On Aug. 30, Shields’s father, Jack, passed in his sleep at the age of 67. After consideration, he opted not to pull out of his welterweight fight against Ellenberger on Saturday in New Orleans. The fight will go on as planned in the main event of UFC Fight Night.
Ellenberger has never been asked to fight immediately after losing a loved one, but he has dealt with a family health issue for the past two years. His twin brother, Joe, who was on his way to a spot on the UFC roster, was diagnosed with a life-threatening bone marrow disease in 2009.
“It’s hard to not be driven by emotions,” Ellenberger told ESPN.com. “I’ve been in a similar situation. My twin brother was diagnosed with bone marrow disease. That was extremely hard to go through and it’s still something we deal with every day.
“I’ve used it to motivate me. We’re not guaranteed anything in this life. You have to stay focused mentally and use it to your advantage.”
No one is quite sure what to expect from Shields this weekend, just a little more than two weeks removed from the tragedy. In addition to his role as Jake’s father, Jack also managed his son’s career and was, in many ways, his best friend.
In his experience, Ellenberger says the gym can be a healthy distraction to a fighter facing loss.
“When you go back into training after something like that, it kind of takes your mind off everything else,” he said. “But once you leave, it’s still something you deal with. Fighting is so mental. I’m really not sure how it’s going to affect him.”
Of course, as his opponent, Ellenberger has prepared for nothing short of Shields’ best.
The two had gone back and forth a little in the media during the prefight buildup, but now Ellenberger says he feels nothing but respect for a guy who would step up and take the fight despite what’s happened.
“Beyond fighting and beyond rivalry, you have to feel for somebody like that,” Ellenberger said. “It’s never easy to go through loss. I’ve done it. I can relate. At the end of the day, your family is most important to you.
“He’s a professional for still taking the fight. That’s his job. So, I respect that about him.”
It’s puts a bit of a cloud on what is otherwise the biggest opportunity of Ellenberger’s career.
The 26-year-old has compiled a professional record of 24-5, including a 4-1 mark in the UFC. His lone loss came via split decision to Carlos Condit in his 2009 debut, one month after learning of his brother’s condition.
A high profile win over the likes of Shields might be all it takes to propel Ellenberger to a title shot. Fighting in a main event for the first time since joining the UFC, he’s prepared to take full advantage of the opportunity.
“For me, it’s keep my composure and dictate where the fight goes,” he said. “I think that’s going to be the keys to winning this fight. Jake Shields is very good in a few areas. If I can make him play into my strengths, I win this fight.”