Jake Shields had dropped down to 170-pounds, not only making his welterweight debut but also unveiling a newfound focus to mixed martial arts (MMA). The high school and collegiate wrestler had found an avenue that allowed him to continue his career through combat sports and he was certainly making the most of it.
By the end of 2002, he was invited to fight under the storied Shooto banner, a promotion with an MMA’s "Who’s-Who" of alumni. Fighters like Anderson Silva, Gilbert Melendez, Takanori Gomi, and Shinya Aoki have fought for the 25-year-old company.
"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 (Georges St. Pierre) and his challenger (Jake Shields), including the ups and the downs and 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, 2011) card, the biggest in UFC history.
In today's second entry, we'll take a look at the challenger's title fight victory in Shooto, a bout that had more than just gold on the line.
For Shields, it was personal.
Since his rebirth at 170-pounds, Shields was stomping through the fighters that filled the Gladiator Challenge roster. He racked up three more wins in 2001, bolstering his record to a healthy 7-2.
In August 2002, he traveled to Hawaii to take on Ray Cooper. Cooper was already a staple of the Aloha State’s MMA scene having fought mostly for SuperBrawl and Warriors Quest.
It was here that Shields lost for the first time at welterweight, a majority decision. He had lost before but never at welterweight and not since he decided to focus on MMA full-time.
Shields went back to the gym and didn’t emerge until the end of the year when he was invited to compete for Shooto. At the promotion’s year end show, he defeated Japanese legend Hayato Sakurai by unanimous decision.
He rattled off two more wins for the company – along with a draw against Kazuo Misaki in Pancrase – when Shooto decided to make its third trip to Hawaii, a place where Shields had unfinished business.
It was decided that Jake Shields would fight for the vacant middleweight title (154-pounds to 168-pounds in Shooto) against none other than Ray Cooper. Shields was returning to the site of his biggest defeat so far in his young career.
How did he do?
Shields starts off by throwing leg and body kicks, trying to find his range. Cooper lunges in to exchange but Shields pulls guard and takes the fight to the mat.
They’re scrambling on the mat and Cooper momentarily has full mount before regressing back to half guard. Cooper is furiously trying to pass to Shields’ side with the California native doing everything he can to prevent him.
Still underneath his opponent, Shields tries to sweep him over but Cooper is too wily for that and blocks the attempt. Shields then transitions into a kneebar but Cooper is able to slide his leg out and take the wrestler’s back.
With a pace that rivals the Diego Sanchez/Nick Diaz fight, the former EliteXC Welterweight Champion turns over into Cooper’s guard. The two then stand in the corner before Shields is able to drag his opponent to the mat with a single-leg takedown.
We’re only one minute into the fight.
From Cooper’s guard, Shields displays the smothering top control his name has almost become synonymous with: punches to the ribcage, hammer strikes to the jaw, stifling grappling.
Cooper is able to avoid serious damage and by the middle of the round is scrambling out from under his opponent. Shields desperately clings onto an ankle but the Hawaiian is able to rip his foot about from his grip.
Shields turns onto his back and Cooper is more than happy to dive into the California native’s guard. Cooper advances into half guard and tries to slip into side mount but Shields uses this to his grappling advantage and reverses the Hawaiian onto his back.
Once again standing over Cooper landing ground and pound, Shields is being careful not to allow his opponent to escape a second time from this position.
Cooper attempts an upkick but it goes awry and he ends up flipping onto his stomach. Shields immediately jumps on his back and just as quickly sinks in a fight-ending rear naked choke.
Shields had avenged his sole loss at 170-pounds and earned a championship at the same time. Things were looking up for the 25-year-old. But as quickly the pendulum swings up, it swings back down just as fast.
Tomorrow: Shields loses his title but gains a commodity much more valuable: Experience