Shields up against the odds, GSP

Kevin Iole
Yahoo! Sports

TORONTO – One of the key reasons for the skyrocketing popularity of mixed martial arts, other than the brilliant marketing and promotion done by the UFC over the last decade, is that every fighter has a chance to win every fight, at every stage of the match.

There are so many ways to win, or lose, an MMA fight that it's never a wise decision to head to the concession stand during the middle of a round.

A fighter being taken down repeatedly and pounded on relentlessly for 4½ rounds can still come back to slap on a triangle choke and retain his championship in the waning moments of a title bout. It's not the movies; in MMA, it's real life.

Guys have come back from the brink of defeat to win time and again in MMA history. Yet, regardless of what history suggests, quality fighters are frequently derided as having no chance when they meet a highly popular opponent.

And that's the situation that Jake Shields finds himself in today. It's mind-boggling that Shields is a 5-1 underdog at the Venetian sports book in Las Vegas as he prepares to challenge Georges St. Pierre for the UFC welterweight title on Saturday before a North American-record crowd in excess of 55,000 at the Rogers Centre in the main event of UFC 129.

Somebody needs to cue up that Roy Jones Jr. single, "Y'all Must've Forgot."

Somebody must have forgotten that the last time Shields lost a fight, Jon Jones was 17, Jose Aldo 18 and Dominick Cruz 19. Today, all three hold UFC championships and are ranked in the Yahoo! Sports Top 10.

Somebody must have forgotten that Shields will bring a 15-fight winning streak with him when he meets St. Pierre, arguably the most popular mixed martial arts fighter in the world. Shields hasn't been racking up those wins over San Francisco cab drivers, either.

Last year, he defeated Dan Henderson, a former PRIDE middleweight and light heavyweight champion and the reigning Strikeforce 205-pound kingpin, to win the Strikeforce middleweight belt.

"I don't even think [Shields'] mother thought he was going to win that fight," UFC president Dana White said with a smile Wednesday following a news conference at the Direct Energy Centre.

Heck, he beat former World Extreme Cagefighting welterweight champ Carlos Condit and Yushin Okami, who will meet Anderson Silva at UFC 134 in August for the middleweight title, in three-round bouts on the same night back in 2006.

Somebody must have forgotten that while St. Pierre is one of the greatest fighters of all-time, that Shields is also pretty good. Yet, the public reaction to the mere suggestion that Shields has a chance to win seems to indicate that nobody has noticed he's put together a winning streak which dates back to George W. Bush's first term.

"Jake has been going up in weight and beating guys," Shields coach Cesar Gracie pointed out. "Dan Henderson was the UFC's No. 2 middleweight, behind Anderson Silva. When he went to Strikeforce, he was supposed to be their guy and Jake beat him convincingly."

And while nobody is questioning St. Pierre's greatness, it's a mystery why a guy with Shields' track record and his accomplishments is being given so little respect.

St. Pierre has raved about Shields for weeks, even getting a bit testy when reporters seemed to overlook the challenge Shields presents. St. Pierre said he's had the best training camp of his life and his coach, Firas Zahabi, suggested it's because he understands what he's up against. Anything less than his best won't be enough.

"Everybody is underestimating Jake Shields," Zahabi said. "He's won 15 fights in a row. That's very special and it takes a very elite talent to do something like that."

One of the problems Shields has had in gaining recognition is that he hasn't been flashy. He's been a grind-it-out kind of a guy for years who has relied on his wrestling and his brilliant grappling to win. He's been the guy who hits behind the runner, always hits the cutoff man and runs the bases as if he invented the game.

He hasn't come out with any highlight reel knockouts or memorable finishes to capture the public's attention. He may have taken it slow and steady, but he's been oh so successful.

He can smile at the notion of being such a massive underdog because, well, he's been there before.

"It's more of a motivating factor for me that I've been the underdog on several occasions and I've gone out there and won," Shields said. "I don't look at myself as an underdog. I just look at the fight, break it down and then go out there to win it. Some people come in as an underdog and it gets in their head mentally and they don't believe they can win. But with me, that's not the case. I'm ready to go out there and shock the world again."

St. Pierre has been on Shields' radar for years, even before St. Pierre won the welterweight title for the first time at UFC 65 on Nov. 18, 2006.

Shields saw a young St. Pierre come into the UFC as a 22-year-old in 2004 and immediately display flashes of greatness. St. Pierre, like any young fighter, had his moments where he struggled, but Shields made note of the name early on.

He knew it wouldn't be long before St. Pierre would be a formidable force at welterweight and, being the kind who always sought out the toughest challenge, Shields made it a point to keep an eye on St. Pierre.

"When I first watched him fight, I knew he'd be great," Shields said. "I remember watching him beat Sean Sherk, Frank Trigg, and even back in those days, I remember thinking 'This guy is going to be good.' I recognized it right away and I wanted to fight him [back then]."

Shields struggled in his UFC debut against Martin Kampmann in October, miscalculating how difficult it would be to get back down to 170 pounds after having fought his previous three matches at 185. He had to cut 20 pounds in the final 24 hours prior to the weigh-in and won a less-than-impressive split decision.

"That was Jake Shields at his worst and Martin Kampmann at his best and Jake still won the fight," Gracie said.

On Saturday, it's going to be Shields at his best and St. Pierre at his best. And that is perfectly fine with Shields.

"I want to fight him because he is great," Shields said. "I think he's the greatest fighter of all-time, possibly, and I wanted to go out there and fight the best and see what happens."

As a world-class athlete and competitor, it's the kind of thing you live for.

Regardless of what the oddsmakers may say, Shields is ready for the challenge. And he just may leave Canada with a gaudy gold belt draped over his shoulder.

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