This is the story of underdogs seizing an opportunity to rise in the ranks.
Jake Ellenberger and Diego Sanchez, who fight in the main event of Wednesday night's UFC on Fuel TV event in Omaha, Neb., both have a little of that backstory in them. And so does the cable outlet that will be televising the fights (8 p.m. ET, Fuel TV).
Indeed, this is what Fox bargained for when it struck a deal to televise UFC fights for the next seven years. The focus of the deal, naturally, was on the four big shows a year on the main broadcast network. But, realistically speaking, how much of a viewership boost can the likes of Junior dos Santos and Rashad Evans give to a network that already is regularly showcasing Eli Manning and Albert Pujols? The biggest benefit of UFC programming for Fox, it would seem, comes when the fights draw eyes to the media company's smaller cable outlets.
Fuel TV is available in 36 million homes, which is only about a third as many as Spike, the UFC's former cable outlet. The other cable station that used to carry UFC fights was Versus, now known as NBC Sports Network, and it is in more than twice as many homes as Fuel. But with the addition of just a studio show, UFC Tonight, and some broadcasts of taped fights from the UFC archives so far, the Fox outlet already is feeling the fight organization's impact. "We've had an 80 percent increase in the target demographic of men ages 18-49, and a near 230 percent increase in overall prime-time ratings from past ratings periods," Fuel TV vice president George Greenberg said during a conference call with MMA media last week. "To say I'm jacked would be putting it mildly."
Even with its first live UFC event coming during a free preview that adds 8 million homes for the week, however, Fuel TV faces an uphill battle -- with a big speed bump. Comcast, the country's largest cable operator and majority owner of NBC Sports Network, is a stubborn holdout ... and is majority owner of the competing NBC Sports Network. It'll take a lot of cards and letters from UFC fans to budge the cable behemoth.
The UFC isn't hurting Fuel TV's case by presenting a fight card topped by a couple of meaningful bouts. Stefan Struve and Dave Herman can easily go unnoticed in the crowded heavyweight picture -- talk about underdogs -- but both have had their moments. Struve has been on both ends of some thundering KOs, but the 6-foot-11 Dutchman is a submission specialist, as Pat Barry learned in the fall (triangle choke, second round). And Herman is 21-2 and won a Fight of the Night bonus in his UFC debut last summer, a TKO of Jon Olav Einemo, his 15th knockout in 21 career victories.
But the fight that those without Fuel TV will most hate to miss is the main event. Even before Nick Diaz failed a drug test to open up the welterweight title chase, Sanchez and Ellenberger were part of the discussion. Now an impressive performance Wednesday night could vault the winner into a shot at interim belt-holder Carlos Condit.
The situation is especially well set up for Ellenberger (26-5). The 26-year-old former collegiate wrestler (and Marine) is fighting in his hometown -- where he still trains -- and he's on a five-fight winning streak. He's more highly regarded than ever, coming off September's stunning 53-second knockout of Jake Shields, who just five months earlier had taken welterweight champ Georges St-Pierre the distance.
"The Jake Shields fight was a great win, but you need to look at it one fight at a time," Ellenberger said following an open workout on Monday. "Sanchez is a completely different type of fight for me." And it's a different type of opportunity, too, for a guy who labored in relative obscurity before the Shields win vaulted him into contention. "I'm not thinking much past Wednesday," he said, "but my goal has always been a world title."
With GSP still recovering from knee surgery, that means Ellenberger's target is Condit, who happens to be the only person to defeat him in his last 10 bouts. It came via split decision in Ellenberger's UFC debut, in 2009, and Ellenberger would love a chance at redemption .... and a championship. "I know I am a little faster and a lot smarter than I was two years ago," he said. "I respect him because he didn't have an easy path to the belt, like me, and to fight him again would be an honor."
Standing in the way of that shot is Sanchez (23-4), who knows a thing or two about redemption. The Season 1 winner of The Ultimate Fighter and the one-time challenger for the lightweight championship has had to fight back from injury and suspension, has changed training camps and even nicknames (goodbye "Nightmare," hello "Dream"), and on more than one occasion has seen his forward momentum halted suddenly by devastating losses. At 30, Sanchez is on an upswing now, riding a two-fight winning streak, although he's not being talked about quite yet as a championship contender, in the way Ellenberger is. And he knows it.
"The fact that people aren't talking about me for a title shot doesn't bother me. It's all right," Sanchez said after his open workout. "To get that title shot, I'm really going to have to earn it. So I'm going to have to go in there and beat the guy who everyone says is going to get the title shot. I have to go in and beat him and I have to beat him convincingly, and that's what I came to Omaha to do."
Sanchez is not about to be a steppingstone for anyone. At least not willingly. However, Ellenberger knows the scenario is perfect for him to seize an opportunity that's within reach. He knows that considering Sanchez's track record -- Fight of the Night bonuses in his last two fights and in four of his last six -- you can be assured that if you beat him, you've put on an impressive performance.