Jake Ellenberger should have fought for the UFC welterweight title by now.
That's not to suggest poor matchmaking or unjustified title shots for other fighters; Ellenberger blew this chance himself.
If not for a gas tank that empties quicker than a keg of Coors Light at a Brock Lesnar post-fight celebration, Ellenberger would have started his UFC career on a 10-fight winning streak, and a chance at UFC gold would have fallen into his lap at some point during this stretch of victories.
In his UFC debut against Carlos Condit, Ellenberger destroyed "The Natural Born Killer" in ways that few have before him. He rocked Condit with heavy punches in Round 1, sending the lanky Jackson-Winkeljohn product crumpling to the canvas in the fetal position on two occasions.
But Ellenberger couldn't finish the deed, and Condit came back in Rounds 2 and 3, overwhelming his gassed foe and stealing the judges' decision in the process.
After this loss, "The Juggernaut" rattled off six straight victories, a streak that included three highlight-reel knockouts and a Knockout of the Night bonus.
For his efforts, Ellenberger was given a shot at Martin Kampmann, a man who had pieced together a nice winning streak of his own and appeared ready to break into the top five of the division.
As was the case against Condit, Ellenberger looked invincible for one round. He blasted Kampmann with a left hook and followed up with some ferocious ground-and-pound.
So it goes in the fight game.
Now, though, Ellenberger has the chance to reverse all of this.
A win over Robbie Lawler at UFC 173 will prove that he's ready for the big time, that he's not just some heavy-handed wrestler who can't compete for more than five minutes at a time.
Lawler has shown that he represents a tough out for anyone during his recent stint with the UFC, and he stood up to bomb after bomb from 170-pound champ Johny Hendricks in their UFC 171 tilt, smiling and returning the favor with sledgehammer fists of his own.
If a victory is in Ellenberger's future at UFC 173, Lawler will make him earn it.
Because of this, there is no doubt who stands to gain more from a win at UFC 173. Lawler already won over fans and critics with his heroic performance against Hendricks, but Ellenberger strolls into the cage with a question mark overhead.
Is he the savage finisher we thought he was, or is he the boo-worthy, passive combatant we saw against Rory MacDonald?
Once the cage door closes and Ellenberger finds himself standing across from Lawler, sitting back will not be an option. "Ruthless" brings the heat, and a fighter can either stand up to it and fire back, or he can shrivel up and disappear under a wave of kicks and punches until the referee has seen enough.
Too many times throughout his career, Ellenberger elected to join the latter category.
If he changes this at UFC 173 against Robbie Lawler, we're looking at a legitimate top-five talent and a man who is ready for title contention.
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