Omaha, Neb., has a solid MMA community that flies under the radar on a national level.  However, the city has produced several UFC fighters, including Ryan Jensen, Houston Alexander and Jason Brilz.  When it comes to big names though, the biggest in town is Ellenberger.

When most people around the MMA world hear the name Ellenberger, the first name that comes to mind is Jake, one of the top welterweights currently competing in the UFC.  However, Jake’s twin brother Joe is 14-1 as a professional and is waiting to get his shot in the big show.

Joe Ellenberger, at only 27 years old, has been fighting as a pro since 2005 and, like his brother, has been wrestling most of his life.

Back in 2009, Joe was perfect through his first 10 fights and on the verge of receiving an invitation into the UFC. But then he was delivered some troubling news.  Joe was diagnosed with paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria (PNH), which is a rare, potentially life-threatening blood disease.  Shortly after the diagnosis, he was offered a UFC fight, but he was unable to accept.

Joe Ellenberger batters an opponent (Keith Mills/Sherdog)

After a ton of heartache and some expensive medicine, Joe’s dreams, which he thought at one point were gone, were able to get back on track.

On May 21, 2011, Joe finally stepped back into the ring to face Jeff Carstens, whom he finished with a first-round kimura.  It was a fight the young man badly needed.

“I was just happy to be able to compete again, to be able to get out there and do what I love,” Ellenberger said in an exclusive interview with The MMA Corner.  “It was a feeling of joy and relief.”

Getting back in the ring after treatment for his disease, which can be unpredictable at times, Joe really wasn’t too worried about how it would affect his fighting.

“I was pretty comfortable,” Ellenberger explained.  “I didn’t really cut any weight.  I think the fight was at 170, and he came in at like 177.  To me, it was one of those things.  I did a lot of training.  It was close to a year that I had been back at it.  Most of the kinks were worked out.  I didn’t think there were too many surprises or anything like that.  I felt really good.”

That feeling showed as he quickly disposed of Carstens.  After that fight, he went on to face James Warfield, who he beat by unanimous decision, and everything appeared to be right back on track.  At that point, Ellenberger was riding an undefeated record that had grown to 12-0, but that all changed in his Victory Fighting Championship lightweight title fight against Justin Salas.

In a five-round war, Salas caught Joe out of sorts and handed him his first loss, which came by unanimous decision.  The real stinger is that Salas next fought in the UFC in Omaha in front of Ellenberger’s hometown crowd.

“I feel like a lot of times before that, I’d get off to a good start,” Ellenberger explained.  “I’d get on a roll and get somebody backpedaling and almost force him to make a mistake and win with a stoppage.  I’ve got a lot of first-round stoppages.

“I think, with that fight, I had a real dominant first round.  I wasted a lot of energy trying for different finishes that weren’t necessarily there.  I’m just so used to getting ahead of somebody so far, that I can just keep winning rounds.  Against a guy like Justin, he’s just good at bouncing back.  When he won the second round, I was just like ‘dang.’  I thought I landed some good shots on him, and then he came back.  Then, he won the third round and I think I started to get a little bit desperate.  In my mind, I kind of felt the need to get desperate.  I started doing things I don’t normally do in training.  I was jumping triangles and d’arce chokes and trying things I wouldn’t normally be trying to get.  Especially, looking at a five-round fight, if I won the first round and lost the next two, I can still win the last two and still win the fight.  At no point was that going through my head.  It was definitely a learning experience, you know.  It wasn’t my night.”

Ellenberger didn’t officially know that there were UFC implications to the fight, but he had a hunch that it might be the case.

“I think the name recognition that goes with me and, obviously, my brother, a lot people are calling me out for fights, because a win against me could catapult a lot of guys into the UFC,” Ellenberger said.  “And a loss against me doesn’t hurt them as badly as a loss against somebody else.  I think people see the name and think, ‘if I want to make a quick jump, I can try to jump in there and beat him.’  It’s kind of like I’m one of those gatekeepers between the regional circuits and the UFC.”

Well, Joe Ellenberger makes “jumping into the ring” to beat him sound a lot easier than it is, especially since his only loss was by a five-round decision.  Most of the guys that jump into the ring with him get knocked out in the first round.

Although it’s nice to be at the level of a regional-circuit UFC gatekeeper, it would be even better for Joe if he was actually in the UFC, which is truly where a guy at this level belongs.  Neither Bellator nor Titan FC, where he once fought, contain the level of competition that could truly challenge Ellenberger.

“I’m hoping to graduate from being the gatekeeper between the regional level and the UFC to being the gatekeeper in the UFC,” Ellenberger admitted.  “You know, ‘if you beat me, you stay, and if you lose, you get your walking papers.’  I want to graduate to be that guy.”

Unfortunately, Joe still hasn’t gotten the call, but he is young, hungry and patiently awaiting that day like the consummate pro he is.

“I know there’s a lot of stuff going on right now with Zuffa and their acquisitions,” Ellenberger stated.  “There’s a lot of fight cards getting lined up, and they have a ton of guys under contract as it is.  I know they’re busy.  I’m just hoping that this last fight just grooved some more interest in their minds, and they know this is a guy they can count on.  This is a guy that we can call on short notice and he’d be ready to rock-and-roll.”

Justin Salas got his shot as a promotional newcomer a year ago, and Ellenberger should get that same opportunity.  In fact, it would be great to see this humble Midwesterner get a shot at Salas again.  For now, he’s in a holding pattern, but should that call come in, he will most certainly be ready to throw down.

While regional promotions probably don’t provide the toughest competitors, he is not ruling them out for now.  However, his brother is a top competitor and may be able to help Joe out.

“I’m open to any of the regional shows, but I’d rather be competing in the UFC,” Ellenberger admitted.  “It’s a dream of my brother and I to fight together on the same card.  Him, being a company man with the UFC, and being a top-five welterweight, he’s not going anywhere any time soon.  I’m hoping that my brother, being a company man, he can sway a few more minds in to getting me in too.  Who knows?”

On a few occasions, Ellenberger did get a chance to try out for The Ultimate Fighter, but as most nice, down-to-earth guys have seen, the reality show is mostly seeking circus clowns.

“I think I match up pretty well with a lot of the guys in the UFC,” Ellenberger explained.  “I see a lot of the guys on The Ultimate Fighter TV shows, and think, ‘man, I should be able to compete and beat some of those guys.’  I tried out for a bunch of those shows and made it to the last part, but I never actually made it onto a show or a fight to get into the show.  I feel that would bring a little more redemption to position myself and prove to myself that I was good enough to be there.

“The first time I tried out, they were waiting for me to do something crazy and tell some story about how I live in a van down by the river.  You know, like I accidentally killed a guy once or something crazy.  I have my Bachelor’s degree and my Master’s degree.  I just like to fight.  They’re like, ‘you’re too normal, and the education thing, that’s kind of weird, because nobody usually does that.’  And I was like, ‘I thought this was a fight show?’  I didn’t think it was a freak show, I thought it was a fight show.”

Frankly, Ellenberger can do much better than getting involved in a TUF house anyway.  He needs to just get the contract, as he has already proven on multiple occasions that he belongs.

As Ellenberger pointed out, he has achieved a high level of education, rare amongst the fight community, and he plans to use that one day.

“My Bachelor’s is in industrial distribution from Nebraska-Kearney,” Ellenberger said.  “It mixes a lot of industries with the manufacture of products and the distribution of it.  It’s kind of a technical sales starter.  My Master’s is in sports administration.  I was happy to get that to potentially coach wrestling in college or be an athletic director of a high school.”

Currently, Joe’s brother, Jake, conducts his fight camps at Mark Munoz’s Reign Training Center and King’s MMA, both in California.  Joe, with his penchant for coaching and training others, often makes the trip to California to help his twin brother out.

Joe Ellenberger (L) prepares to celebrate after a TKO victory over Joe Wilk (Jerry R Chavez/Still Life Photography)

“I go out there between two and four weeks for every one of his training camps,” Ellenberger said.  “You know, when he really gets going, he enjoys having me out there for a little taste of home, but also someone that oversees the operations and makes sure we’re doing everything right.

“I help him study some fight videos, and even break down his fights and reflect on what he’s doing.  I guess I have kind of a knack for the coaching part.  A lot of the coaches you end up paying, and they’re your friend and they don’t want to make you mad if you’re helping them pay their rent or whatever.  They don’t want to be the guy that says, ‘that’s wrong or this is wrong.’  They just want to focus on what’s right.  For me, it’s about shoring up all of those little things that we can and controlling all of the things that we can control and having a good performance.”

Outside of MMA, Ellenberger’s life is pretty much like any other married guy in his late twenties.

“I’ve been hanging out with a three-month-old, my daughter, Makinley,” Ellenberger said.  “You know, just hanging out with her and my wife, Vanessa.”

And, his holiday plans are, “hanging out with the family, and getting Jake going with his training as well.  That’s always kind of a fun thing to do.  It’s hard to have fun around here.”

As a parting shot, Joe Ellenberger wants fans to know one important thing about him.

“People should actually know that I’m a better wrestler between my brother Jake and I,” Ellenberger said with a laugh.  “I want it to be on the record.  I’m calling him out.”

Being twin brothers, it can certainly be deduced that this has been a hotly-contested issue since childhood.

Well, for now, Jake is in and Joe is right behind him.  He had his career temporarily derailed, but he is right back on track.  In fact, his most recent win was for the VFC lightweight championship over Joe Wilk, who, ironically, is the same guy he beat before being diagnosed with PNH.

With his PNH under control, tremendous talent in the cage, and a twin in a dominant position in the UFC, Joe Ellenberger deserves his shot now.  He doesn’t need to be with a bunch of clowns in a reality show house, because that’s not what he’s about.  Ellenberger belongs in the Octagon with other professionals that take their jobs seriously.  Once there, it is almost a guarantee that he will quickly jump on the path to title contention in the stacked lightweight division of the UFC.

Joe would like to thank his wife, his family and all of his training partners and coaches at Premier Combat Center, Monarch Wrestling Club, Higher Tactics Training, and Axios BJJ Academy.  He would also like to thank his sponsors at Battle Sports Science, AR Salvage and Agoge Clothing.  He would also like to specifically thank coaches Scott Morgan, Riley Ross, his brother Jake, Jason Glatgakos, Ryan Jensen, and Kurt Podany.  As a final note, he wants everyone to know that now is the time to join the movement and become part of the #EllenbergerNATION!

Top Photo: Joe Ellenberger (Jerry R Chavez/Still Life Photography)