For a great many years whenever the discussion came up about the best grapplers who transitioned to modern day mixed martial arts the conversation generally started and stopped with Jake Shields.
A Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt under Cesar Gracie, Shields was a multi-time grappling champion, but what was more impressive was the way he used those skills to transition to an even more successful MMA career. He’s won titles in promotions like Shooto, Elite XC and Strikeforce, and did it all using a superior ground game to dominate and decimate the competition.
Brazilian jiu-jitsu specialists coming to MMA is nothing new—the sport was practically founded on that dimension of the game with the famous Gracie family—but as fighting evolved the days where competitors could just be specialists in one area faded away fast.
Lately, however, some of the best ground technicians have found success in the Octagon, most notably Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza and Shields’ next opponent Demian Maia.
Maia has more jiu-jitsu trophies on his wall than he can probably fit, but he still hasn’t reached the top of the fight game yet. Shields has kept a watchful eye on Maia’s career long before he was matched up against him at UFC Fight Night: Maia vs. Shields.
Shields was just a fan like everyone else, bearing witness to Maia twisting up opponents like pretzels and then making a successful move to MMA where he’s made it all the way to a UFC middleweight title shot. Maia has done what so few jiu-jitsu specialists can do, and that’s learn how to truly be a mixed martial artist.
"He was always a guy I had a lot of respect for, being a jiu-jitsu guy I like watching other jiu-jitsu fighters," Shields said when speaking to FOX Sports. "A lot of jiu-jitsu guys come in and they can’t crossover from jiu-jitsu to MMA, it’s hard making that connection with the takedowns, and he was a guy that came in and turned his jiu-jitsu into an MMA fighter. He’s a guy that I watched, and learned from, look up to and have respect for.
"He’s really good at how he transitions it. His Jon Fitch fight, his latest one, was a brilliant performance the way he just stuck to Fitch and the way he went right to him. He wasn’t able to finish him, but he just completely shut him down. He’s made a great transition."
For the first time in more than a decade, Shields will enter a fight as the underdog when it comes to accomplishments as far as matching up with an opponent’s ground skills. Maia is undeniably dynamic and slick on the mat, and any fighter who is willing to engage with him on the ground is playing a dangerous game of Russian roulette.
Shields isn’t just anybody, and while he absolutely respects the kind of danger Maia brings with his submission game, he’s not scared of going to the ground with him—he actually welcomes the challenge.
"I would prefer the fight to go on the ground," Shields said. "I think we’re the two best jiu-jitsu guys at 170. I’m not against standing with him a little bit, but I think not going to the ground would be a little stupid. I definitely want to fight him on the ground. He is really, really dangerous on the ground. This is the only fight where I’ve feared the guy on the ground. Not really feared, but respected it because if I make a mistake he can submit me.
"Anything can happen, and anyone could catch me, but it’s so unlikely that it’s never really in the back of my head. This guy is a different story. He’s got submissions that are actually dangerous. One little mistake and he can tap you out."
In some ways, Shields believes that Maia also has to respect the work he can do on the ground and that may ultimately play into his strategy in the fight. Maia is competing in his backyard of Brazil, where the crowd will undoubtedly be on his side.
So how devastating would it be for Maia to go to the ground with an American like Shields, struggle to get the submission and then be forced to tap out himself?
"He might want to keep it standing from the Brazilian stand point that he’s supposed to have the best jiu-jitsu in the world, and what if he lost to an American jiu-jitsu guy, it could be a hard ego thing on the ground," Shields said. "His ego (also) might be such that he wants to tap out an American jiu-jitsu guy on the ground, it’s hard to say."
For all the great things that Shields has accomplished in his career, there would be something very poetic and special about submitting one of the greatest grapplers in the world in his own home country, where the founding fathers of Brazilian jiu-jitsu all hail.
While there are no titles on the like, it would be a notch on Shields’ career resume that would rank right up there with capturing gold.
"It would be huge, it would be right up there with beating Dan Henderson," Shields said. "Beating Demian Maia period would be a huge moment, but submitting him would be one of the best two or three moments of my career."
The Bay-area fighter doesn’t really care how he gets the job done so long as he leaves Brazil with a victory. But in a world where we all want a storybook ending, Shields knows exactly how the final chapter would end if he was writing the tale.
"I know the perfect fight for me would be submitting him," Shields said in closing.
He will get his chance for five full rounds when he faces Demian Maia in the main event of UFC Fight Night: Maia vs. Shields on Wednesday, Oct 9 airing live and free on Fox Sports 1.