While the face of UFC 189 is certainly its main event, the card’s vertebrae are its five welterweight bouts. Featuring appearances by ten of the welterweight division’s best, including its champ Robbie Lawler and its number-one-contender Rory MacDonald, the 170-pound division undoubtedly forms the backbone of the Conor McGregor and Chad Mendes helmed card.
The thing to remember as we salivate over UFC 189’s many 170-pound offerings, however, is that there’s more welterweight fun right around the corner. The very next night, in the very same Las Vegas venue, we’ll be treated to an additional and no less exciting bit of welterweight matchmaking: a clash between long-time contender Jake Ellenberger, and rising star, Stephen Thompson. After a pair of bouts between TUF cast members and appearances by the likes of Josh Samman, Michelle Waterson and Jorge Masvidal, the two 170-pounders will take center stage for the main event for the overshadowed TUF 21 Finale.
It’s a great fight for 101 reasons. The simplest of those reasons is that it represents a classic clash of styles. In Ellenberger, we have strong wrestler with C-4 packed into both fists and missile-like knees below. In Thompson, we have a karate expert so skilled that he was brought in to help Chris Weidman prepare for Anderson Silva, and has remained one of the champ’s regular training partners since.
There’s a lot more to this bout than the varying skill-sets of the two fighters, however. This is a clash between two finish-savvy fighters who will both be looking for career-altering wins.
When Ellenberger enters the Octagon with Thompson, he’ll have some wind in his sails, having tasted victory in his most recent bout. And while any victory trumps a loss, Ellenberger’s most recent win does, unfortunately, come with an asterisk attached. The win in question, in case you’ve forgotten, came over Josh Koscheck in February. A few years ago, a triumph over Koscheck was one of the welterweight division’s most valuable accomplishments. At the time of his scrap with Ellenberger, however, Koscheck was neck-deep in a four-fight losing streak: a clear indication that he is no longer the fighter he once was. This unfortunately devalues Ellenberger’s defeat of him, and therein lies the problem: Ellenberger’s defeat of Koscheck marks his lone victory in his four most recent bouts, and it’s just not worth that much alone. He’s technically in the win column, but that column is unstable.
All the same, Ellenberger remains an irrefutable member of the welterweight elite. Though he’s just one bout removed from a three-fight losing streak, he’s still capable of turning the lights out on any of the division’s best, and at 30 years old, still has plenty of time to work his way back into the top-5. His job when he gets into the cage on Sunday, then, is to remind the world of how good he is by pummelling a very game opponent in Thompson. Expect him to take that job very, very seriously.
Of course, this fight is no less important for Thompson. While his last loss occurred back in 2012, he too, finds himself at a key juncture of his career. When people talk about him, they often use words like “promise” and “potential.” And though the karateka undoubtedly possesses these traits in spades, the use of these words is a bit a deceptive because they imply youth. Now, Thompson has got plenty of good years ahead of him, but at 32, he is certainly not a young fighter. Despite the words so frequently used to describe him, he’s not some twenty-something prospect with plenty of room for growing pains and stumbles. He’s well into his competitive prime, which means that if he ever hopes to earn himself a shot at the title, let alone a place in the top-5, he needs to kick things into high gear. This bout with Ellenberger is his chance to do just that.
As his first bout with a top-15 opponent and his first headlining spot on a UFC card, this is undoubtedly the biggest fight of Thompson’s career. Perhaps more importantly, however, it’s also his first bout with a strong wrestler, and as such, the perfect opportunity for him to silence his ever-diminishing naysayers. If you’ll recall, the lone loss of his career came against Matt Brown who, despite not coming from a wrestling background, utilized a wrestling-centric game plan to earn the victory. Since then, the one point against Thompson has been a possible deficiency in the grappling department. So, if he’s able to not only beat Ellenberger, but stuff a few takedowns in the process, he’ll earn not just the biggest triumph of his career, but a long-absent trust in his wrestling too—an important thing in a wrestler-dominated division.
No matter how you spin it, the main event of the TUF 21 Finale is a good one. It’s a collision of two very different fighters from very different backgrounds. It’s a clash between two fighters who, despite their differences, own some of the strongest finishing ability in their division (with a combined 30 stoppages in their 40 pro victories). It’s a pairing of two fighters who not only need a win, but can’t afford a loss—cornered animals, so to speak.
Yes, with its many welterweight offerings, UFC 189 is undoubtedly a celebration of one of MMA’s most exciting divisions. Just don’t forget the two dynamic welterweights who are set to compete 24 hours after the big pay-per-view is over. Their fight is free, and it’s probably going to be dynamite.
Check out these related stories:
The Mixed Martial Arts of Victorian London
Before BJJ, there was Bartitsu.
Jonathan Maicelo: The Last Inca
Peru's up-and-coming boxing star.
Kron Gracie on Jiu-Jitsu, Skateboarding, Older Brothers, and Famous Fathers
The ties that bind are strong.
Joel Tudor on the Art of Surfing, Fighting, and Style
A surf icon helps MMA keep its sense of tradition.
Japan's Karate Kid: Kyoji Horiguchi
Japan's brightest MMA prospect.