There were things Jake Shields could always count on during fight week.
His father and manager, Jack Shields, constantly monitored him, called him, checked on his weight and made sure he was getting rest and keeping his appointments.
But things have been different this week for the former Strikeforce and Elite XC champion, who headlines Saturday night's UFC Fight Night show in New Orleans, dubbed "Battle in the Bayou," against Jake Ellenberger.
Jack Shields, 67, died Aug. 29 from an apparent heart attack. At that point, the son was faced with a decision with the fight less than three weeks away. Shields said the decision wasn't difficult to make, as he knew what his father would have wanted.
"Of course there was a decision, but it was a pretty easy decision," said Shields (26-5-1). "I thought about it for the first 10 minutes after my mom called to tell me. I broke down. I thought about it for a few minutes. I had to take the day off. Doing the fight was the right thing to do. He wouldn't want me putting my life on hold."
Shields credits his teammates for being there for him, and while he admits things were very tough the first few days, he doesn't want anyone to think he's got a built-in excuse if things don't go well with Ellenberger.
"I had no problems, I peaked out perfectly," said Shields, who returns to action for the first time since losing to Georges St. Pierre at UFC 129 on April 30. "It was very hard at first. I did get really tired at one point. He passed away on a Monday. I took a few days off. I went back to training on Thursday and Friday and my body crashed over the weekend. I just wanted to sleep all weekend. But the following week everything came back to normal."
Shields made a few key changes in preparation for the fight.
"I fixed my diet and switched to being fully vegan," said Shields, a life-long vegetarian who was the forerunner of a number of MMA fighters going to that type of a diet.
"I've been traveling a lot less and was able to get my camp closer to home. Before, I was doing a lot of traveling, but I got everything where I mostly train in [his hometown of] San Francisco, which is nice. That gives me time to rest between my workouts so I feel great right now."
Shields admitted being disappointed when UFC offered up Ellenberger (25-5) as his opponent after losing via decision to St. Pierre despite winning two of five rounds on two of the judges' scorecards, and snapping St. Pierre's record-setting round streak that dated back to 2007. He was frustrated coming out of the fight, considering how close he came on the cards, and felt he should have been more aggressive. He also noted that he had no idea until after the fight that St. Pierre wasn't able to see out of one eye in the last three rounds of the fight.
"I learned that after the fight,” he said. “If I'd have known, I'd have thrown a lot more right hands," he said. "Maybe if I pressed a little harder I could have turned it into a brawl. GSP is a phenomenal, amazing fighter, but he doesn't want to be in a tough hard brawl."
So on top of everything else, Shields has to guard against a natural letdown of being in with one of the best fighters of all-time on the biggest live event in the history of North American MMA.
"At first I was a little disappointed when they asked me to fight Ellenberger," he said. "I wanted to fight [Jon] Fitch, B.J. Penn, a top name. But any main event in the UFC is a big deal. He's on a good winning streak and he's talented. He's got knockout power in both hands, a big right and a big hook. He's got holes in his game but a guy with that much power is dangerous."
While not being publicized as such, Saturday night's show is noteworthy in that it's the 25th and final Fight Night on Spike TV. With UFC signing a new contract with Fox, the Fight Nights will move to FX in 2012. It will be the next-to-last live UFC event on the network, with only the Dec. 3 Ultimate Fighter Finale left on the schedule.
Ellenberger poses a genuine threat to Shields. He's won his last four bouts, three of them via stoppage from punches. His only loss in his last nine fights was via split decision to Carlos Condit, who is getting the next welterweight title fight against St. Pierre on Oct. 29.
The key to the fight looks to be Ellenberger's takedown defense despite his own wrestling background. Ellenberger was an assistant wrestling coach at the University of Nebraska-Omaha last season, a program that got some national attention this spring when it won its third straight NCAA Division II national championship.
If his takedown defense is strong enough to keep Shields at bay, Ellenberger, with 16 knockout finishes, would appear to have an edge. While Shields' reputation is that he can be beaten if you keep the fight standing, nobody has finished him with strikes since 2000. And aside from St. Pierre, whose wrestling is at another level, even two-time Olympian Dan Henderson wasn't able to execute the playbook on how to beat him.
If it goes to the ground, the edge goes to Shields, who has the reputation as being one of the best American collegiate wrestlers when it comes to transitioning into submissions and jiu-jitsu positioning.
"His jiu-jitsu is not the strongest but overall he's a tough guy that comes forward with a lot of heart, so I'm not underestimating him," said Shields.
Shields also feels that even though Ellenberger is well respected, a grinding decision win is not enough. He wants to get another title shot and in a division loaded with talent, you have to not just win, but stand out from the pack in winning.
"I need to win in impressive fashion," he said. "I don't want this to be a tough, grueling fight. I want to dominate and show that I'm at the next level."
Shields stayed out of last week's UFC soap opera in which Nick Diaz lost out on his title shot, because Shields had his own training that he had to focus on. But he made it clear that if Diaz ever did win the title, he's moving to middleweight, although he feels welterweight is the best weight for his frame.
"We've been good friends for at least 10 years. We don't worry about fighting each other. We're like brothers and it's not going to happen. If the bridge crosses in UFC, if we're in a situation where one has the title, then one of us will either go up or go down [in weight]."
While Shields talks upbeat and positive, like he always does, all the training and focusing on fighting hasn't given him time to deal with his father's passing.
"He was working on closing a sponsorship deal, he was on the phone, on the chair, when he passed away," Shields said. “It was fast and painless. It was pretty unexpected, although he had heart problems. He was out that morning looking good. I talked to him the night before. I had a good father for 32 years. I only think of him in positive terms. It's nice to see that he passes away so easily and painlessly."
"I've had to focus hard, the good thing is a lot of my teammates are my best friends, and they're all very supportive. They all understand it's a tough time for me and obviously I'm probably hurting."