Last Man Standing
“What happened?” asks Jake Shields, sitting on his stool between rounds one and two of the most important fight of his 11-year career. Seconds into round one of his Strikeforce Middleweight Championship defense in April, Shields met Dan Henderson’s destructive right hand, sending him to the mat—hard—live on CBS.
“You looked good at the end,” encourages Shields’ corner, comprised of his dad Jack, fellow Strikeforce Champion Gilbert Melendez, and standup coach Tareq Azim. So, Shields soldiered on for 20 more minutes en route to a unanimous decision—winning all but the first round.
Despite racking up wins in 13 consecutive outings, Shields was considered a long shot against pound-for-pound tough guy Henderson. The victory over the MMA legend forged Shields into the most accomplished fighter to never step foot in the Ultimate Fighting Championship or PRIDE Fighting Championship.
“If I quit between a round, how am I gonna come back and face my team? It’s just not something I can do,” reflects the Cesar Gracie Jiu-Jitsu fighter, sitting on his balcony, which is set to the backdrop of AT&T Park and a rare sky blue San Francisco day.
It’s one of the most stunning views of the city. Shields can afford it thanks to countless hours in the gym, sharpening his will to win with Strikeforce Welterweight Champion Nick Diaz, Strikeforce Lightweight Champion Gilbert Melendez, and The Ultimate Fighter 5 winner Nate Diaz.
Sheer tenacity came through as always for Shields as he transformed that nightmare first round into a milestone in a strange and strenuous journey through the fighting world.
The Cesar Gracie black belt grew up knowing that every step forward in life is earned, not taken. His father Jack, a former Green Beret, raised Jake to “follow his bliss,” as American writer Joseph Campbell put it. Jake’s bliss was being a champion. But he wasn’t born a champion, so his bliss came in the work it takes to become one—Jake Shields had no choice but to believe that champions are made, not born.
“I was fighting young. I was probably fighting at six years old,” says the now 31-year-old Shields.
Raised in Mountain Ranch, California, in the Sierra Nevadas, Jake was the youngest of three boys. He affectionately describes his parents as hippies and reveals he had long hair, so he’d scrap with every kid that called him a girl. There were a lot. Jack, a one-time Japanese Jiu-Jitsu student, instilled in his youngest son that wrestling was a martial art and he should know self-defense. As a smaller kid, Jake developed an insatiable competitive edge, which served well against bullies and on wrestling mats.
Jake would pack into the family van alongside older brothers Clement and Quinn in the middle of the night to drive to “hell and gone” for family trips revolving around wrestling tournaments. Clement, the middle child, was the natural athlete. Jake had to work extra hard to catch up from the start. Clement’s standout wrestling status saw him jumping through the ranks to wrestle in heavier divisions. Based on Clement’s reputation, Jake had to do the same despite protests from Jack that Jake wasn’t the same wrestler, wasn’t ready.
“It didn’t come to me easily. I was never a good wrestler to begin with. I had to do more tournaments than everyone else,” says Shields. “When everyone else was taking the regular season off, I’d be doing freestyle trying to get better.”
In everything Shields did, he was pushing himself—street fights,wrestling, and even mountain climbing. Not many people hit 9,000 feet in elevation on a climb at six years old or battle Bull Run instead of catching Saturday morning cartoons. He hated team sports because he was too much of a perfectionist. He didn’t want to rely on anyone else. Wherever there was a physical and mental test, Shields wanted to take it, ace it, and find the next one without anyone standing in his way.
Shields relentlessly trained, morphing from a 112-pound high school wrestler to a two-time All-American wrestler at Cuesta College. In 1999, he found mixed martial arts when it was still no-holds barred at Chuck Liddell’s San Luis Obispo gym. Roughly two weeks later, at a Native American casino show, promoters asked for a middleweight from the crowd, and Shields, there to support teammates, decided to take a bare-knuckle fight on 30 minutes notice. He won.
“Back then, you didn’t look at it like, ‘I wanna get rich fighting.’ You fought because you wanted to fight,” says the 30-fight veteran. “You didn’t get famous off it either. There was no fame and there was no money.”
His dad had introduced him to the UFC before, yet nothing prepared him for seeing a skinny redneck in cutoff shorts get in the cage against an overweight woman at a barnyard show in nowhere, California. “What am I doing in this sport?” he thought, but the love for one-on-one competition hooked Shields. However, an affinity for trouble kept it a casual affair. He fought to stay in shape and have fun, even drinking and partying a night or two before a contest, operating on will and fearlessness.
“When you’ve been in fights, fighting 10 people at once, people with knives and bats and guns and whatnot, it definitely takes fear away in the cage,” he says. “You can die there. You’re not gonna die in the cage, so what’s the worst that can happen when you go in there?”
Jack warned him that there’s no place for hobbyists in combat sports. His parents always supported his wrestling. They didn’t feel the same about fighting, not because it was dangerous—caving is dangerous and they did that together—but because he wasn’t taking it seriously. The first loss of his career—a technical knockout at the hands of Marty Armendarez—proved the point.
At 22 years old, Jake Shields left behind San Luis Obispo and steered his life north for a spot on San Francisco State University’s wrestling team.
CROSSING THE BRIDGE
“Who is this stud wrestler with a baby seat in the back of his car?” asked Gilbert Melendez. That was the future Strikeforce Lightweight Champion’s first reaction to his SFSU wrestling teammate. Melendez scoffed at Shields as a fighter, barely old enough to drink and bearing the responsibility of being a father. “I’ve seen all the UFC’s, I haven’t seen you,” he’d tease, but Shields would just respond with an invitation to train.
“I think once I had my daughter, I realized I had to get things together,” says Shields. It’s his day off, but he’s only relaxing on Baker Beach under the Golden Gate Bridge after a morning training session. “I had to take care of her. I couldn’t half-ass on fighting if I wanted to do that for a career.”
Between classes, wrestling, and moving furniture for a living, Shields worked to resolve issues with his daughter Maddie’s mother to remain a major part of her life. He has. Despite the sacrifices that come along with being a single father, Shields didn’t desert his plan to be the best in the world.
He drove immediately from wrestling practice to Cesar Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, 45 minutes outside of SFSU’s wrestling room. He shifted his competitive focus to jiu-jitsu—what he knew was missing from his fighting.
On his first day, Gracie matched Shields with his prodigious student Dave Terrell and watched Shields get choked unconscious. Melendez, cocky from already being one of the best fighter’s in the world before entering Gracie’s camp, finally accepted Shields’ offer to train and was promptly humbled—choked out. Melendez recognized the potential champion in Shields and became one of Shields’ main training partners.
Defying his packed schedule, Shields signed on for two fights during wrestling season. He went 20 over Robert “Prince of Leg Locks” Ferguson and UFC veteran Jeremy Jackson. He wrestled collegiately at heavyweight despite his natural category being 174 pounds. Tipping the scales with weights hidden under his sweats to make heavyweight, Shields wrestled under a coach’s guarantee that the first open spot at 174 would be his. However, wrestling up a couple of weight classes made him ineligible to go back down to 174 pounds—something his coach failed to mention.
Shields spent wrestling practice thinking about applying submissions anyway, so the sudden opening in his days was filled with fighting.
“Everybody told me to give up fighting and just work a job and be realistic that I was doing too much. I love fighting too much,” says Shields. “I couldn’t give it up. I kept pursuing it.”
Being a single father and student in one of the world’s most expensive cities assured Shields that fighting was his calling. The sacrifices were too drastic for him to become anything less than a champion. To be able to provide for his daughter, Shields sacrificed money for meals of his own to put gas in his car to drive to training. Too proud to borrow cash, he’d go without eating. The wins were coming but not the breaks—that is until, his next loss.
At Thanksgiving dinner 2002, Shields got the call to fight Hayato “Mach” Sakurai in Japan. Sakurai was one of the three best welterweights in the world. Jack was familiar with him as a fan scouring the Internet, watching for cutting edge guys like the former Shooto Champion.
Jake was in shape, preparing for another fight, and they agreed there was no way to turn down a career making contest, even if it was on two weeks notice. Cesar Gracie explained the Japanese thought it would be a safe bet for their top star. They wanted a tough American wrestler to lose to Sakurai in Japan to avenge Sakurai’s UFC Welterweight Title loss against American wrestler Matt Hughes in the States. Gracie’s prestigious name and Shields’ recent decision loss to Ray Cooper tagged him as the perfect mark.
“Everyone’s always looking for a secret to success, but the only secret is working harder than everyone else,” says Shields, who outworked Sakurai for his first win on a grand stage. He secured the Shooto Middleweight Championship from Ray Cooper 18 months later in Hawaii, but he then immediately dropped the belt to Akira Kikuchi.
“When you go out there and lose, it’s forever. When you lose when you shouldn’t, it hurts,” he says. “I’m not making excuses, but I felt like I shouldn’t have lost to—who the fuck did I lose to?—Akira Kikuchi five, six years ago.” He has a hard time remembering, but it’s only because it’s been that long since he lost. “For some reason, I feel like that’s a fight I could have won, but I can never get it back.”
Shields credits Kikuchi for being the better man on December 14, 2004, in Japan. A rough weight cut left Shields exhausted early on, and he vowed to correct his mistakes. The loss seemingly undercut a promising international career. However, Shields’ star power in Japan and Hawaii garnered him an invite to Rumble on the Rock’s prestigious welterweight tournament. Shields, Ronald Jhun, “Charuto” Verissimo, Dave Menne, Frank Trigg, Yushin Okami, Carlos Condit, and Anderson Silva all met at 175 pounds.
“Most people did not expect Jake to win or even place in that tournament,” says Cesar Gracie. “In true Jake fashion, he just kept winning.”
Shields corrected holes in his game to score unanimous decisions over UFC Middleweight Champion Dave Menne and Japanese standout Yushin Okami. He faced Condit in the finals in his second bout of the night. “The Natural Born Killer” was the tournament’s breakout star with first round finishes in two bouts. He was heavily favored after submitting Trigg in only 82 seconds, while Shields battled 15 minutes with Okami.
Against the fresher opponent, Shields’ constantly pressured for another 15 minutes, beating a second competitor in one night, crowning him the Rumble on the Rock Welterweight Tournament Champion. He was $30,000 richer for the effort. Shields felt UFC or PRIDE Fighting Championship were about to cash in on one of the sport’s most highly regarded prospects.
The offer came. Rather than accept a UFC bout on short notice, Shields stayed on his own course with a previously scheduled fight in Costa Rica.
THE SHIELDS STREAK
“Every fucking day—mount!” says Ralph Gracie, dragging and digging his knee across Jake Shields’ abdomen at his roughneck San Francisco jiu-jitsu school. It’s Shields’ day off, and he’s come down from his high-rise apartment to Gracie’s mats for this.
Jake Shields’ 14-fight win streak spans nearly six years and depends on these small refinements. The streak includes victories over seven fighters who have held notable championships, an eight-man tournament win and three belts (Rumble on the Rock, EliteXC, and Strikeforce) at three different weights. All but two of his victims—Bellator’s Toby Imada and TUF 8 participant I do Pariente—are UFC veterans. He finished eight opponents in a row in a run three months shy of three years. In his last fight, as a natural 170-pounder holding the Strikeforce Middleweight Championship, Shields soundly defeated former PRIDE 205 pound king Dan Henderson.
He has put together the sport’s longest current winning streak at such a high level. There’s no magic bullet. Just tenacity. Two days after besting Henderson in April, he started working toward his UFC debut in October against Martin Kampmann at UFC 121 in Anaheim.
“He out-grappled Henderson. He out took him down,” says Cesar Gracie, pleased the win over Henderson has boosted Shields’ reputation enough that he’s not the underdog anymore. “This guy was an Olympic-caliber wrestler and Jake was having trouble making the team in San Francisco at his weight. Seriously.”
While entire fight promotions fail to make the cut, Shields crafted such an undeniable career outside the UFC that his free agency signing with the Las Vegas-based promotion was featured on ESPN’s sports ticker. Still, it’s only when someone else points out his achievements that he can appreciate them.
“Rampage Jackson came up to me and said, ‘Wow man, you beat Henderson worse than me.’ That’s crazy…because he was the 205-pound champion,” says Shields “I didn’t really think about it until later, but it’s quite the accomplishment.”
He has never lost three of the four belts he’s won over the last 11 years. His trophy case covers 170 pounds and 185 pounds. He has fought on network television more than any other fighter and appearances on the popular MTV reality show Bully Beatdown have increased his stock leading up to his long-awaited UFC debut.
TOP OF THE MOUNT
Title belts are nice, but multiple organizations and four belts later,the most accomplished fighter to never compete in the UFC or PRIDE is still vying for respect that comes from a UFC pedigree.
“If I win, it’s like I’m just doing my job, but if I lose, I’ve failed,” he says. “I felt like I was fighting all these guys, good UFC level fighters and getting no recognition for it. And it was frustrating. I think, ultimately, it’s best that I’m going to the UFC now when I’m ready for it.‘‘I’m not going in as some young kid happy to be there. I’m going in there as a seasoned vet who’s already been in these wars and been tested.”
Over the last few years, he would drive an hour out of his comfort zone with no coaches to challenge himself by sparring at the American Kickboxing Academy against top UFC welterweights Jon Fitch and Josh Koscheck. He doesn’t make the trek now that they may meet in the Octagon, but having welterweights Nick and Nate Diaz in his own camp have him primed for his return to 170 pounds.
“I know how I do training with those guys. So I know what I’m capable of in the UFC,” he says. “You never know until you go out there and fight, but I feel confident that I can go out there with the best of them.”
Liddell calls Shields’ training ethic—and chances in the UFC—“a force to be reckoned with.” As the most accomplished fighter to never compete in PRIDE or the UFC, Shields expects his hard work will keep his streak going.Mixed martial arts is about the fights to him. He takes Gracie’s words to heart that weight classes are just mental blocks, as he plans to fight at welterweight and middleweight in the UFC—wherever the big fights are.
All questions can be answered in the Octagon for Shields, who has been chasing a fight with Georges St-Pierre for three years now. As a top-five ranked fighter in two weight classes, it’s annoying to hear “I hope you make it to the UFC someday” comments after achieving so much. But with new cage walls to write his legacy on, he aims to etch his name among the greats.
“If I wanted a better life, I would have gone to college to become a doctor or lawyer and taken the easy route—not that that’s easier, but it’s a lot easier than making it as a fighter,” says Shields, who wouldn’t do anything differently. “There’s a lot of good ways to make a living, but fighting is truly something I wanted to do for myself.”
The appeal of the sport’s top spot isn’t the money or fame—although they are pluses—it’s to answer the question: “Have I done it right?”
“It’s just showing that you made it—that all your hardwork paid off ultimately,” explains Shields. “I feel there area lot of fighters happy being in the top five. To me, that’s not my goal. I want to go out there and claim that top spot. I’ve come too close not to climb the mountain.”
Shields has no idea what he’ll do once he’s there. All he knows is the lifetime of sacrifices that he has made to be a fighter will all be worth it once he has a view from the top.