.
"There is a lot going on right now with what potentially could happen down the road, but the only fight that matters to me right now is the one coming up with Saffiedine at UFC 172," Ellenberger said. "My motivation has never been higher. I've learned to put all my intent, energy and fire where they need to be, and I've never felt better. There are plenty of things for me to be excited about right now and those things are all directly tied to how well my training has been going.
"It's comforting for me to know that if I do absolutely everything I need to do in order to reach my full potential, then I will be a world champion. There isn't one thing I do from the time I wake up until the time I go to bed that is not beneficial to me reaching my goals in my career. One of my coaches, Ryon Gracie, says something that has always stuck out to me.
"He asked me 'What are you willing not to do?' He talks about putting yourself in these bad positions and worst case scenarios, and not a lot of people do that because it's uncomfortable and it's hard work. Why am I going to let everyone start out from the mount on me because that is going to suck and it is going to be awful. That's the worst position ever, but you do that to prove you can fight yourself out of it.
"Those are the things preparation wise you go through to prove you are willing to fight through it all time and time again no matter how bad of a situation you are in," he added. "It's worth it, and I'm willing to do it. So much of my day sucks and is uncomfortable, but I'm willing to fight through it all to reach my goals. It's all worth it in the end. When I reach my lifetime goal of becoming a world champion, all the pain, discomfort and every minute of work is going to be worth it."
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.
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