By Loretta Hunt
February 15, 2012

In the wake of UFC welterweight contender Nick Diaz's failed drug test for marijuana last week, Jake Ellenberger seemed to be the last one to realize the ramifications this development could have on his own career.

So focused was Ellenberger (26-5) for his main-event fight against Diego Sanchez (23-4) on the UFC's first live event on Fuel TV this Wednesday from his hometown of Omaha, Neb., that looking beyond it wasn't something that came to mind at first.

But with Diaz facing a six-month to year-long suspension at the hands of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, his rematch with UFC interim champion Carlos Condit has gone up in smoke. Welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre (22-2), still rehabilitating from knee surgery in December, stated that he's aiming to return around November, making it more than feasible that Condit could be asked to defend his interim belt in the, well, interim.

"That probably makes the title picture a little bit clearer," Ellenberger said after some thought. "It's definitely good for guys like myself and Diego. It's still not clear which fighter will be the next welterweight contender."

Ellenberger, currently on a five-fight win streak in one of the UFC's deepest divisions, has a flair for unassuming modesty. A strong victory on Wednesday would catapult the 26-year-old to the top of Condit's list -- the latest upward rung on a seven-year career ladder that's taken Ellenberger from biting Omaha winters to California's endless sunshine.

Ellenberger is far from a fish-out-of-water story, though. Since his first visit to southern California a year and a half ago, the third son of an ironworker has flourished both in and out of the octagon with the friendships he's made through the Reign Training Center in Lake Forest, Calif.

Reign's owner and de facto team captain, middleweight contender Mark Munoz, can't say enough about Ellenberger, who walked into his gym in the summer of 2010 quiet and reserved, but quickly proved to be a treasure trove of raw, untapped talent.

"Where do I begin about Jake?" Munoz said. "Coming into my gym the first time, I could tell he was very athletic. He was hungry to learn. He wanted to be a better fighter in all areas. He was open to everything, but most importantly, he wanted to improve all areas of his life. I has a very good feeling about him from the first day."

Ellenberger's selfless character revealed itself shortly after, Munoz said, when the newcomer returned to the gym on his own dime to help Munoz prepare for his own fight against C.B. Dollaway in March 2011. A few months later, Ellenberger left the life he'd known in Omaha and moved out to California permanently.

Over the last year and a half, Ellenberger and Munoz have become close friends. Sharing similar moral values, they attend a non-denominational Christian church together with Munoz's family every Sunday.

"He's very close with my family," Munoz said. "He comes to my house to play Monopoly and card games with my kids. We have poker nights and viewing parties for the team with [Jason] Mayhem Miller, Krzysztof [Soszynski], Rafael [Cordeiro], Joe Henle, Babalu [Sobral], [Fabricio] Werdum. He's become part of the family."

Ellenberger, who left college as a psychology major in 2005 to pursue fighting full-time and was temporarily kicked out of his mother's home until she came around, considers Munoz one of his mentors.

"He's an amazing leader, just an amazing person in general," Ellenberger said. "That's the kind of people I want to be surrounded by, and training-wise, I wanted to put myself in the best situation moving up in my career."

It was a wise choice. Reign is one of the emerging gyms in the U.S., boasting top-caliber contenders and prospects in nearly every active division, including Munoz, a two-time All-America wrestler for Oklahoma State.

As a natural athlete, Ellenberger has delivered one surprise after another, Munoz said. As an example, he recounted a time when he took Ellenberger to his pastor's home to swim in his pool.

"There was this rock formation you could dive off of into the pool," Munoz said. "All of a sudden I see Jake do a gainer off the rocks. Then you see him do a double tuck and dive right in. I thought, This is crazy."

Ellenberger hadn't told anyone that he'd been a springboard and platform diver in high school and nobody had asked.

"With his background, his kinesthetic awareness is unbelievable," Munoz said. "Think about diving and how you have to know where your body is every second in the air. In MMA, when somebody picks you up, you have to be able to put your hips down to get in a better position. Jake picked this up faster than anyone I've seen."

Ellenberger -- who grew up competing with his fraternal twin brother, Joe, over everything from the remote control to fetching the mail for their parents -- is often mistaken as a four-year collegiate wrestler, through he was a late bloomer on the mat.

"I never wrestled in high school. I didn't know how to wrestle," the 5-foot-9 Ellenberger said. "I was always one of the smaller guys and I really wanted to play college football; I even thought about walking onto the football team in college. I didn't want to compete in amateur wrestling."

At the insistence of brother Joe, who wrestled for the University of Nebraska-Kearney, Jake walked onto his UN-Omaha wrestling team his freshman year. With only three years of coaching, he was able to compete his senior year and finished with a 16-5 record alongside teammates who'd wrestled for 10 years or more.

Munoz has helped Ellenberger fill in his wrestling gaps over the last year-and-a-half, though the Nebraskan's formidable striking (specifically, his powerful right hand) came into focus in 2011 when he scored back-to-back knockout wins over Sean Pierson and former Strikeforce champion Jake Shields.

However, Munoz believes Ellenberger's greatest asset might be his mental discipline and fortitude, something the fighter credits from his six-year stint in the U.S. Marine Reserves.

"Being able to control your mind is definitely an asset. I think that's what the military tries to prepare you to do, preparing you for war," Ellenberger said. "It's something very adaptable for MMA."

It's this same mental focus that has kept Ellenberger's eyes on Sanchez -- a fighter known for his own kooky style of mental preparation -- and not past him to Condit, though it would be easy to do so. Ellenberger lost a close split decision to Condit at a UFC Fight Night in September 2009, before Ellenberger's California trek and the vast improvement that has followed for him, which makes a rematch that much more appetizing should he best Sanchez on Wednesday.

While other fighters have trash-talked and flailed about for attention, Ellenberger, who humbly accepted a key to the city from Omaha's mayor this week, has climbed silently, but steadily up the welterweight ranks taking the straight and narrow path.

"He moved from his hometown to California, not knowing anybody," Munoz said. "He's a single guy. Easily, he could go to the bars and the clubs, but he chooses to hang around the people he likes. His mind is strictly on developing the relationships he's made and becoming the champion."

Speaking of championship material, beyond Condit, Munoz said Ellenberger is the one to topple longtime titleholder St-Pierre.

"I truly believe in my heart of hearts that Jake has everything you need to beat St-Pierre," Munoz said. "Just with his hips, he's hard to take down. He has the hands, the explosiveness. He's the total package and the right one to take St-Pierre. And he's still improving every day."

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