That Kid vs. Ol' Grizzle

More than any other fight of early 2010, it was Strikeforce's middleweight title bout between youthful champion Jake Shields and Pride veteran Dan Henderson that hit the note: Boy vs. Man.

Despite 31 years and a career 30 fights long, there is something unmistakably boyish about Jake Shields. At times endearingly so. Like he hasn't grown into his teeth yet, or his forehead for that matter, and his ears stick out just a bit; shades of some bobble-headed kid tearing through the neighborhood, and this makes him kind of likeable. Yet, Shields comes off as boyish in some other decidedly less becoming ways: petulant, heedlessly irascible, plus the nasty habit he's got for barking at his elders.

Former champions Cung Le and Frank Shamrock, both at the ends of their careers, have endured and calmly set aside Shields' exaggerated threats with a good-natured aplomb such as only tested veterans could possess. Yet, Shields can't seem to take a hint, and every few months he starts right back in. With the challenges and the insults and the so on and so on. All of this while claiming, with a teenager's deficiency for irony, that he isn't respected well enough. Why he kicks up such a fuss isn't entirely clear. The fact is, neither Shamrock nor Le have been considered particularly relevant to the middleweight division for some time, and neither of them have any interest in convincing you otherwise. By contrast, Shields has been a top-ranked fighter for years, and you'd think that he has bigger fish to fry. With a reputation for being a bit vanilla come fight time, maybe all the bluster is an effort to add some color to his in-cage persona (a pretty adolescent way to go about things). Or, if we give him our sympathies, maybe these older men have, for Shields, a certain aura about them. Of credibility, respect, and history; stuff that Shields wants and knows no better way to claim than by beating it out of them. Anyway, if it was a throw-down with the old guard that Shields has been after, he got his wish and then some when Strikeforce signed Dan Henderson.

Dan Henderson. Aka "Hollywood" Henderson, aka "Dangerous" Dan Henderson, aka "America's Best" Dan Henderson, aka Dan "Hendo" Henderson. We can say with great admiration that he is one grizzled sumbitch. The guy's bludgeoned and bullied his way to the top of three mixed martial arts tournaments. Serious tournaments. As in shark tanks, filled with monsters named Minotauro Nogueira, Gilbert "The Hurricane" Yvel, "Piranha" Chonan, and "The Grabaka Hitman" Kazuo Misaki. He's stepped in the ring against nightmare sluggers Vitor "The Phenom" Belfort, "Rampage" Jackson, and Wanderlei "The Axe Murderer" Silva, and hasn't been knocked out yet. He's captured the championship belts of two weight divisions, and he's missing, like, his entire top row of teeth.

As we imagine should be the case with such seasoned men, there is very little nonsense about Dan Henderson, and he fights in an appropriately straightforward way. With his right fist cocked like the hammer of a shotgun, Henderson makes little secret of his intentions, and rarely indulges in trickery or gamesmanship. Henderson's Sitting-Bull-profile lays bare the simple desire to whip ass as frequently and severely as possible. He is a veteran of the sport in the best of ways, and it seemed that, to defeat him, Shields would have to deliver a truly great performance.

It's strange, but there doesn't seem to be much to say about the fight itself. Plenty of thunder and lightning in the first round as Henderson, of course, marches out and promptly clubs Shields over the head. Shields crashes to the floor and it seems like it might be curtains, but the champ scrambles back to consciousness. He does so once more when, minutes later, Henderson clips him with an uppercut, but he doesn't let it happen again. What follows is something of a vintage performance by Jake Shields. Ill-at-ease when boxing, he's most keen on taking the fight to the mat, and he does so with great success, over and over, from rounds two through five. In typical fashion he keeps his opponent pinned down and, with a modest arsenal, harasses Henderson for the bout's last 20 minutes. Though impressive in its discipline, Shields' approach remains a little conservative and, minus a full-on brawl that breaks out during the post-fight interview (very exciting), the fight's kind of a bummer.

Those who predicted that Henderson (a former Olympic wrestler) would be far too strong and too savvy a grappler found themselves let down. Yet, with a reputation for suspect conditioning and his lack of motivation at middleweight well-established, it's a little unclear whether Henderson undertrained for the fight or if he has indeed, at 39 years old, lost a step or two. Meanwhile, Shields, unable to rain a cogent beating on Henderson's head, hasn't clued us in much one way or the other. Though he showed a little more initiative than usual, Shields' rudimentary striking and dubious finishing power leave gaping holes in his game that emit clouds of box office poison whenever he steps into the ring. A fight happened, but nobody seems any different.

It's this inconclusive nature that makes the fight a bit disappointing. I mean, Is Dan Henderson too old or not? Is he yet another struggling hero of a fading generation, or did he just not get out of bed for this one? When will Jake Shields pair his enormous talent with a killer instinct? These questions are still rattling around.

After the fight, would-be nemesis Frank Shamrock shook the champion's hand and declared himself "a Jake Shields fan." Shields' reaction was fitting. Rather than embracing the expansive and gracious attitude of a champion, he responded with his regular petulance: "Well, maybe you're not such a bad guy after all." Same old, same old, I guess. What else can you tell the guy except "Grow up?" What else can you do after a fight like that but shrug, and wait for someone else to hammer out some answers?

Rainer Lee
Chicago, IL

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