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Road to Toronto: Jake Shields gets serious about MMA and moves to the welterweight division

Antonio Salieri was a brilliant Italian composer and conductor who accomplished most of his best work in the late 18th century. Perhaps you've heard of him, perhaps not.

What I can guarantee you, however, is that you've heard of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Salieri's work, no matter how beautiful, always seemed to be overshadowed by the better-known Mozart. The Italian, it seemed, was cursed with the unfortunate coincidence of being the contemporary of such a genius.

Jake Shields is Antonio Salieri.

Road to Toronto is a special series leading up to UFC 129: "St. Pierre vs. Shields." We'll take a look at some of the most important moments in the careers of the champion and his challenger. The ups and the downs, the highs and the lows. We'll examine the instances in time that have helped shape the men that headline this Saturday's (April 30) card, the biggest in UFC history.

Up first for Jake Shields is his welterweight debut in 2001. He had been fighting at 185-pounds for about a year and a half with mixed success when he decided to drop down in weight. It was that decision that birthed one of the world's best welterweights who, like his opponent on Saturday (April 30), has only tasted defeat two times at 170-pounds.

Let's dive in.

Jake Shields grew up in the deserts of California and tried to find fun however he could. Rock climbing and exploring caves were his watching TV and playing video games. So it should come as no surprise that this sparkplug of energy also loved to wrestle.

He started when he was nine years-old and never looked back, wrestling through high school and college. He began his MMA training with Chuck Liddell in 1999 and took his first fight as a fill-in for an injured teammate.

That fight -- as well as the next four -- would be contested at 185-pounds. He went 3-2 as a middleweight and it wasn't until 2001 that he decided to try and make a career out of fighting. He dropped down to welterweight at Gladiator Challenge 2: "Collision at Colusa" and began his slow but steady march up the 170-pound rankings.

His opponent that night was Randy Velarde, a name that doesn't perk ears up in even the most hardcore MMA fan. But that opponent doesn't matter. This may have been Shields' sixth fight but this is truly when his career as a fighter began.

The fight starts and Shields immediately begins to pepper his opponent with outside leg kicks. They exchange and Shields drop down for a takedown but Velarde counters with a guillotine attempt.

The former Strikeforce middleweight champ keeps his cool, however, and is able to pop his head out. From his opponent's guard, he begins to land ground and pound as he shoves Velarde's head into the cage.

Displaying his grappling acumen, Shields is able to hop into side control and begins slamming knees into his opponent's ribs. Smothering top control is the name of the game and it seems Velarde can't do anything to get out.

But then suddenly, Velarde pushes off the fence with both legs and explodes out from under Shields. Back on his feet, Velarde is immediately clinched up against the fence and taken right back down. 

Shields ends the first round in side mount, grinding his forearm across Velarde's face.

Velarde opens the second round with leg kicks and Shields immediately shoots in for the takedown. As he is slammed onto the mat and against the cage, you can see the very apparent look of frustration on Velarde's face as he begins to drive elbows into Shields' shoulder.

Once again in side control, Shield begins to land punches and knees to the head and body. Velarde futilely attempts to get his opponent back into guard but Shields' grappling is on a totally different level.

In a last ditch effort, Velarde attempts the same escape from the first round. He hoists his legs on the cage and pushes off but having an All-American wrestler on top of your for over five minutes wears on the gas tank.

If the he first round escape was like a shotgun blast, this attempt was a Black Cat. Sweaty and slippery, Velarde only serves to spin himself around and gives Shields his back. The wrestler immediately takes control and hooks both legs in.

Everyone -- the fans, the announcers, and especially Velarde himself -- knows what's next. Trying to fight it as much as he can, Velarde simply becomes a footnote in the career of Jake Shields when he is submitted with a rear naked choke.

It's slightly bizarre watching this fight now. Shields looks young, like a kid almost. And well, he sort of is. He had barely turned 22-years old when he won this fight. 

What's also weird is his ring attire. While Velarde was sporting Tapout trunk, Shields looks like he was wearing K-Mart board shorts with cargo pockets to boot.

A decade ago he had no sponsors on his shorts and he was fighting in a small casino in California. At UFC 129, he'll be fighting in front of 55,000 screaming fans in a fight that could net him approximately $200,000 ... and that's before the infamous "locker room" bonuses.

Not too bad for a guy who started training "just for fun."

Tomorrow: Shields travels across the Pacific for gold ... and revenge. 

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