Road to Toronto: Jake Shields jumps to the Strikeforce middleweight division


Jake Shields had set up shop in Elite Xtreme Combat's (EliteXC) welterweight division and his cream, as it were, quickly rose to the top.

But when the company began to flounder and suddenly drowned amidst a sea of debt and controversy, Shields found himself contractually obligated to another 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. 

With less than 24 hours to go before the historic event kicks off, we'll spend today's entry looking back at Shields' run in Strikeforce. It's these three bouts that he is best known for and as a result is unfairly maligned by many fans.

Let's delve deeper to find out why.

After EliteXC shut down, most of its assets -- including several fighter contracts -- were purchased by Strikeforce. Overnight, they bulked up their roster to include the likes of Gina Carano, Nick Diaz, Robbie Lawler and Shields.

But there was a problem that arose for the Cesar Gracie student. His teammate, Diaz, was fighting at 160-pounds in EliteXC, a weight division that Strikeforce didn't support and was unable to make the cut to the standard weight of 155-pounds for lightweight.

Diaz spent his first two fights in Strikeforce at catchweight before it was decided that he would go return to welterweight and Shields would jump back up to 185-pounds, a weight he hadn't fought at in nearly a decade.

Shields dipped his toe in at first, meeting former EliteXC Middleweight Champion Robbie Lawler in a catchweight bout at 182-pounds. Along with most of EliteXC's roster, Strikeforce also managed to attain their old Showtime slot as the network was eager for more MMA programming.

Strikeforce: "Lawler vs. Shields" beamed into homes in April 2009 and was a bit of a throwback to old school MMA: striker versus grappler. Lawler was never known for his wrestling ability but had the ability to knock out almost anyone in mean fashion.

Shields, flat footed and chin out, would never be mistaken for a world-class boxer. He had to try to get the fight to the ground and quickly if he expected to have a chance against a knockout artist like Lawler.

The California native got the takedown almost immediately but failed to keep his opponent down. Lawler opened up on his feet and forced Shields to clinch. From there, he struggled to get his opponent to the mat before pulling guard and sinking in a guillotine choke.

The former Miletich fighter fought to break free but under threat of losing consciousness, was forced to tap out. So technically, the EliteXC welterweight champion had submitted the EliteXC middleweight champion. It was no GSP/Penn but it was indication of how much talent Shields could have at 185-pounds.

That potential came in handy when Cung Le vacated the Strikeforce middleweight strap and the company needed to put a title match together. Who better than a former champion on a 12-fight win streak and one of the most recognizable personalities in the sport?

Shields was booked against Jason Miller at Strikeforce: "Fedor vs. Rogers" in a five-round fight to decide the 185-pound champion. The event was the promotion's first on CBS and also featured the company debut of Fedor Emelianenko, the famed former Pride heavyweight champion widely considered the greatest fighter in the sport.

Nearly four million people tuned in to see the card but in this situation, one where Shields would normally rise to the occasion, he fell flat and put in a muted performance.

Miller spent most of the first half of the opening round on the mat but was able to get a slam and a suplex in on the Cesar Gracie fighter, which were the highlights of the action. "Mayhem" let his hands go at the beginning of the next round and busted Shields open.

The "Bully Beatdown" host had trouble taking Shields down and eventually got outgrappled on the mat. Shields ended up getting mount and taking Miller's back several times. The third round was much kinder to Miller as he's able to once again slam Shields to the mat. But again, he was outgrappled when the fight left their feet.

The former EliteXC champ was controlling the fight on the mat but "Mayhem" ended up reversing him towards the end of the round, taking his back. The MTV television host sunk in a rear naked choke and it was tight; put you to sleep tight. But Shields didn't tap. He refused to tap and was saved by the bell.

Five more seconds and GSP could very well be fighting Jon Fitch again this weekend.

The championship rounds were almost mirror images of one another. Both fighers were tired but it seemed that only Miller let it affect his performance. Shields continued to outgrapple his opponent easily, gaining mount several times the last ten minutes although he did very little damage in the position.

Shields won the unanimous decision and the middleweight title that night but did so in lackluster fashion. He certainly didn't look like the beast who had finished eight straight opponents. It was at this point that Shields began to earn himself the reputation of a "lay and pray" fighter.

And his next fight didn't help matters.

Dan Henderson jumped ship after UFC 100 to Strikeforce and was given an immediate title shot. At Strikeforce: "Nashville," the former Pride 183- and 203-pound champ did exactly what everyone expected him to do when he dropped Shields with a colossal right hand.

Shields did exactly what no one expected him to do when he survived.

Another right crumpled the champion for the second time but "Hendo" was unable to finish Shields off. That was the only mistake Shields needed the UFC veteran to make. What followed were four rounds of grappling domination. The champion never seriously threatened Henderson with strikes and each submission attempt was easily shrugged off.

The 39-year old Henderson simply didn't have an answer to Shields' takedowns and it cost him the fight.

While the bout was somewhat forgettable, what followed was not.

Jason Miller somehow made his way into the cage and interrupted Shields' post-fight interview with Gus Johnson, the CBS-appointed commentator. "Where's my title shot, buddy?" Miller said, grinning like the Cheshire Cat. This was met with a Gilbert Melendez shove that Miller answered with one of his own.

From there, it was anarchy. Nick Diaz threw a punch and a scuffle, appropriately named the "Nashville Brawl," ensued. At the end of it, Miller was on the ground while Diaz and younger brother Nate attacked. Miller was pulled out of the cage and led backstage, still smiling maniacally like a multi-color haired Loki.

Fines and suspensions were issued but they were of little consequence to Shields. He didn't see a future for himself in Strikeforce, anyway.

The bomb was dropped at WEC 48: "Aldo vs. Faber." The Strikeforce middleweight champion was in attendance with none other than UFC boss Dana White, who was sitting next to him mouthing the words, "He's mine."

Jake Shields was heading to Vegas, baby.

Tomorrow: Exactly 11 years into his career, Jake Shields finally reaches the big time.

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