Personally and professionally, 2011 was an arduous year for Jake Shields.
Over the previous five-plus years, the American Jiu-Jitsu practitioner had defeated the likes of Martin Kampmann, Dan Henderson, and Carlos Condit to become one of the top pound-for-pound competitors in the sport.
When the year began, Shields stood as the #1 contender in the UFC welterweight division, riding a 15-fight winning streak into the main event of UFC 129, the biggest show in the organization’s history, against its biggest star, Georges St-Pierre.
The 33-year-old dropped a unanimous decision to the currently sidelined welterweight champion, his first loss since December 2004. The sting of losing to St-Pierre was nothing compared to the devastating loss Shields suffered four months later.
In late August, Shields’ father and manager, Jack, passed away; he was 67-years-old.
Scheduled to headline Ultimate Fight Night 25 in New Orleans, Louisiana less than a month later against the surging Jake Ellenberger, Shields went through with the fight, saying at the time that it was what his father would have wanted him to do.
The bout lasted just 53 seconds. Before Shields had time to get comfortable in the cage, Ellenberger caught him with a knee that dropped him to the canvas, before pouncing on his downed opponent, and pounding out the finish. After five years without a loss in the cage, Shields had suffered back-to-back defeats in the span of five months, and a far more painful loss outside of the Octagon as well.
“Six months ago was a tough time, losing my father; he was my manager, we were really close,” said Shields. “Losing him right before going into the Ellenberger fight was tough, and then walking in there, and getting clipped by a knee early on — in the first minute — and losing that.
“It was a tough time — losing my dad, and the fight — I was a little depressed after that. It took me a couple of months to get my head back together, and start training again.”
No one would have questioned Shields had he opted to withdraw from the Ellenberger fight. With five months to reflect the situation, he sees no point in second-guessing his choice to fight.
“It was a tough decision to make back then, but it’s one of those things — you go out there and get clipped. You can’t go out there and have regrets or make excuses. It’s unfortunate that the night didn’t turn out the way I wanted, but I can’t go out there and have regrets about it. If I had pulled out, I probably would have had regrets about that. I made the decision, and now I have to live with it. All I can do is come back even stronger than ever in this fight.”
Shields returns to the cage Saturday night, welcoming Japanese star Yoshihiro Akiyama to the welterweight division.
Always considered undersized for the middleweight ranks, the 36-year-old judoka finally makes the move down to the 170-pound weight class in the midst of a three-fight losing streak, and having earned just a single victory — a controversial split decision win over Alan Belcher at UFC 100 — since signing with the UFC in February 2009.
After having squared off with the Canadian superstar St-Pierre in front of 55,000-plus fans in the raucous Rogers Centre last April in Toronto, Saturday’s contest will mark the second time in 10 months that Shields has taken on the “hometown favorite” in front of a massive audience.
He has no issues stepping in against Akiyama on his home turf, and appreciates the show of faith from the UFC, putting him right back on the main card despite his current two-fight skid.
“I have no problem going and fighting people in their hometowns where they’re the favored ones,” admitted the former Shooto, EliteXC, and Strikeforce champion. “And it’s great that even after my back-to-back losses, the UFC hasn’t lost faith in me; they’ve still put me as one of the top fights on this card. It means a lot that they still have that faith in me, and I want to go out and show them that they’re not making a mistake, and put Akiyama away.”
Having suffered a pair of defeats professionally, and one of the greatest losses anyone can face in his personal life, Shields is using the trials and tribulations of last year as motivation to help him get back on track in 2012, beginning this weekend at UFC 144.
“I think I’m more motivated,” Shields said when asked how the last year has impacted his approach to his career. “Going on a six-year winning streak, and then having back-to-back losses, losing my father — it was a tough year for me in 2011. I want to change that, get that behind me, and start out fresh this year, starting with Akiyama; put on a great performance, and get back into title contention.
“Right now I’m in a great headspace; I feel great. As far as training goes, I feel the best I’ve ever felt. I just can’t wait to get out there and fight. If I feel the way I do (now) in the fight, I have no doubt that I’ll go out there, perform well, and bring home the victory.”
Shields mixed things up for this training camp, moving around more than he had in previous camps in order to get a fresh look or two in preparation for his return to the Octagon.
“I do the majority of my training with Cesar Gracie still — with Nick (Diaz), Nate (Diaz), (Gilbert Melendez), and those guys — but I spent a week out with Michael (Bisping), and the guys at Imperial (Athletics). It gave me some different sparring partners, some different looks; helped me see a few different things. I think it’s always good to stay open-minded and try to expand what you’re doing.”
After well over a decade in the sport, Saturday night’s contest will mark the first time Shields has stepped into the cage on a two-fight losing streak. Not only is he hungry to get back into the win column, but Shields also sees his return to Japan as the ideal location to commence the next chapter in his career.
“Japan is where I first started making a name for myself. I was completely unknown and they brought me out to fight (Hayato) “Mach” Sakurai — who was #2-ranked fighter in the world at that time — and I went out there and pulled a huge upset.
“Pretty much no one picked me, and that kind of got me started on my career as a real professional fighter. To go back to where I got my career started is great. I want to go out there and re-energize my career where I first got it going 10 years ago.”
Jake Shields Ready to Begin the Next Chapter
"Right now I’m in a great headspace; I feel great. As far as training goes, I feel the best I’ve ever felt. I just can’t wait to get out there and fight." - Jake Shields