Not that long ago people were talking about Jake Ellenberger.
They were saying good things, too.
He'd won six in a row in the UFC. Most of those were knockouts. He almost beat Carlos Condit before that streak started.
He was also in his mid-20s with wrestling and raw power in spades, and he looked like a guy who was coming into his own at exactly the right time. Tools like those and the experience to know how to use them, and it was only a matter of time before The Juggernaut was in the title hunt.
Even despite a setback at the hands of Martin Kampmann, a couple of impressive wins later and he was back on track. By the middle of 2013 many felt he was a fight away from reaching the top of the contendership heap.
Then that fight happened and he really, really wasn't.
Ellenberger's bout with Rory MacDonald was Exhibit A in the case against letting fighters know the stakes before they enter a big event. The two welterweights knew that a win could net them a crack at gold, and as a result they paired off in one of the most uninspired, uninspiring, tepid performances the sport has ever seen.
There has unquestionably been more electricity between competitive dance partners than there was that night in the Octagon. Probably more violence, too.
It resulted in a verbal beatdown from Dana White, whose eloquent accuracy in assessing the fight amounted to: "That fight sucked so bad." It also resulted in a behind-closed-doors lashing of Ellenberger, who fights for the first time since that fateful night.
So the question becomes: Is this the last crack at the top of the heap for Ellenberger? Is Saturday night the last chance he'll have to prove he can be champion of a division more wide-open than it's ever been?
There's no clear answer, but history suggests it could be.
Fresh off of his 29th birthday and with considerable mileage already on his body thanks to a career approaching 40 fights, it's now or never in a sport that isn't forgiving to those who don't seize the day.
Ellenberger is in his fistic prime, positioned on the fringe of the elite and poised to jump further into the fray. A win over Robbie Lawler at UFC 173 does that—shows he's as entitled as anyone to a crack at Johny Hendricks.
A loss, however, does the exact opposite. It puts him squarely in no man's land, a hurdle for mid-range contenders and an afterthought for the men who are seriously chasing the title.
With a division as dynamic as a GSP-less 170-pound class, that's the nature of the beast going forward. You're either out there proving you're worthy of a spot on the marquee, or you're being used to prove that someone else is. Ellenberger is in neither spot today, but he'll be firmly entrenched in one of them by tomorrow.
So is this his last grasp at the top of the division?
It's hard to believe it, but it very well could be. He's in a shark tank and losing two straight to contenders universally considered ahead of him in the rankings could make for a major slide in his divisional positioning.
Those are career-defining stakes, the stakes of mapping out how the rest of one's life will look in his sport of choice.
Luckily for Ellenberger the power is, both literally and figuratively, in his hands. Understanding that and channeling it in the right direction will provide the answer he's looking for.