Jake Ellenberger and Martin Kampmann will headline The Ultimate Fighter Live Finale on June 1 to determine the next contender for the UFC Welterweight Title. It’s not a big deal that Ellenberger and Kampmann disagree on how serious an opponent each other represents. That makes for great drama in the cage. One thing they may be able to agree on—this fight is a chess match in the making.
How Jake Ellenberger and Martin Kampmann went from standouts to contenders in the welterweight division takes a bit of explaining. On February 4, they were nowhere near the big top in the eyes of most fans. The night before Super Bowl Sunday, the cause célèbre was Carlos Condit and Nick Diaz at UFC 143. The fight was not only supposed to crown an Interim UFC Welterweight Champ but also set the stage for a showdown with undisputed kingpin Georges St-Pierre, who had injured his knee and withdrawn from a grudge match with the inscrutable Diaz. Just as soon as Condit strapped on the belt—the winner of a unanimous decision—an overwhelming number of fans clamored for an immediate rematch with Diaz, while GSP nursed his busted ACL. Twitter warfare ensued. By the time things settled, agreements were in place for Condit vs. Diaz II sometime in the summer.
Then Diaz happened. After the Nevada State Athletic Commission suspended the chronic rebel for a failed drug test—nixing another big fight and resounding a big cha-ching for the UFC after Diaz’s no-show debacle scratched his UFC 137 match with St-Pierre—Condit was free. But who would fight him?
Two weeks after UFC 143, Ellenberger emerged when he busted Diego Sanchez and overcame a late-fight rally to earn a key win at UFC on FUEL TV. Ellenberger fit the contender bill, as Condit had only narrowly (if not controversially) outpointed him in his Octagon debut in 2009. But did Condit want the fight? Not yet, as it turned out. ‘The Natural Born Killer” passed on a belt defense and decided to wait for GSP.
Ellenberger chalks up their decision to the Condit camp’s hustle. “His managers are looking at the big money fight,” said Ellenberger of the brush off in February, as he awaited his next opponent. He didn’t have to wait long. At UFC on FX 2 in March, Kampmann salvaged a losing effort with a last minute submission victory over Thiago Alves, and the UFC took notice. The Dane has run parallel to Ellenberger for two years with three opponents in common—Condit, Shields, and Sanchez. Both Ellenberger and Kampmann have just beaten former title contenders. And with the latest title impasse, they buy the promotion time while St-Pierre and Diaz sit on the shelf.
And thankfully, timing is on their side.
Ellenberger, who has won his past six outings, claims he is in no rush. Any opponent is a chance to prove himself title-worthy. But honestly, he’s not convinced Kampmann is, like him, a contender. Maybe he has a point. Ellenberger outstruck and outwrestled Sanchez, where as Kampmann got beaten to the punch in later rounds. He finished Shields in 53 seconds while Kampmann was outgripped and lost on points. And he would say that he beat Condit, even though the judges disagreed (FightMetric showed that Ellenberger landed more significant strikes and takedowns despite losing a split decision.) If Ellenberger uses MMA math, he’s ahead.
“Diego was a test,” Ellenberger says. “I don’t think Martin is going to be a test.”
The broody Kampmann is hardly rattled by that opinion. He does, after all, hold a win over Condit from three years ago when the WEC Welterweight Champion migrated to the UFC.
“Oh yeah?” he deadpans when told of Ellenberger’s jab. “Well, he’s got another thing coming. If that’s what he thinks, I feel sorry for him. But I’m sure he’s training hard. He should be.”
According to lightweight Joe Ellenberger, Jake’s fraternal twin, Jake is training hard. Joe and Jake are in Southern California to train with a bevy of current and former UFC standouts. Jake now spends the bulk of his camps there rather than in their native Omaha, Nebraska. He misses his family, Joe says, but the resources out West are far more bountiful. At gyms like Reign Training Center and King’s MMA, Jake trains with Mark Munoz, Jason Miller, Fabricio Werdum, and Renato Sobral. The team regularly works on worst-case scenario training to practice making good decisions from bad positions.
As it turns out, that’s perfectly suited to the trait that worries Joe most when his brother fights. Four years ago, he saw Jake go crazy with high-risk attacks after losing a round to Rick Story, and Jake dropped the decision for his recklessness. Now, Joe says that Jake has turned the corner. Nearly submitted by short-notice newcomer Carlos Eduardo Rocha at UFC 126, Jake regained focus on the stool and turned the tables for a decision win. When it comes to beating Kampmann, Joe is most concerned about his brother following the gameplan and hopes he will refrain from swinging for the fences if things go south.
“Martin is a little bit of a counter-puncher, so I think we’re going to put the pressure on him early and force the action,” Joe says. “I think this is a fight where you’ve got two guys who are that good, so we just have to be the one who doesn’t make any mistakes. Mentally, Jake is a lot tougher. There are no more what-ifs. I know that going into some of his fights earlier in his career, a lot of the focus was, ‘I need to try and beat so-and-so in this spot because they’re going to beat me in this one.’ Now, Jake is well-rounded enough that I don’t think anyone is going to beat him anywhere.”
Ray Sefo may not share a brotherly bond with Kampmann like Joe and Jake Ellenberger— he’s only been in the Dane’s corner on four occasions—but he has 20 years in the business as a former K-1 kickboxer, and he knows when things click. He believes Kampmann has the striking skills and can stop the takedown if his wrestling-savvy opponent shoots. Working with some of the best talent in the business at Couture’s, Kampmann just needs to find that internal confidence to use his tools when he needs them most. He needs a spark.
“Sometimes, it just takes one thing,” Sefo says.
Kampmann concedes that his come-from-behind win against Alves left him unhappy. He feels he hasn’t shown what he can do, but he doesn’t know why he can’t show it inside the Octagon. Fighting, though, is no longer a hobby, but a job. Most fighters would be hesitant to talk about mental health, but Kampmann admits he recently hired a coach to help him work through his preparations for a fight. He expects things to come together when he fights Ellenberger.
“I think I can show my talent against anybody,” Kampmann says. “It’s all about coming out and doing what I’m supposed to do and not coming out and half-assing it. I’m not saying I’m half-assing it, I’m just saying I haven’t fought the best I can. Sometimes, you’ve got to focus on more of the positive things, and I’ve been trying to do that, and keep a happy attitude, because I want to be happy.”
Ellenberger might grin at this piece of information. He’s pretty content with a long win streak, and there’s a fire in his eyes when it comes to his goals in the UFC. He may think St-Pierre and Diaz and Condit are on the horizon, and it’s his time. The title is all that matters, and Kampmann is not the guy to stop him. To which Kampmann, if he were in the same room, probably would stare impassively, maybe with a little smile, thinking, “We’ll see who makes the first mistake.”
Name: JAKE ELLENBERGER
Born: Omaha, NE
Fighting out of: Lake Forrest, CA
Association: Reign Training / Kings MMA
Name: MARTIN KAMPMANN
Born: Aarhus, Denmark
Fighting out of: Las Vegas, NV
Association: Xtreme Couture