UFC

Shields' perception problem

Jake Shields fights the perception that he's not a dangerous opponent.
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Mike Chiappetta

Mike Chiappetta has documented the fast-growing sport of mixed martial arts since 2006 for news organizations including SB Nation, NBCSports.com, FIGHT! Magazine, AOL and ESPN. He appears regularly as an analyst on countless television shows and radio programs, including CBS Radio and MMA Beat. Follow him on Twitter.

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Every time he steps in the cage, Jake Shields is not just fighting a battle with an opponent, he’s fighting a battle of reputation and history and perception. Inch by inch, Shields is slowly digging his way back towards the top of the division that he threatened for years. Shields was the guy who beat Yushin Okami and Carlos Condit, and all sorts of other legitimate names outside the UFC, and when that wasn’t the challenge he needed it to be, he moved up to middleweight and won a title there, too.

He is one of the grittiest and toughest fighters working today, but there’s only one problem with him: he doesn’t exactly rally the masses through either fight style or charisma.

Take his UFC Fight Night main event win over Demian Maia on Wednesday. It was not a masterpiece in any one thing, but Shields got the job done, eking out a split-decision in the night’s main event. Shields only completed 1 out of 12 takedowns, landed only 31.3% of his significant strikes and couldn’t attempt a single submission against Maia, yet he won.

How did he do it? Mostly by being one step ahead of a chessmaster. Shields out-scrambled Maia multiple times, out-positioned him on the ground and authored the fight’s key moment. Midway through the third round, Maia scored a takedown and got to Shields’ back. That is usually his most dominant position. It is roughly similar to trying to escape the sun in an open field. However, within seconds, Shields had reversed him and ended up in top position, riding out the final minutes there with punches and elbows.

Afterward, Maia bemoaned the lost opportunity as the fight’s turning point.

“That part was definitely crucial, to lose the back in the third round,” he said. “ Also in the first round when I was able to take him down. I think I was in more dangerous positions than he was but I think taking the back, which is something I never lose, is what cost me the fight.”

He wasn’t far off. Though only two of the judges scored the third round for Shields, if Sal D’Amato, who ultimately scored the match 48-47 Shields, had given that one round to Maia instead of Shields, the fight would have swung Maia’s way in a split decision. It was that close.

Shields has a knack of leaving opponents scratching their heads afterward and surprising everyone else. Remember, this is a man who once beat Dan Henderson — after being knocked down by an H-bomb, no less. And even with that win under his belt, he said the Maia fight might have been the hardest one he’s ever competed in.

Perhaps he was saying that for effect, or perhaps not. After all, he still has championship aspirations, and there is no denying that a win over Maia, who came into the bout ranked No. 4, will only help his cause.

“I think it puts me really high back up,” he said. “Demian Maia was ranked fourth in the world, four-fight win streak. I already have wins over Carlos Condit and Robbie Lawler, top contenders. I want a shot back at GSP, whether I’ve got to fight Rory MacDonald, Carlos Condit, any of the top contenders. I just want to fight people at the top right now.”

Earlier this week, UFC president Dana White said Maia would “definitely” receive title consideration with a victory of his own, so Shields can’t be that far off with his own future hopes, although just two fights into his return to 170, he has some work to do.

Namely, both of his victories have been splits, and those are not the kind of wins that inspire fans to rally behind a contender. Shields hasn’t finished an opponent in over four years. He hasn’t knocked anyone out in six. Success is its own best argument, but his inability to finish is justly or unjustly a reason to shrug your shoulders at him.

It was only two years ago when Shields fought St-Pierre to a five-round decision, taking two rounds from the champion in the process. That was a shocker at the time, and so too would be the prospect of him returning to the division’s elite now. There are plenty of people in line ahead of him, though few would probably volunteer to try to send him away for good. His style is too stifling, too suffocating, too risky. That’s only one part of the fight for him. The other is perception. Selling him as a challenger for St-Pierre once was a challenge, trying to do it again will be even more difficult, even if he’s already proven he can offer a challenge to anyone, anytime.

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