COMMENTARY | Following UFC welterweight Jake Ellenberger's first-round knockout of Nate Marquardt at March 16's UFC 158 in Montreal, Canada, there was little doubt a "Knockout of the Night" bonus was on the way.
There was also little doubt that Ellenberger belonged in the upper echelon of the division, so much so that Chael Sonnen believes he deserves the next title shot against Georges St-Pierre.
"I will see your power of Johny Hendricks, and I will raise you three extra knockouts in the first round by Jake Ellenberger," Sonnen said during the post-fight show on Fuel TV. "And yes, Hendricks has been on fire, but he has not done the work that Ellenberger has done, and he has not beat the guys that Ellenberger's beat.
"He is fantastic. I will not take a thing away from Johny Hendricks, but to overlook 'The Juggernaut,' who's been in there against top contenders in Carlos Condit, in Jake Shields, in Nate Marquardt, all who've fought for titles, to dismiss him is inappropriate."
However, UFC President Dana White has already stated that Hendricks will get the next shot at St-Pierre. And after six-straight wins, including victories over former top contenders Jon Fitch, Josh Koscheck and Carlos Condit, the matchup is well deserved.
So what's next for Ellenberger (29-6, 18 KO/TKO), who came into UFC 158 ranked No. 6 in the division and has won two in a row and seven of his last eight?
Rory MacDonaldThe Tristar talent has won four straight, finishing all but two of his fights. MacDonald (14-1, six KO/TKO, six submissions) has balance that makes him a dangerous opponent for anyone but is currently out with a neck injury. When he does return, the UFC's No. 4-ranked welterweight will bring with him experience that includes wins over BJ Penn, Che Mills, Mike Pyle and Nate Diaz during his current streak and motivation to fight the division's elite.
Demian MaiaMaia's transition to 170 pounds has been a success, going undefeated against Dong Hyun Kim, Rick Story and Jon Fitch. The Brazilian's Jiu Jitsu game is second to none and his striking is improving. Maia (18-4, nine submissions) came into UFC 158 ranked No. 5 in the welterweight rankings and will most likely be Ellenberger's next opponent.
Lawler's explosive knockout of Koscheck in his return to the promotion at UFC 157 commanded attention and put him at No. 9 in the division rankings. Former Strikeforce welterweight champion Tarec Saffiedine, who entered the UFC welterweight rankings at No. 8, could also make his debut against Ellenberger, but the UFC may want a lower-ranked transitional fight first, making Lawler (20-9, 17 KO/TKO) a more likely opponent and a very exciting matchup.
A chance to fight "Rush" for the belt is clearly the target. However, with Hendricks in waiting and a Chris Weidman-willing superfight against Anderson Silva potentially on the horizon, Ellenberger may actually be two wins away from a shot at St-Pierre. First, he'll have to get through MacDonald, Maia, Lawler, and/or Condit, whose granite chin and diverse skills should keep him toward the top of the welterweight rankings despite his UFC 158 loss to Hendricks.
Ellenberger's win over Marquardt was impressive and might have put the former Strikeforce champ on the verge of his second UFC exit. Afterward, Ariel Helwani asked "The Juggernaut" if the win makes him a top contender.
"Absolutely," Ellenberger said. "I try not to focus so much on one fight alone. I've had some bumps in my career obviously, and [am] just moving forward. I'll keep improving and hopefully get that No. 1-contender fight next."
The most significant bump was his "The Ultimate Fighter 15 Finale" loss to Martin Kampmann last year. If it weren't for the defeat, the case to leapfrog Hendricks would be more compelling.
St-Pierre may yet be in Ellenberger's future, but not yet, not yet.
Paul Putignano lives in Southern California, where he has covered mixed martial arts and a wide array of sports across the Greater Los Angeles area. His work has been published in a variety of newspapers and online publications.