Two down on their luck fighters will try to right their ships this Saturday night (Feb. 25, 2012) as former title challenger Jake Shields takes on Yoshihiro Akiyama on the UFC 144 main card at the Saitama Super Arena in Saitama, Japan.
Shields is just two fights removed from taking Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Welterweight Champion Georges St. Pierre the distance while vying for the title, but the saying "you're only as good as your last fight" couldn't hurt more for the Cesar Gracie-trained fighter. He's trying to forget a first round knockout at the hands and knees) of Jake Ellenberger in his most recent performance.
Shields hopes he can take advantage of someone who's fallen on equally hard times in "Sexyama."
It took four fights and three straight losses, but Akiyama finally deferred to reason and cut down to his more natural 170-pound weight class. The former Japanese-Korean judo superstar and model still has a following in "The Land of the Rising Sun" and he's hoping some home cooking will do him good against Shields.
Will Shields be able to overcome the jet lag and even out his UFC record? Is the cut to welterweight too little, too late for Akiyama? What's the key to success for both men come Saturday night?
Let's find out:Jake Shields
Record: 26-6-1 overall, 1-2 in the UFC
Key Wins: Dan Henderson (Strikeforce: Nashville), Carlos Condit (Rumble on the Rock 9), Yushin Okami (Rumble on the Rock 9)
Key Losses: Georges St. Pierre (UFC 129), Jake Ellenberger (UFC Fight Night 25)
How he got here: Up until his recent defeat while challenging for the UFC welterweight title, Jake Shields hadn't lost since 2004. The Cesar Gracie product had gone on an unprecedented 15 fight win streak against some of the best welterweights (and middleweights) in the world.
His most impressive feat was when he defeated current UFC interim welterweight champion Carlos Condit and recent UFC middleweight title challenger Yushin Okami on the same night at the Rumble on the Rock 9 in Hawaii.
The gritty Californian blitzed through EliteXC, taking out future UFC fighters Paul Daley and Mike Pyle en route to winning the promotion's title. If that wasn't enough of a challenge, he proceeded to move up in weight, thoroughly drubbing Robbie Lawler, Jason "Mayhem" Miller and Dan Henderson to win and retain the Strikeforce middleweight belt.
Shields eventually signed with the UFC, but things haven't gone as smoothly as expected. He didn't look great in defeating Martin Kampmann to earn a title shot and his fight against George St. Pierre last year, while he was able to end GSP's consecutive rounds won streak, it was a snoozer. To make matters worse, he was knocked silly by Jake Ellenberger at UFC Fight Night 25 in his comeback fight inside the first minute.
Shields needs a victory desperately against Akiyama if he wants to turn things around and potentially keep his job.
How he gets it done: While Shields was comfortable standing in front of St. Pierre for five rounds, he proved against Ellenberger that he's got a long way to go still before he can trade leather with the most powerful strikers out there.
Shields is one of those wrestlers that has absolutely embraced Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Instead of simply dominating his opponent on the ground positionally, Shields will be looking to end the fight with a submission from start to finish. First of course, he'll need to get the fight to the ground.
The Cesar Gracie-trained fighter does not have the fastest shot so he'll need to do something special like catch a kick or time an Akiyama power punch perfectly to shoot in and take him down.
The clinch is not Shields' friend in this fight as Akiyama is capable of winning there, even potentially tossing him on his head if he gives the judoka an opening. .
If Shields stands with Akiyama, he'd better not do it for too long and he should be constantly poised to try and secure a takedown. While Akiyama has some good ground skills, Shields is better and he can at least control if not wear the judoka down.
Record: 13-4 (2 No Contests) overall, 1-3 in the UFC
Key Wins: Alan Belcher (UFC 100), Denis Kang (Heroes 2007), Melvin Manhoef (Heroes 7)
Key Losses: Vitor Belfort (UFC 133), Michael Bisping (UFC 120), Chris Leben (UFC 116)
How he got here: Before Yoshihiro Akiyama was ever a fighter, he was one of Asia's top judo players. He won the gold medal in the 2001 Asian Championships as well as taking gold in the 2002 Asian Games. After some controversy about a slippery judogi, he transitioned to mixed martial arts.
"Sexyama" would lose his first fight in the Heroes promotion but would follow it up by going on a four year winning streak which included stoppage victories over Melvin Manhoef and Denis Kang.
He made his Octagon debut against Alan Belcher on the main card of UFC 100, winning "Fight of the Night" in a tremendously entertaining performance. After nearly a year away from the sport waiting on the sidelines, Akiyama fought Chris Leben in a thrilling affair that saw "The Crippler" pull off a miracle comeback triangle choke victory with 20 seconds left, which also won "Fight of the Night."
Lastly, Akiyama took on Michael Bisping and, despite rocking the UK superstar, he simply could not deal with the Brit's speed and footwork over the course of three rounds.The UFC didn't do him any favors by throwing him to Vitor Belfort next and the result wasn't pretty as Akiyama was knocked out brutally by "The Phenom" in the first round.
If anything good came out of it, Akiyama finally admitted he's undersized and cut down to welterweight. He's again getting a tough bout in Jakes Shields for his 170 pound debut.
How he gets it done: While Akiyama has tremendous grappling credentials, it should be his striking and power that put him over the edge for this fight. He should channel his middleweight self in the UFC and try to get into a slugfest with Shields.
Being such a strong judo player means Akiyama has a tremendous sense of balance and if he wants to keep this fight standing, he's got a very good shot at doing it. If Shields shoots or attempts a takedown, expect to see Akiyama fight to remain upright and then throw some big strikes.
Akiyama has some good ground skills, but he should try to avoid getting put on his back against Shields at all costs.
Fight X-Factor: There are so many factors for this fight. The first, obviously, is both men are coming off of stoppage losses and are on multiple fight losing streaks, having lost a combined five straight heading into this fight. Neither man is likely confident and this could very well be a "loser leaves town" match. Whoever is the most confident fighter with the most trust in their skills should have a pretty strong advantage.
Also, there's the question of Akiyama dropping down to welterweight for the first time. Did he do it the right way? How's his body going to react? Could he gas if he fights for 15 minutes a new weight for the first time, actually similar to Shields' return to 170? How Akiyama performs at welterweight is a huge question mark.
Bottom Line: While not all of Jake Shields' fights are going to be barnburners, this one actually has some potential for some serious entertainment value. If Akiyama forces this fight to be a stand-up fight, there could be some interesting exchanges taking place. It will also be interesting to see the battle between Shields' wrestling and Akiyama's judo especially if both men want different things. The struggle could be captivating, although it could also be a giant stalemate. While I'm not 100 percent sold that this fight is going to be great, I've actually got some respectably high expectations heading in.
Who will come out on top at UFC 144? Tell us your predictions in the comments below!