After 11-year odyssey, Shields is newest UFC star
Oct. 21, 2010
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Jake Shields allowed himself a quick moment of awe when he took his seat under the soaring ceilings of the elegant Walt Disney Concert Hall.
To his left was Brock Lesnar, the glowering UFC heavyweight champion. To his right was Tito Ortiz, the slick mixed martial arts pioneer and longtime UFC star.
Not a bad perch for a vegetarian wrestler from San Francisco whose meandering MMA career has finally reached the big-time.
"It feels great," Shields said Wednesday at the news conference for UFC 121. "It feels like where I belong."
Shields (25-4-1) will make his UFC debut Saturday night in Anaheim on the UFC's most anticipated card of the fall, meeting Denmark's Martin Kampmann in the final fight before Lesnar's heavyweight title defense against Cain Velasquez. If Shields wins, UFC president Dana White says he's likely to fight Georges St. Pierre for the welterweight title early next year.
This sudden stardom is years in the making for Shields, a former amateur wrestler who got into the sport 11 years ago in Chuck Liddell's gym. After fighting for a slew of obscure promotions, Shields finally got the MMA world's attention when he stunned veteran star Dan Henderson in a Strikeforce fight on CBS in April.
White came calling, and Shields eagerly jumped to the UFC — a move he turned down once before. The 31-year-old is enjoying his step up to the UFC and its high-profile pay-per-view cards, but he's focused on maintaining his 14-fight winning streak over the past six years.
"I feel a lot of pressure to go out there and give a great performance," Shields said. "When I first started, I figured I'd be here in a year, so it took a little longer than I thought. ... It's been a long, hard road for me. I'm new to the UFC, but I've been at it for 11 years. I need to show a lot of people who I am."
Shields grew up in a small town in the Sierra Nevadas, where he participated in year-round outdoor sports while his parents home-schooled him. He also got into competitive wrestling and eventually discovered MMA when he was barely out of his teens, working with Liddell's gym and Bay Area trainer Cesar Gracie to earn a black belt in Brazilian jiujitsu.
Along the way, Shields developed his own hybrid discipline of wrestling and jiujitsu, calling it American jiujitsu and teaching it in his own gym in Berkeley.
Shields' strengths don't always lead to thrilling fights, and he moved through the sport's lower echelons for a decade, winning most of his fights and a few title belts in promotions with names such as Shooto, Kage Kombat, "Rumble on the Rock" and "Malice at Cow Palace."
He finally drew some attention when he became EliteXC's first welterweight champion on a CBS-televised show in 2008. After EliteXC folded, he won his first two Strikeforce fights and the Bay Area-based promotion's middleweight title.
Shields then jumped to the forefront with a one-sided decision over Henderson, hurting the UFC's most significant rivals' hopes of making Henderson into a CBS star.
His adjustment to the UFC hasn't exactly been tough so far.
"The differences are just way more media attention, way more hype, way more professionalism," Shields said. "They tell you what you're doing and when you're doing it. They have staff. I don't mean that as a knock on Strikeforce. They're just not as organized. It's just nice to be in organization that's so together."
White believes Shields earned a UFC title shot simply by beating Henderson, but decided to test him first against Kampmann (17-3), the longtime UFC fighter with back-to-back victories. Kampmann understands why Shields is getting so much attention, but believes he can set back Shields' journey again with superior standup fighting to counter Shields' ground game.
"I just deal with him like I would with any other guy," Kampmann said. "I come in there to beat him up. He's just another guy. It's really up to Dana and the rest of the UFC to decide, but of course I'd love a title shot, too."