Given enough time and hard work, dreams can come true in just about any profession. Mixed martial arts is no different.

Nearly every professional fighter has a dream to be the best in the world. Fighting takes too much sacrifice and dedication to have it any other way. However, just as with any other career, variables show up along the way, sometimes before the path is even chosen, that make achieving greatness that much more difficult. Take the case of Nick Newell.

Newell was born a congenital amputee, meaning he was missing the lower part of his left arm at birth. Not only did he go on to have very successful high school and college wrestling careers, but he is now 11-0 as a pro fighter, with all but one of his victories coming by stoppage. Newell had a dream, worked his butt off, despite his obvious physical obstacle, and is now under contract with one of the top promotions in the sport. Although Newell is an extreme example of a physical disadvantage, there are plenty of other fighters who have had to overcome adversity to get to the top.

Ellenberger (Keith Mills/Sherdog)

Ellenberger (Keith Mills/Sherdog)

Fans across the world of MMA, unless they live under a rock, are very familiar with Jake “The Juggernaut” Ellenberger. He’s a four-year veteran of the UFC and three-time “of the Night” winner who is 8-3 under the promotion. The Juggernaut has taken out the likes of Diego Sanchez, Nate Marquardt and Jake Shields, and his losses have only been to top-10 contenders.

While his record is impressive and his standing in the promotion quite strong, there’s another more pressing fact which is quite interesting. He has a twin brother.

Joe Ellenberger, Jake’s twin, is also a very impressive pro MMA fighter. Back in 2009, the same year Jake made his UFC debut, Joe was offered his first fight in the promotion on the merit of his own career. However, Jake made it in and Joe did not. Undefeated through 10 fights as a pro, Joe’s performance had nothing to do with it.

Ever since they entered the sport, the Ellenbergers dreamed of fighting under the UFC banner on the same card. They have fought at the same event before for smaller, regional promotions, but never on the big stage. Some might say this was a self-inflicted obstacle, because the two brothers dreamed of this on their own, but it was a huge challenge nonetheless. The UFC doesn’t just hand out contracts, so to make this dream a reality, everything that it takes to get to this level was times two.

On top of the challenge they created for themselves, Mother Nature decided to throw another curveball their way.

In 2009, Joe was diagnosed with paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria (PNH), a rare, potentially life-threatening blood disease. This was a shock to everyone, and he had to turn down his UFC offer as a result.

To make a long story short, Joe’s condition requires very expensive medicine and he needed some major recovery time to get it under control. However, as a true professional who loves his craft, he was able to get back in the ring nearly two years later.

Upon re-entering the cage, Joe continued his winning ways, racking up another four victories while also suffering his first and only loss to Justin Salas, whose next fight was in the UFC. The Omaha native’s last fight, a first-round TKO of Joe Wilk, was in December 2012, and he has been on the sidelines ever since. He was not on the sidelines because he was not interested in fighting. He was waiting for that long-overdue shot at the big show.

Well, that shot has finally come to fruition. After waiting over a year, Joe inked a four-fight deal with the biggest promotion in the business, but the wait was something to be expected, considering his PNH condition.

“Me and [UFC matchmaker Joe Silva] have been exchanging emails for quite some time,” Joe revealed in an exclusive interview with The MMA Corner. “I guess their concern was gaining medical clearance anywhere they go. He’s like, ‘If I have you in my roster, I need you available in Canada, Brazil, Europe, Asia and any state here.’ I guess once we got that figured out, I asked him what else I needed to do, and that was it.

“The biggest thing was getting their doctors and their staff on the same page as my hematologist and my team of doctors. Obviously, what I have is a pretty rare and unique case, so I wanted them to get as much knowledge and as many people involved as possible to make sure they don’t leave any stones unturned.”

No stones unturned? That’s a big understatement. As large as UFC parent company Zuffa LLC has become, there is a plethora of liability issues that arise with a rare disease like PNH. Outside of the obvious concerns pertaining to Ellenberger’s health, there are issues with treatments, getting medicine through customs, insurance and everything else that comes with due diligence. However, after the UFC brass got it all figured out, Joe was good to go, and, frankly, being treated like all of the other fighters.

“It’s pretty much the same as everybody else,” Ellenberger stated. “It’s pretty standard. Now that I’ve gotten into what I’m doing and a good routine with my treatments, my body is basically back to normal. It’s a pretty easy transition.”

The Ellenberger twins fight in different divisions. Jake has been a mainstay in the UFC welterweight class, whereas Joe is a lightweight. The 155-pound division is arguably the most stacked division, not just in the UFC, but in all of MMA. That being said, one has to wonder where Joe would land in the standings and who would be a reasonable first opponent.

“Just looking at the division from the outside, it’s just a murderer’s row of guys,” admitted Ellenberger. “I don’t think there’s an easy fight anywhere. I imagine, with the recent few additions to the roster, they’ll start matching up some of the newer guys to see how they stack up. I don’t expect me getting thrown to the wolves right away, like some of the other guys that maybe had to get in on shorter-notice fights. They’re always looking for another crop or generation of fighters to build, and I suppose I may fit that bill.”

Joe is just happy to finally make it to the Octagon, and he was given a target of March or April to make his debut. However, to complete the dream, he still wanted to make it into the lineup of the same card as his brother. Jake was originally set to fight Tarec Saffiedine on Jan. 4, but he had to pull out due to an injury. On Jan. 24, it was announced that Jake would fight Saffiedine on April 26 at UFC 172 in Baltimore.

The timing of Jake’s next fight ended up being right in line with Joe’s schedule for his UFC debut, and the dream finally came true. On Jan. 27, it was announced that Joe would also fight on the UFC 172 card. Not only is the UFC newcomer ecstatic about this development, but Jake is, of course, quite happy too.

“He’s excited,” said Joe. “He was looking forward to my debut. Obviously, he’ll be there [laughs]. It works out well, and it makes sense time-wise for both his rehab and my training.”

Jake trains primarily out of Reign Training Center in California, whereas Joe trains out of Premier Combat Center in their hometown of Omaha, Neb. In the past, Joe has traveled out to California to train with his brother and vice versa, but it’s been since June 2009 that they fought on the same card, which makes the timing for training a little difficult at times. For UFC 172, they will both train in California and Nebraska, and the timing creates an optimal atmosphere for their respective camps.

Ellenberger (Keith Mills/Sherdog)

Ellenberger (Keith Mills/Sherdog)

“I’ll go to California for a couple weeks, and then come back,” explained Joe. “I’ll go back and forth, probably a couple times, now that we have 12 weeks, and get some good training in. I think it’s a good thing, being able to motivate each other. As the proverb says, iron sharpens iron, one man sharpens another, and I think that rings true here quite well. A lot of times when one of us has a fight and the other does not, we’re still motivating each other, but it’s a little bit tougher for one of us to be in almost fight-ready shape for the other one’s fight if you don’t have anything on the docket. So, it works out good.”

With three months to prepare, the Ellenbergers will have plenty of time to coordinate training, and both of them have big opponents ahead.

Jake is coming off his second UFC loss last July. He is recovering from an injury and will face Saffiedine, a former Strikeforce welterweight champion who is on a five-fight winning streak. Joe’s first UFC opponent, Yancy Medeiros, is not quite at that level yet, but he is definitely no slouch.

Medeiros is 10-1 as a pro, a very similar record to that of Ellenberger. The Hawaiian competitor also has four Zuffa fights under his belt, with a 2-0 mark in the Strikeforce cage and his last two outings bringing his UFC record to 1-1. Medeiros has seven knockouts and one submission on his record, whereas Ellenberger has eight knockouts and four submissions. Both of these guys are tough, young finishers that need to make a statement in a stacked division. The Omaha native is ready for the challenge.

“He’s a typical Hawaiian fighter,” Ellenberger said of Medeiros. “He hits hard and likes to fight, always comes in good shape, and is a real well-rounded, young kid. He comes from the generation where he didn’t start with just one discipline or another—they’ve always been scrappin’. It should be interesting. I’m looking forward to it.”

Medeiros originally fought at light heavyweight, moved down to middleweight and is now a lightweight, which is a 50-pound swing. At 5-foot-10, he may have been on the shorter end of the 205-pound division, but at 155 pounds, he’s a dangerously rangy fighter. Ellenberger is two inches shorter, but not at all concerned.

“If you look at his fights, he’s got a lot of knockouts in there,” Ellenberger admitted. “As he comes down with weight, guys who already punch hard, you know, they don’t lose that. I envision I’m going to have to sustain through a lot of his punches. It works out well for him and he’s got good length, but it’s nothing I haven’t seen before, nothing I won’t be 100 percent prepared for.”

Prepared is the name of the game, but what about his time off?

By the end of April, it will have been over 16 months since Joe’s last cage appearance, but this is nothing new to him. After being diagnosed with PNH, he was out of the cage for nearly two years before his next fight, and he came back with a first-round submission. With gyms like Premier and Reign behind him, he has little reason for concern.

“I’m not worried about it at all,” Ellenberger intimated. “The way we train and the intensity we bring, being someone that has competed before, multiple times, even wrestling in college, you just have that feeling of when you need to get up for a fight in competition versus training. I think we harbor a good enough atmosphere. We’ve got our processes down pretty standard, so I’m not worried in the least bit.”

It’ll have been nearly five years since the last time an MMA card saw two Ellenbergers, and it has never happened on the biggest stage in the sport. On April 26, though, the dream will finally come true. Joe and Jake Ellenberger will battle it out on the same card against very dangerous opponents at UFC 172. However, at the end of the day, the two fighters are still individuals with individual careers, and Joe has a very clear vision on what his own UFC contract means.

“I really see it as an opportunity. I think everyone who has ever been in there, competed and trained, you just want to test your skill against the best guys you can and really see where you’re at—use it as a measuring stick. A lot of people, when they do test themselves, understand that they’re not there yet. They kind of have to go back to the drawing board. I feel that I am there. I think it will just give me more peace of mind, you know, if I can go in there and wreck some guys and compete with some of the top guys in the world. I’m just taking it one day at a time.”

Ellenberger would like to thank his wife Vanessa, daughter Makinley and new baby, who is due to join the family in March. He would also like to thank his family, his brothers, his team at Premier Combat Center, the guys at Reign, his coaching staff, and everybody that has ever supported him along the way. Follow Joe on Twitter: @JoeEllenberger

About The Author

Dan Kuhl
Interview Coordinator