Jake Ellenberger (right) proved he's a contender with a convincing victory Saturday against Jake Shields. (Josh Hedges/Zuffa/Getty Images)
UFC Fight Night 25 won't be remembered for much else than the fall of Jake Shields and the emergence of Jake Ellenberger.
Two Ultimate Fighter champs (TUF 11 champ Court McGee and TUF 12 champ Jonathan Brookins) fought forgettable fights that nearly sucked the wind out of the crowd inNew Orleans. Two fallen stars (Evan Dunham and Alan Belcher) got back on their feet. A few guys saved their jobs. It was another day at the office. For the last UFC Fight Night to air on Spike TV, a low-wattage card (though that's not entirely out of the ordinary).
Ellenberger ran away with the show. Literally. By the time everyone figured out what happened, including his opponent Jake Shields, he was bounding around the octagon in celebration of a TKO victory as referee Kevin Mulhall contemplated pulling guard on the woozy onetime welterweight challenger.
The quick finish is a long overdue break for Ellenberger, who's résumé doesn't necessarily reflect his talent or the turnaround he's undergone since relocating his training from native Nebraska to Orange County, Calif. Wrestling out wins against a few dangerous foes didn't help him much with the fans, and a promising debut in which he nearly knocked out current contender Carlos Condit was spoiled when he eased off the gas and lost a decision. But now, he's clearly hit his stride.
There's already an asterisk beside Ellenberger's victory, and by no fault of his own. Shields suffered an immense personal tragedy before the fight, and there will always be questions about whether he was truly up to the task. But make no mistake about it -- Ellenberger is the real deal and deserves a shot at a top-five opponent. He was scheduled in February to fight Jon Fitch, a match he campaigned for along with one against Shields. If Fitch can put away Johny Hendricks at UFC 141, that's a fight he should get, or perhaps the winner of Anthony Johnson vs. Charlie Brenneman. From there, his trainers have it right: the sky's the limit.
Jake Ellenberger (25-5): Ellenberger sure gets to the point. After waiting a year to fight Jake Shields -- or three years if you buy his claim that Shields then dodged a booking -- it took him 53 seconds to earn the TKO and vault up the welterweight ladder. A lot's been said about the difficult circumstances under which Shields took the fight, but it was his choice to do so, and whether it was the right or wrong one decision it is ultimately secondary to what Ellenberger did. With a quick knee in the clinch, Ellenberger exploited the takedown artist's long-standing striking vulnerabilities and finished before the tides could turn. That's five in a row now. Explosive is the only way to describe "The Juggernaut" when he's sharp.
Alan Belcher (17-6): A year ago, the very idea of an MMA career seemed a long shot for Belcher. A detached retina he suffered before a fight with Demian Maia last year left no guarantees besides an arduous recovery. In blasting veteran Jason MacDonald on Saturday first televised bout, the middleweight showed he's far from done. In fact, he may be one of the only fighters at 185 that can give champ Anderson Silva a challenge. Certainly, there have been missteps along the Southerner's way that owe much to deficiency in grappling. But he's bested a lot of top-tier opposition: Jorge Santiago, Ed Herman, Denis Kang, Patrick Cote, and now MacDonald. He may not be on Silva's doorstep, but he's in the neighborhood. The winner of Michael Bisping vs. Jason Miller is a good measuring stick.
Wagner Rocha (7-2): He still underwhelms in the striking department. On the mat, though, he's trouble. Cody McKenzie's favored guillotine was a piddling joke to Rocha's slick skills, and the rear naked choke he pulled off in the second brought a merciful relief to complete domination. So Rocha's managers shot way too high in booking him a short-notice fight with Donald Cerrone in his first time out. They've learned their lesson, and with a few more favorable matchups, he could emerge from the pack.
Ken Stone (10-3): I'll admit to wincing in the first moments of Stone's fight against Donny Walker. After he got knocked out cold in back-to-back fights, I doubted his ability to withstand cranial pressure of any type. Turns out, the proficient but unlucky striker wanted nothing to do with a slugfest, and the choice served him well. This time, it was Walker who was out cold after a rear naked choke put him to sleep in the first, and Stone who saved his job. With a little nudge in confidence, we can see what he's really got next time out.
Seth Baczynski (14-6): Tough to say The Ultimate Fighter 11 veteran has much more coming to him than a few more preliminary card fights, but his win over Clay Harvison was emphatic nonetheless. Baczynski said the victory was a chance to show off his technical skills. In reality it was his persistence that paid off against the fellow TUF vet. Where Harvison seemed to stall, he pressed in and eventually landed a stiff punch that set up a win by rear naked choke.
TJ Waldburger (14-6): Pretty nifty work. Waldburger's submission of Mike Stumpf resembled the type of neatly-choreographed submission sequences seen in jiu-jitsu tutorials. Only Stumpf was no grappling dummy -- just an unwilling victim, narrowly escaping an armbar only to be shoehorned into a triangle. An impressive performance for Waldburger, sure. Is he the most promising welterweight in the division? Probably not, at least at this point. He's a middle-of-the-road 1-2 in his octagon career. He didn't stack up well against the rising Johny Hendricks, and it remains to be seen how he'll fare against strikers with strong takedown defense. He's still in the woods, though that could change with a few more wins.
Jake Shields (26-5-1): This is a critical time for Shields. Now facing back-to-back losses, he has two chances, tops, to regain his footing. What's more, the ground couldn't be shakier under his feet. The loss of his father and manager, Jack Shields, leaves him to find his rudder as a fighter and a man. He's already taken a step toward the latter; he showed admirable resiliency in keeping the Ellenberger fight despite his loss 18 days before showtime. It's now a question of where he goes from here. Does he take much-needed time off to clear his head? Does he throw himself back into the gym so as to improve weaknesses that others will no doubt try to exploit?
Only Shields knows. The expert grappler has always been looked at as a one-trick pony -- a takedown expert. If the trick wasn't so exceptional, he'd be just another overhyped fighter exposed on the big stage. But that doesn't feel like the case. Sure, his mystique is not what it once was -- Georges St-Pierre and Ellenberger have seen to that. He's likely hit the glass ceiling when it comes to the title hunt, and at 32, that may give him more pause than anything. Still, I'm guessing he'll come back and continue to win fights.
Court McGee (14-1): It's tough to look good against a grappler who won't budge to punches, and McGee found that out firsthand in winning a very pedestrian decision over Dongi Yang. Then again, he didn't exactly press the fight, or press it effectively. He never let his hands go, and attempts to take the fight down were blatantly telegraphed. Likewise, Yang played it safe. Not much for spectacle other than a single late-fight exchange that roused fans from slumber.
McGee is tough, no doubt about that. Let's face it, though -- he's anything but a contender at this point. Even at 26, it's hard to see him as more than a preliminary card guy unless he gets a big break. And with the divorce final between Spike and the UFC, he is less needed than ever on future "Fight Night" cards. He's got to keep winning, that much is sure. But he also has to do it decisively.
Erik Koch (13-1): Is it a victory if you simply stay upright? In Erik Koch's case, it is. The Duke Roufus-bred fighter didn't do much against Jonathan Brookins other than tenderize The Ultimate Fighter 12 winner's legs. But he did shrug off all but one takedown attempt -- just about all there was to the fight -- and that ultimately won the judges' nod. Although his triumph was dimmed by what was by all accounts a lackluster affair, it's now four fights in a row for Koch, a precision striker who could be a champion if he's able to stay off his back. Saturday was a step in the right direction.
Cody McKenzie (12-2): Sure, he's kind of a train wreck in the cage (and probably out of it). McKenzie, though, riles the crowd. You can hear that every time he's stepped in the octagon. Is it because he's the best guy in the world? Absolutely not. He's reckless. His technique is questionable, and so is his talent. But the guy gives it his all, he's the good kind of wild, and he deserves one more chance to save his UFC career.
Jonathan Brookins (12-4): Something seemed off about the TUF 12 winner. His game plan was entirely one-dimensional, banking exclusively on taking Koch down against the fence. That's understandable, of course. Koch had knocked his previous two opponents into orbit. More than that, though, there was no plan B. Brookins performed like a poor man's Jake Shields, and that doesn't fairly represent his talent. Three years ago, he went toe-to-toe with Jose Aldo, took his licks, and made it a heck of a lot farther than others before the Brazilian stopped him in the third. On the show, he relied on his wrestling to control fights. But he's got much more than that, which suggests he might have been a little overwhelmed by the moment or perhaps not completely recovered from the injury that took him out of action for much of this year.
Jason MacDonald (25-15): MacDonald didn't make the sell list just because he got blown out of the water by Alan Belcher, although it certainly didn't help. No, he's at the cusp of a critical career decision. As the father of four told MMAjunkie.com before Saturday's fight, his five-year leave of absence from a job as a correctional officer ends this year, and he needs to decide whether to continue to make fighting his full-time job. Will he get that vote from his family? Maybe, and maybe not. Despite some stellar victories early UFC in his career, he's been up and down and out of the octagon, and at 36, that's cause for a reckoning. MacDonald has more fights inside the octagon if he wants them; he's a lock for the promotion's Canadian cards. It's just a matter of priorities at this point. He can't fight forever.
Clay Harvison (7-2): Harvison barely escaped his first post-show bout against fellow TUF 13 veteran Justin Edwards and quickly faded against season 11 competitor Seth Baczynski. He waited, and waited, and waited, and bam, Baczynski caught him with a punch and quickly choked him out. That's not a winning strategy for staying employed with the UFC. At 1-1 in the octagon, it's a tossup whether he'll be back.
Mike Lullo (8-4): There's tough and then there's just dumb. Lullo's legs got hammered when he fought Edson Barboza as a lightweight in his octagon debut. Did he think fighting 10 pounds lighter would somehow lessen the effect of kicks when he fought featherweight Robert Peralta? Clearly not. For three rounds, his lead leg took completely unnecessary punishment, and it cost him the fight. At 0-2 in the UFC, his octagon days are likely over.
-- Steven Marrocco