Jake Ellenberger looked at Joe, his fraternal twin, and made a promise.
In the grand scheme of things, how much would a win over Mike Pyle mean considering what they were up against? Still, Jake, moments from stepping into the Octagon, offered it up.
“This one’s for you,” he said.
“I remember when he went into the cage for that one,” Joe said. “I did not envy Mike Pyle.”
Ellenberger blasted Pyle to the tune of a second round technical knockout. It was, after a distinguished run outside the Octagon, his first UFC-branded win in two tries. Half a year later, Jake followed up by stopping John Howard. Then in 2011, he outpointed Carlos Rocha and scored finishes over Sean Pierson and Jake Shields.
Technically speaking, this is the path Ellenberger, 26, has taken to Wednesday’s fight in Omaha, Neb., against Diego Sanchez. But that misses most of why he returns home to fight for the first time since 2005, a win away from title consideration in the UFC.
“Every time I get in there, I'm not just fighting for myself,” said Ellenberger, 26-5. “I feel like I'm fighting for my brother, my family. It's so much more than that. It makes you think about why you're doing it.”
“The Juggernaut” would give everything up for his brother’s situation to be different. He freely admits it. The fact is Joe Ellenberger, a heck of a mixed martial artist and wrestler in his own right, has what doctors described as a “one in a million” disease. It took Joe a few weeks to learn how to pronounce paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria, and longer to get diagnosed.
When the call came, Joe was walking to wrestling practice. The voice on the other end asked him to come in, sit down. They finally knew what was wrong. But Ellenberger, a coach at Division-2 Nebraska-Kearney, where he competed on the school’s first national championship wrestling squad, demanded to know right then what the problem was. He wanted to know why his stomach was swollen and painful. Why fatigue knocked him out 12 hours at a time. Why he felt awful through his training camp in the summer of 2009. Through all the working out and wrestling, he couldn't remember the last time he wasn't tired. This was normal, or at least that's how he reconciled what he was feeling at the time.
Then he thought it might be mononucleosis -- which it wasn’t. Blood work came back “totally whacked out.” Doctors in Kearney couldn’t explain why Joe’s urine was cola-colored. Neither could anyone in Omaha. If the Mayo Clinic didn’t find a diagnosis, Joe Ellenberger was destined for medical textbooks. So he just wanted to know.
Enough with the traveling, with having having blood drawn every other day. Plus he didn't want to burden his family anymore. So, he put his foot down. The voice from the Mayo Clinic told him.
“Then it hit me,” Joe said. “This isn't 'how do you solve it.' This is 'how do you stay alive after you're 30-years old.’ I finally took a step back and realized I was so busy wanting to train my guys in wrestling, and train with my brother that I didn’t take a step back to look and evaluate what was going on.”
The Ellenbergers learned paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria, an extremely rare disorder affecting about 8,000 Americans, is terrific at killing red blood cells. Doctors told Joe he'd never participate in a contact sport again the rest of his life.
"You may as well kill me right now," was his first thought. He was understandably lost.
“I felt the most bad for Jake,” Joe said. “I know how much it means to him for me to be able to train with him. It's the brother thing. Even when he's going with good guys, no one motivates or pushes him like when he's going with me.”
This was a month before Jake dedicated his effort against Pyle.
“There was a lot of emotion,” the welterweight recalled a couple weeks ago following a training session that included his brother. “A lot of anger and frustration. Things that are hard to deal with. And there still is a lot to deal with, but he's just such a positive person, such a good leader; definitely somebody I look up to. He deals with it a lot better than I do, that's for sure.”
Joe was in damage control leading up to the Pyle fight. The best he could do was take over-the-counter folic acid, the stuff pregnant women take to boost their red blood cell count. He was prescribed a blood thinner to help prevent clotting, which is among the most immediate dangers posed by PNH. Then he started looking for solutions. He hoped “taking six or seven pills a day” would be enough to take care of it.
Just when Joe would have needed it most, he found Soliris -- the world’s single most expensive drug, according to Forbes, at $409,500 per year.
Through a specialist, the Ellenbergers were connected with the National Organization for Rare Disorders, which helped him with the cost.
This is why Jake Ellenberger, ranked No. 4 at 170 pounds by ESPN.com, will say four or five times over the course of a 20-minute interview that he’s not interested in wasting time. He’ll say that means he’s an all-or-nothing guy with a goal to be the best welterweight in the world. But perhaps his time is not what he’s most concerned about.
"We wanted to find out every day who's the tougher brother,” Jake said. “Everything was a competition.”
Jake, Joe and Adam (their older brother by 13 months) competed through broken windows, holes in the walls and multiple stitches. That was life in the Ellenberger household, and, as if there could be any other way, it continues to be today. Only the opponents are different.
Joe will work Jake’s corner Wednesday night in the main event at the Omaha Civic Auditorium -- business as usual for them that will double as a celebration in front of friends and family.
“He is the reason why I'm in this sport," Jake said of his twin.
It could also be said, then, that Joe Ellenberger, a lightweight who like his brother was unbeaten until fight 13 -- and yes, he’s scheduled to fight on the Titan Fighting 21 card in Kansas City March 2 -- is the reason Jake Ellenberger finds himself primed for a potential championship run in the UFC.