UFC 144 breakdown: Akiyama vs. Shields

Yoshihiro Akiyama (13-4) vs. Jake Shields (26-6-1)

This intriguing welterweight bout features two formidable talents on the biggest slumps of their respective careers.

Akiyama, 36, a third-dan black belt in judo, is one of the top judokas to ever transition into mixed martial arts. The two-time South Korean gold medalist has dropped to welterweight as he tries to rebound from three losses in the UFC’s 185-pound division.

The 2006 K-1 Hero’s light-heavyweight grand prix winner earned notable wins over Melvin Manhoef and Denis Kang before outpointing Alan Belcher in a close split decision in his North American debut at UFC 100.

Akiyama has sharpened his boxing immensely and now trains with Greg Jackson’s elite camp in New Mexico, where he has effectively addressed lingering issues with his conditioning and wrestling.

The 170-pound class is certainly more suitable for the Osaka, Japan, native, but he will have his hands full against one of the most decorated welterweights of all time.

Shields, 33, a former NCAA Division II wrestler and Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt under Cesar Gracie, dominated the international scene for years before making his UFC debut.

Victories over Hayato Sakurai, Yushin Okami, Carlos Condit, Mike Pyle, Paul Daley, Robbie Lawler, Jason Miller and Dan Henderson legitimized Shields as a two-division threat and one of the premier pound-for-pound fighters in the world.

In his October 2010 UFC debut, Shields barely edged Martin Kampmann to earn his long-awaited crack at welterweight torchbearer Georges St-Pierre. When they met at UFC 129, Shields ended St-Pierre’s streak of consecutively won rounds, but he ultimately dropped a unanimous decision.

Shields returned to action this past September, just weeks after the death of his father and manager Jack Shields. The return could have been premature on Shields’ part as he succumbed to a violent first-round knockout at the hands of emerging contender Jake Ellenberger, his first time being stopped in more than 10 years.

A grappling sensation with championship belts competing for numerous mixed martial arts organizations, Shields has yet to carve his niche in the UFC. His boxing has improved as he utilized an effective jab to frustrate St-Pierre last April, but his submission prowess and suffocating wrestling remain the most dangerous elements of his repertoire.

Akiyama isn’t one to shy away from a brawl as he will likely put his durable chin to the test by sending looping punches Shields’ way. Shields doesn’t pack significant power, so he would be well-advised to avoid banging it out with the improving boxer.

If the action spills to the mat, the decorated judoka Akiyama is hardly out of his element. However, his submission defense and conditioning will be critical in sustaining relentless positional control from Shields.

The weight cut could have a profound impact. Akiyama’s gas tank failed him against Chris Leben, a grappler nowhere near the level of Shields, before falling victim to a triangle choke. Shields’ submission skills are on another level, and he will threaten from all angles with his asphyxiating chokes.

Akiyama’s best moments will come on his feet as he catches Shields with some stiff shots. But the American’s pressure will surely smother Akiyama as his homecoming is spoiled when he succumbs to a fight-ending choke in the second round.

Verdict: Shields via submission, Round 2