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Rory “Ares” Macdonald is considered by many pundits to be the heir apparent to Georges St. Pierre and will enter his fight against Jake “The Juggernaut” Ellenberger as a slight favorite, for arguably slight, extrapolated reasons. His skill set is apparent and seemingly grows from fight to fight, culminating in his last match, a domination of the once brilliant BJ Penn, lauded by some as a symbolic passing of the torch from one generation to the other. This is the narrative, coupled with his friendship with GSP, that seems to be the formula by which odds makers have pitched their odds to the public. Interestingly, on closer analysis, this fight appears much harder to call than many will acknowledge because while we saw his talent and dominance against Penn and Nate Diaz, they were legitimate lightweights, competing in a higher weight class and obviously out of their comfort zone. Another item of note is the realization that this will be Macdonald’s first foray against a top-ten welterweight (outside of his lone loss to Carlos Condit), yet he is ranked #3 by the UFC. We will come back to this.
Jake Ellenberger, on the other hand, is currently ranked # 4 by the UFC and in addition to similar finishing rates as Macdonald, has fought similar level opponents. His complete destruction of Nate Marquardt and Jake Shields, quickly and violently, are no doubt the keys that have placed him within arms reach of a title shot, and their overwhelming impact have washed over his lackluster performances against Jay Hieron and Diego Sanchez. So we have to question the hype surrounding both fighters and whether the hype for both may in fact be a wash- that someone is lying, that one of these two does not belong. This is the true intrigue of the fight, the reveal of both the sickness of MMA hype and a sober drawing of each fighter’s trajectory.
The trajectory will begin in the first round. Due to lack of evidence corroborating either fighter’s rankings beyond a reasonable doubt, we have to revert to the tape; the matches and look for patterns much like the fighters have done in preparation. What do we see? If we remove the hype and the team member cheerleading, we have the archived tendencies of the fighters, and an opportune moment to watch how precedents play out with the new generation.
In Jake Ellenberger’s recent fights we see his style vividly, a fast paced, high pressure knockout artist who if unable to finish the fight within ten minutes, will most likely run out of gas. Provided he does enough damage in the first two rounds, he is able to eke out a decision victory should it go three rounds. The exception to this rule are his knockout loss Kampmann and decision to the durable Carlos Condit, who, taking brutal shots, was able to continue moving forward and win. His relentless style has an ability to overwhelm fighters who confuse patience with hesitation, or who cannot see the angles early enough. Whether on the feet or on the ground, where his ground and pound is of Occam’s Razor efficiency, the slightest opening is seized. However, for Ellenberger, it seems that he continually has one chance at this opening in any given fight, and by mustering every ounce of energy with reckless abandon, if he cannot finish the fight, the opportunity never returns. His striking is the equivalent of a high level Jiu Jitsu fighter hoping for a scramble, fully dependent on his ability to create the opening, as he is too one dimensional to counter and create mistakes.
The flip side of Ellenberger is epitomized in Rory Macdonald. Macdonald’s striking hinges on the vast range of angles and strikes at his disposal that seek to confuse and make tentative strikers with more workmanlike styles. This is Macdonald’s keyhole, one he exploited well against the boxing based BJ Penn and was evident in his first two rounds against Carlos Condit. His pace, though not as persistent as Ellenberger’s, builds to a high top speed he maintains the rest of this fight. However, inherent in this pace is the obvious slow start. It was Macdonald’s slow start that had him rocked by Mike Guymon and Che Mills, fights two years apart, making the argument that Macdonald is most vulnerable in the opening moments of any given fight. That this works in Ellenberger’s favor, whose quick starts and mad rush to top speed before decelerating make his most opportune moment the first frame, is the pattern that makes this fight of interest and illustrative of not only whether or not their hype or rankings are deserved, but whether they truly have made improvements from one fight to another.
Ellenberger’s consistency fluctuates, yet though his ceiling has been revealed, his skill set and advantages (wrestling base, KO power in each hand) are such that they cannot be avoided. Every match confronts at one of these areas, and those who have not mastered the basics of striking (Jake Shields) get laid out while those who cannot complete a take down (Marquardt) find Ellenberger’s take down defense a perfect primer to his ground and pound. The path is clear. To beat Ellenberger, a fighter must simply be better, and not by a wide margin, but enough of a margin to stagger Ellenberger’s pace early.
Macdonald is presented as the fighter that constitutes this wide margin, with a well rounded skill set, creativity, and ferocity. The biographical tidbit most repeated is Macdonald having started not from some niche skill set, but he is the first generation MMA-only-trained fighter. One need only look at his sheer dominance of BJ Penn, they say, to see the future drawing its self. Upon rolling the tape, however, we see Macdonald’s size muscling the much smaller Penn, landing strikes seemingly at will with his significant reach advantage, and a nebulous cloud of either ego or inability to finish a tough, game fighter.
If, as Macdonald said, he was putting a little extra hurt on Penn rather than finish him, then we must consider the mental side of his game and how it will play against Ellenberger, whose trash talking has seemingly not bothered Macdonald. How much of Macdonald’s personality is a facade, how much has he invested into it and more importantly, what separates it from the outside hype? His personality, as stiff as his head movement, quite possibly reveals an investment in himself that can lead one to either push themselves to greater heights or break under pressure, shattering the mirror. Was Macdonald’s fight against Condit a plot hole? With seconds left, he went fetal like Brock Lesnar to strikes, after two and a half rounds of dominating Condit. That Condit was able to rally violently should be applauded, but for the purpose of this article we need to question Macdonalds mental and physical short circuiting. Was this a product of his youth or a signpost of his character, his fighting heart? All hypotheses may be tested Saturday, and will more than likely create a tension and intrigue from the weigh in to the hand raising. The young pride seeks to claim territory, mentally and physically, along with all the chips that have been invested by the UFC and Macdonald himself.
“The Juggernaut” will rush forward in the first round while “Ares” attempts to utilize angles, maintain distance and pick apart Ellenberger to slow his roll. Ellenberger will know this and will weather the early storm, neglecting his rhythm while seeking to land his devastating hooks early and often, maintaining pressure. Macdonald will attempt to stay calm all the while, attempt to display some evidence for the hype, the hype that he has subsisted on, that has overshadowed his archived tendency to start slow and not handle pressure well. Ellenberger’s non discriminating attack will rearrange the octagon into pure objectivity, and will build upon the non hype precedents, Ellenberger will TKO Macdonald in early rounds.