LAS VEGAS – A world championship shot is a precious thing in any sport. Some of the greatest players of all-time, Hall of Famers and superstars of all varieties lament the fact that they never got the chance to play for a title.
Ernie Banks of the Cubs never made it to the World Series. Eric Dickerson never made it to the Super Bowl. Despite their brilliant achievements, they're haunted long after their playing days are over by their failure to at least get a shot to play for a championship.
In fighting, title shots are similarly cherished. More and more, though, UFC fighters are having to make a choice of whether to voluntarily sit on the sidelines and wait for a chance or whether to compete in non-title bouts and risk a spot as the confirmed No. 1 contender.
There is no right answer and decisions have haunted guys who have taken each approach. Anthony Pettis earned a shot at the UFC lightweight title by beating Benson Henderson in the final match in World Extreme Cagefighting history, but he chose to compete rather than sit and await the outcome of a UFC title fight between Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard. Pettis took a fight against veteran Clay Guida, lost it and still hasn't fought for the championship 18 months after he earned it.
Rashad Evans took the opposite approach and chose to sit out to await a shot at then-light heavyweight champion Mauricio "Shogun" Rua's UFC belt. But a series of injuries, first to Rua and then to himself, led to him sitting out for more than a year.
Jake Ellenberger has no such decision to make – yet. But if he beats Martin Kampmann tonight at the Palms in the main event of "The Ultimate Fighter Live" finale, it's a question he'll have to ponder.
Ellenberger, though, has already made up his mind.
"I came to the UFC to win the world title," said Ellenberger, who has won six in a row since a loss in his UFC debut to Carlos Condit. "I don't think I do that by sitting out. I want to keep active, keep getting better and keep learning. That's why I took this fight. You learn the most by fighting the best guys out there; that's what makes you a better fighter."
The UFC's welterweight picture is muddied and it is going to be a long time before anyone other than champion Georges St. Pierre and Condit, the interim champion, compete for the belt.
Condit defeated Nick Diaz at UFC 143 on Feb. 4 to win the interim belt. The purpose of an interim belt is so that the title won't be put on ice if a champion is injured and unable to defend it, so it was odd when the UFC gave Condit the option of sitting on the sidelines and waiting for St. Pierre rather than forcing him to defend the interim title.
St. Pierre, who hasn't fought since April 30, 2011, is rehabilitating a knee injury and isn't expected to be ready to fight until November, at the earliest.
If St. Pierre does meet Condit in a champion versus champion match in November – and there is no guarantee he'll be ready to do that – it would mean that the winner wouldn't be ready to defend it until probably February 2013 at the absolute earliest.
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Ellenberger and Johny Hendricks are probably the top contenders for the next title shot after Condit. A victory over Kampmann would mean Ellenberger has wins over elite fighters such as Jake Shields, Diego Sanchez, Mike Pyle and Kampmann.
Hendricks might seem to have the better résumé – he's coming off wins over Mike Pierce, Jon Fitch and Josh Koscheck – and he seemingly won the shot by beating Koscheck on May 5.
But in the fight game, it's never that simple, so Ellenberger is trying to ignore it. He simply wants to keep winning to keep his name in the mix.
"My job is to win and win impressively," he said. "In a division this deep, winning isn't always good enough. You have to impress and you have to make people remember what you did when the next guy [at welterweight] wins. I've never been someone who could sit by for six, eight months, waiting for a title shot. I'm someone who fights, wants to get better and continue to make my case in the Octagon for that shot at the title."
So, Ellenberger could get a shot at the belt if he beats Kampmann. Or, more likely, he'll become the top contender behind Condit and Hendricks. Then that would mean he'd have to wait for the winner of St. Pierre-Condit and then the winner of St. Pierre/Condit-Hendricks.
He hopes the survivor is Condit so he gets the shot at redemption, but he's got a lot to worry about before that point.
"I feel I won the first fight [with Condit], but that fight won't mean anything in the rematch," he said. "I'm a lot better now, and he's gotten a lot better. But, honestly, other than wanting to fight for the world title, I don't have any plans beyond Martin Kampmann. I'm fully focused on doing what I need to do to beat him [tonight.]"
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