Before his last fight, Jake Ellenberger's resume in the Ultimate Fighting Championship was marked by a split-decision loss to current UFC interim welterweight champion Carlos Condit in his debut and four victories over mid-carders.
Ellenberger made fans take notice, however, in his last fight, a first-round knockout of Jake Shields in September. Shields was highly touted and lost a decision to UFC welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre just four months earlier.
"I think it's a big step for me," Ellenberger said. "It sort of solidified (me) as a top contender. I think I still have to prove that. I'm working every day. I'm dedicating my life to become a world champ. I have to continue to prove that. Every day, I'm just completely focusing on what I have to do to be the best."
Now, with his star definitely on the rise, the 26-year-old can take another step toward his own title shot on Wednesday, Feb. 15, when he fights Diego Sanchez in the main event of "UFC on Fuel TV 1." The event, which will be held at the Omaha Civic Auditorium in Ellenberger's hometown of Omaha, Neb., can be seen live on Fuel TV at 8 p.m. EST. A one-hour pre-fight show and a one-hour post-fight program will also air on the network.
Sanchez, who won the inaugural season of "The Ultimate Fighter" as a middleweight in 2005, fluctuated between welterweight and lightweight for much of his career. Sanchez is 9-3 as a welterweight in the UFC and 23-4 overall.
A victory over Sanchez "continues to progress me up (the rankings)," said Ellenberger, who is 26-5 in his career. "I don't really know where that's going to put me. That's up to the UFC. That's another tough test they're putting in front of me. I'm definitely prepared for it."
Sanchez, a 30-year-old native of Albuquerque, N.M., has proven tough to finish. Ten of his last 14 fights, including three of his four losses, ended in decisions. Ellenberger knows he must deal with Sanchez's pace to emerge victorious.
"He likes to put pressure on guys," Ellenberger said. "People have a hard time dealing with that. You have to have a guy who can match his pace, push it and put him in uncomfortable areas. That's what I plan on doing."
The card also features a heavyweight fight between Stefan Struve and Dave Herman. Struve, 22-5 overall and 6-3 in the UFC, was defeated by current UFC heavyweight champion Junior dos Santos in his promotional debut at "UFC 95" in 2009. This is Herman's second bout in the UFC. Herman, 21-2 overall, defeated John-Olav Einemo in his UFC debut in June.
The remainder of the main card includes middleweights Aaron Simpson and Ronny Markes; heavyweights Stipe Miocic and Philip De Fries; and bantamweights T.J. Dillashaw and Walel Watson.
The preliminaries, which can be seen at www.facebook.com/UFC beginning at 5 p.m., include: bantamweights Ivan Menjivar and John Albert; featherweights Jonathan Brookins and Vagner Rocha; middleweights Buddy Roberts and Sean Loeffler; and lightweights Anton Kuivanen and Justin Salas, and Tim Means and Bernardo Magalhaes.
Condit earned a decision over Nick Diaz in the main event of "UFC 143" on Saturday to win the UFC interim welterweight title.
Diaz blasted the decision and briefly announced his retirement to UFC announcer Joe Rogan in a post-fight interview.
"I'm not going to accept the fact that this was a loss," Diaz said. "... I think I'm done with this MMA. It's been great out here. I've had a good career. You guys pay me way too much, but I don't think I'm going to get enough to keep going in this. It's been a good time."
The retirement, however, was short-lived. Rumors of a potential rematch between Condit and Diaz swirled earlier this week, and UFC President Dana White announced on Twitter that the fight will happen.
Previously, it was announced that the winner of the interim title would fight UFC welterweight champion St. Pierre, who is scheduled to return from a knee injury in November, to unify the title later this year. St. Pierre will now await the winner of the rematch.