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Shields' star turn a long time in the making

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports

ANAHEIM, Calif. – Eleven years to the day after he made his mixed martial arts debut, Jake Shields will debut in the Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday when he meets Martin Kampmann in the co-feature of UFC 121 at the Honda Center.

We put a man on the moon quicker than it took to Shields to reach the UFC. He fought for little pay and less recognition most of that time, beating up some of the toughest men alive essentially just to say he'd done it.

He'd gotten a glimpse of what the UFC would be like through his friendship with former light heavyweight champion Chuck Liddell. Liddell is an A-list celebrity who is swarmed virtually everywhere he goes. Shields' profile didn't really begin to grow until he debuted in EliteXC in 2007 and got to fight on Showtime and CBS.

Since signing with the UFC in the summer after his contract with Strikeforce expired, his world has changed dramatically. He sat between UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar and former light heavyweight champion Tito Ortiz during a news conference Wednesday at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and marveled at the media throng.

There were cameras and reporters everywhere. And since he joined UFC, he's had multiple requests for interviews and personal appearances.

"Fighting is fighting," Shields said, munching on a lunch of scrambled eggs with avocados and Tabasco sauce. "There are great fighters everywhere. The other promotions have a lot of good fighters, but the UFC just has more. There's a lot more depth in every class. But the big difference has been the professionalism and the media attention. It's been amazing."

UFC president Dana White said Shields will get a shot at the winner of the welterweight title match between Georges St. Pierre and Josh Koscheck, which will headline UFC 124 on Dec. 11 in Montreal if he wins on Saturday. Shields, he said, probably earned the chance with a victory over Dan Henderson in Strikeforce in April, but St. Pierre and Koscheck were committed to fight each other before Shields signed.

The question was going to be whether Shields came to the UFC as a welterweight or a middleweight. He was the Strikeforce middleweight champion and, despite being a big underdog, retained his belt to keep alive a five-year, 14-fight winning streak that includes victories over Carlos Condit, Yushin Okami, Robbie Lawler, Paul Daley, Mike Pyle and Henderson.

Despite the impressive string of wins, few gave him a shot to defeat Henderson and he was largely left out of the CBS promotions for that fight.

"It motivated me to train even harder," Shields said of the slight. "Going into that, if you looked at our records, the odds should have been about even. I expected him to be a slight favorite, just because he was coming from the UFC, but when you match the records up, it should have been even. But to be a 4-1 underdog, that was a little ridiculous and it just gave me more incentive to go out there and prove people wrong.

"It felt good to go [to the postfight news conference after beating Henderson] and seeing all those people who had given me no chance. It felt good to say, 'Hey, you never gave me a chance and I won anyways.' They put me in the commercials briefly, a tiny bit, but it was definitely a Henderson-based promotion."

So after beating Henderson, Shields could have come to the UFC and chased the middleweight belt owned by Anderson Silva or made a run for the welterweight belt. St. Pierre and Silva are 1-2 in the Yahoo! Sports pound-for-pound rankings.

Shields, who is No. 9 in the Yahoo! Sports rankings, said he wasn't pressured into dropping to welterweight, but simply accepted when the UFC offered him a match against Kampmann at 170 pounds.

The irony is that he may have gotten a tougher road at 170 than he would have at 185. White still regards Silva as the pound-for-pound best in the world and Silva hasn't lost in the UFC, going 12-0 since joining the promotion in 2006.

But Silva struggled against Chael Sonnen at UFC 117, losing the first four rounds before submitting Sonnen at the end of the match. Shields, like Sonnen, is a wrestler.

St. Pierre's wrestling has been dominant, so stylistically, he may be the tougher fight for Shields.

"For me, I think Anderson Silva is the easier fight," Shields said. "That doesn't mean he's easy, by any means, and a lot of people might think it's stupid to say that. But it's about style matchups. I said that even before Anderson fought Chael. It's not an easy matchup for me. It's easier [than one with St. Pierre].

"I thought if I could have gotten the fight with Silva first, I would have been able to surprise all the haters and then gone after a dream fight with GSP."

But fights with St. Pierre or Silva will never materialize if Shields doesn't get past Kampmann on Saturday. He knows that and raves about Kampmann, calling him "a fantastic fighter."

Left unsaid was that Shields, too, is fantastic. Some of his critics deride him as boring and said his standup game is his weakness, but he's taken out several good strikers, including Daley, Lawler and Henderson.

He's moving into his prime as a fighter just as he moved into the UFC. It's almost like he hit the lottery.

Shields, though, knows what to expect with his new status and has everything needed to become a long-term star.

"He's got a lot of things going for him," White said. "And he's got a great opportunity here. It's all up to him to do it."

Shields hasn't lost for nearly six years. And he doesn't look like he's going to start any time soon.

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