By CagePotato Guest Contributor Brian Knapp
Victory rang hollow for Jake Shields on the night of November 10th, 2007. He needed only 3:39 to attach himself to Mike Pyle’s back and secure a fight-ending rear naked choke at EliteXC “Renegade” in Corpus Christi, Texas. It was supposed to be his crowning achievement, the win that would bring him his first major championship. Pyle had other ideas.
Plans for what was originally intended to be a welterweight title fight unraveled after Pyle, disgruntled with his treatment by EliteXC, turned down a contract extension with the fledgling promotion. As Shields stood in the center of the cage, his hand raised for the ninth time in as many matches, he could not escape the anger growing within him.
“I’m not going to hold it against [Pyle], but I was very irritated,” Shields says. “It cost me the title. I’m sure he had his reasons, but it seems like a stupid decision. It would have been a lot smarter for him to fight for the title and lose and to stay on good terms with EliteXC. Now where’s he fighting?”
A little more than four months later, Shields finally gets his crack at the EliteXC welterweight championship — a title most agree should already be fastened around his waist. The 29-year-old Californian will lock horns with UFC veteran Drew Fickett in one of three featured bouts at Strikeforce/EliteXC “Shamrock vs. Le,” which goes down this Saturday at the HP Pavilion in San Jose, CA. Shields understands a loss there would undo much of what he has accomplished during the past eight years.
“It’s a very important fight,” he says. “I’m on a huge winning streak, won nine in a row, and this is a title fight. I need to keep it going, and keep things on an upward swing.”
Conquering Fickett will be no easy task. An accomplished grappler in his own right, Fickett (31-5) last competed in December, when he submitted veteran Mark Weir with a rear naked choke at Cage Rage 24. Wins against one-time World Extreme Cagefighting welterweight title challenger Carlo Prater, current UFC lightweight contender Kenny Florian and Dennis Hallman anchor his resume. Fickett has delivered 20 of his 31 victories by submission, including a 2005 conquest of Josh Koscheck.
Shields realizes he has his hands full with the Arizonan.
“He’s a well-rounded fighter,” Shields says. “I’ve got a lot of respect for him. He never quits. He’s got good submissions and good elbows.”
Challenges have become old hat for Shields, inside and outside the cage. He became a father at 21, at a time when he admits he was teetering on the edge of a life far different from the one he enjoys now. His daughter kept him on the straight and narrow, and became a primary source of motivation.
“For me, it was a good thing,” Shields says. “At that time, I was getting in a lot of trouble, hanging out with the wrong people. Once I had a kid, I realized I had to get my shit together.”
And get it together he did. Shields turned pro in 1999 and won 11 of his first 14 fights, as he quickly established himself as a major player on the mixed martial arts scene. One of only three Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belts under Cesar Gracie, Shields has not lost since dropping a decision to Akira Kikuchi at a Shooto event in December 2004. During his current nine-fight winning streak, he took out reigning WEC welterweight champion Carlos Condit and UFC middleweight contender Yushin Okami on the same night to win the Rumble on the Rock Welterweight Grand Prix in 2006.
Shields has not missed a step in the months that have followed, finishing his last five opponents — four of them inside the first round. Once one of MMA’s best kept secrets, he appears to have peaked at the most opportune time.
“I’ve been in this game a long time…seven, eight years,” Shields says. “[My title shot’s] coming at a perfect time. I’ve been one of the best in the world but haven’t gotten the recognition. It’s been frustrating at times, but while other guys were out there in the spotlight, I was training and getting better.”
A free agent for a brief time in 2007, Shields admits he considered cashing in on his success and jumping ship to the UFC, where many of the world’s elite welterweights — including the incomparable Georges St. Pierre — compete. Ultimately, he elected to stay put and reward EliteXC for the faith it showed in him.
“[Moving to the UFC] was definitely in my head,” he says. “The UFC has a lot of the top talent in my weight division. But they’re treating me well [at EliteXC]. The pay’s good, and they promised to give me a big push. I thought it was a good place to be.”
His decision to sign a multi-fight deal with EliteXC may pay huge dividends down the road, as the promotion recently came to terms on a landmark agreement with the CBS that will put MMA on major network television for the first time. As a champion, he would be front and center in their plans.
“Primetime on CBS could end up being huge,” Shields says. “It’s a great feeling as a fighter. At this point, the UFC is still viewed as the sport, not MMA. With the CBS deal, it gives EliteXC the chance to become a legitimate contender. And I’m fighting for that title. It puts me in a really good position.”