SEATTLE - Jake (The Juggernaut) Ellenberger remembers training at Pat Miletich's camp in Iowa back in the day, enduring a trial of fire with a room full of unforgiving, hard-nosed veterans.
"You'd go into the gym and they were like hurting people," said Ellenberger. "Between Jens (Pulver), Robbie (Lawler) and Pat, I probably got dropped with body shots more times in like three or four sparring sessions that I have in my whole life."
That was back in 2005-06, after Ellenberger's stint in the U.S. marines.
"You're like, 'Why am I doing this? It sucks,'" Ellenberger recalled of his time at Miletich's where fighters either got better or got out.
At the same time north of the border, a teenage Rory (Ares) MacDonald had already started his MMA journey at a gym in Kelowna, B.C.
MacDonald is a new breed of MMA fighter. Instead of merging into the hybrid sport from wrestling, kick-boxing or another discipline, MacDonald started learning them all together. He made his pro debut in October 2005, with his parents signing off on the 16-year-old fighting.
At 28, Ellenberger is just four years older than MacDonald so it will be hardly two generations of welterweights climbing into the cage Saturday night at KeyArena on a televised UFC card.
But the fourth-ranked Ellenberger represents a stiff test for No. 3 MacDonald, seen by some as a future 170-pound champion.
Ellenberger (29-6) has packed a lot into his MMA career, having fought in the IFL, Bodog, M-1 and Bellator before going 8-2 in the UFC.
"He's a phenomenal opponent," Firas Zahabi, who trains both MacDonald (14-1) and champion Georges St-Pierre, said of Ellenberger. "He could be a world champion, he could easily be a world champion right now. He hits hard, he's a great wrestler, he's game, his accuracy is great. He's a phenomenal puncher, a phenomenal fighter."
"He's a very, very well-rounded fighter," added John Danaher, the Brazilian jiu-jitsu coach to both MacDonald and GSP.
Ellenberger, a native of Nebraska who now lives and trains in California, is also more than a little mischievous. He has waged a one-sided Twitter war of words against the stony-faced MacDonald, who is less than comfortable opening up in front of strangers although he is getting better.
MacDonald's conversation with a scrum of print reporters lasted two minutes 43 seconds Thursday.
Ellenberger insists his pushing MacDonald's buttons is nothing personal. But his pre-fight hype has helped crank up interest in their co-main event and overshadow the main event title fight between flyweight champ Demetrious (Might Mouse) Johnson and relative unknown John Moraga.
"Rory is talented. Top 10, No," Ellenberger says in his official ufc.com bio. "He has been invented by the media and sold to the fans like a new Justin Bieber song."
Ellenberger believes he has got under MacDonald's skin. But he is also smart enough to know that winning the pre-fight war of words won't mean much when it comes to throwing down.
"We're still going to fight. Whether I say something or not, we're still going to fight and I've got to perform, which is exactly what I'm looking forward to."
MacDonald's flavour of the month status has wavered in recent times, perhaps due to a fight schedule that has only seen him in action twice since August 2011 due to injury.
While he is 5-1 in the UFC and has won four straight, critics point to the fact that B.J. Penn and Nate Diaz are lightweights in reality while Che Mills and Mike Pyle were no world-beaters.
That seems somewhat revisionist. MacDonald thumped all four, racking up a combined 229 significant strikes to his opponents' 59. He also led 10-2 in takedowns, with seven of those coming against Diaz.
At six foot, Macdonald has two inches in height and 2.5 inches in reach on Ellenberger. And these days, he exudes an icy-cold approach to fighting. He is not a man to be taken lightly.
Ellenberger, perhaps not surprisingly, points to MacDonald's lone loss in the UFC — a TKO defeat at the hands of former WEC champion Carlos (Natural Born Killer) Condit in June 2010.
"I've seen what I needed to see, I've seen him break," said Ellenberger.
Of course, Ellenberger also lost to Condit when they fought in September 2009.
MacDonald was due to face No. 2 Condit in a rematch at UFC 158 in March but the Montreal card was rejigged after the Canadian was sidelined with a neck injury. Johny Hendricks beat Condit to become the No. 1 contender while Ellenberger, who had been due to face Hendricks, knocked out former Strikeforce champion Nate (The Great) Marquardt.
MacDonald had to watch from the sidelines.
While MacDonald, who now calls Montreal home, is beginning to loosen up in the public eye, he is not your average cage-fighter. While many show up at post-fight news conference in a sponsor's T-shirt, MacDonald dips deep into his extensive wardrobe.
MacDonald has style inside and outside the cage.
Lawler, who is also on Saturday's card, is looking forward to seeing MacDonald and Lawler scrap.
"It's going to be a slugfest, I think," he said. "Technical (MacDonald) versus athleticism and brute force (Ellenberger)."
Zahabi has said that he has worked with MacDonald to refine his training to avoid injury, trying to get the young fighter to sharpen his skills with more technical drills rather than "grinding out his body" in the gym.
"There's a time to train hard but that has to be periodical and that's what Rory has to learn."
Should MacDonald win Saturday, there will be more talk of whether he will ever face St-Pierre for the title.
It's been a constant issue with Zahabi forced to answer questions during this camp on why the champion was not helping MacDonald prepare for Ellenberger. Zahabi says the answer is simple. He has better Ellenberger lookalikes in camp and St-Pierre, who faces No. 1 contender Hendricks in November, is facing a totally different opponent that MacDonald's.
"It's not really a question, it's just a repetitive question," Zahabi said of a possible GSP-MacDonald matchup. "The answer's always the same
"They're not planning on fighting each other. Everybody's training well together and we're getting along and there are more important things in life."