Shields’ perception problem

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.