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

href="http://msn.foxsports.com/ufc/story/maia-vs-shields-fight-blog-100913"

target="_blank">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.