Welterweight Jake (The Juggernaut) Ellenberger picked Diego (The Dream) Sanchez apart in the first two rounds and then survived a late onslaught in the third en route to a unanimous decision win on a televised UFC Fight Night card Wednesday.
The win moves Ellenberger up the ranks of a 170-pound division ruled by injured champion Georges St-Pierre of Montreal and interim title-holder Carlos (Natural Born Killer) Condit.
For Sanchez, who did not look in top shape, it was a gutsy performance in a losing cause. But his rally was too little, too late.
All three judges scored it 29-28 for Ellenberger.
“He's the toughest guy I've ever fought,” said Ellenberger. “He's a true warrior.”
Sanchez (25-5) came at Ellenberger in the first round but usually paid a price.
The bigger Ellenberger (27-4) had some success with his knee and then knocked him down with a counter punch as the round neared an end. And Ellenberger staggered a bloodied Sanchez with a right as the round ended.
Ellenberger took him down in the second, punishing him with elbows to the face.
Ellenberger jabbed away at Sanchez in the third and hurt him with a knee. But then the fight turned when Ellenberger put Sanchez on the ground again, only to lose position and find himself under Sanchez.
Sanchez pounded away and a bloody Ellenberger was getting the worst of it as the clock wound down. But he managed to get up as the fight ended.
“Was that enough of a dogfight for you?” Sanchez asked the crowd after the decision.
Sanchez also said after the fight he had injured his ankle during training.
Ellenberger, a native of Omaha who now trains out of California, had his twin brother Joe in his corner. Joe Ellenberger is also a fighter, despite dealing with a rare bone marrow disease.
Sanchez, a winner of Season 1 of “The Ultimate Fighter” who has admitted paying the price for his early fame and fortune when it came to lifestyle, came out to the cage holding a cross in the air.
On the undercard at Omaha Civic Auditorium, Montreal bantamweight Ivan (Pride of El Salvador) Menjivar choked out John (Prince) Albert at 3:45 of the first round of an all-action fight.
Menjivar (24-8) found himself fighting off submissions when he ended up on top of the prickly Albert, who had hurt the Canadian at the fence with kicks and knees that left a knot on Menjivar's forehead.
But the 29-year-old Menjivar weathered the storm and took Albert's back, softening him up with punches before locking in a rear naked choke. It was his third straight win in the UFC.
“Awesome!!!!” tweeted UFC president Dana White.
The 25-year-old Albert (7-1) appeared on Season 13 of “The Ultimate Fighter.”
“He's strong ... he's dangerous,” said Menjivar, a father of two who took time out to thank all parents in his post-fight interview.
In the co-main event, Dutch heavyweight Stefan (Skyscraper) Struve stepped it up in the second round after a sluggish opening to stop Dave Herman by TKO.
The six-foot-11, 256-pound Struve (27-5) knocked the six-foot-four, 234-pound Herman (21-3) down with a right uppercut, then pounded away from mount position until the referee stepped in at 3:52 of the second round
Bantamweight T.J. Dillashaw, a finalist on Season 14 of “The Ultimate Fighter,” had his way on the ground in a dominant 30-25, 30-25, 30-26 decision over Walel (The Gazelle) Watson.
The five-foot-11 Watson had five inches in height and seven inches in reach on Dillashaw (6-1) but the size difference meant nothing on the ground with Dillashaw calling the shots with his wrestling.
The final strike count was 125 to nine in Dillashaw's favour, according to Compustrike. Still the outmatched Watson (9-4) had a better third round, showing some submission attempts.
Brazilian middleweight Ronny Markes won a 29-28, 28-29, 29-28 split decision over Aaron (A-Train) Simpson.
Markes (13-1) had Simpson (10-3) in trouble early on the feet in the first round but the tables turned when he ate a big uppercut and went down. The bigger Brazilian survived, however, and used his leg kicks and strength in the clinch to good effect in the final two rounds.
Simpson, is a Nebraska native who is 14 years older than the 23-year-old Markes, who was making his debut at 185 pounds after fighting as a light-heavyweight.
Stipe Miocic stopped England's Philip De Fries 43 seconds into the first round in a battle of unbeaten heavyweights.
The six-foot-four, 240-pound Miocic (8-0) absorbed a couple of punches from the six-foot-five, 241-pound De Fries (8-1 with one no contest) before driving him backwards and knocking him down with a right.
Featherweight Jonathan Brookins, winner of Season 12 of “The Ultimate Fighter,” stopped Vagner Rocha at 1:32 of the first round.
Rocha (7-3) ended up underneath Brookings (14-4) after a failed takedown attempt and Brookings knocked him cold with a couple of punches from above. Rocha was making his debut at 145 pounds.
Lightweight Tim (The Dirty Bird) Means used his advantage in height and reach to win a convincing 30-27, 30-26, 30-26 decision over Australian-based Brazilian Bernardo (Trekko) Magalhaes in a battle of UFC newcomers. Means (17-3-1) bloodied up Magalhaes (11-2) and put him down twice with body shots.
In another meeting of UFC debutantes, lightweight Justin (J-Bomb) Salas (10-3) used his wrestling as the fight wore on to subdue Finland's Anton Kuivanen (16-5) and win a 30-27, 30-27, 29-28 decision.
Sean (The Destroyer) Loeffler's fight against middleweight Buddy Roberts was called off due to an ankle injury to Loeffler.