As he approaches the biggest fight of his life it’s worth taking a moment to observe the remarkable turn around in Jake Shields fortunes over the past year.
Just 12 months ago he was defending his Strikeforce middleweight title against Dan Henderson on CBS, looking to go 14 fights unbeaten.
In fairness, that was a pretty high profile bout, but the reality was that Shields was almost completely overlooked in the build-up as Strikeforce and CBS went light on the promo front and focused almost entirely on their new ‘golden boy’ Henderson who had just signed from the UFC, despite the fact that Shields was champion.
Shields was angered by the snub, but made the best of it and shocked many by rallying after a bad start to defeat Henderson. The event was a ratings flop on network television however, and despite all of his accomplishments, including being a champion with Shooto, Rumble On The Rock, EliteXC and Strikeforce, there was still a feeling that he wasn’t getting the accoladates and attention that he deserved.
Fast forward a year and a lot of changed. On Saturday night at the historic UFC 129 event Shields headlines the show opposite Georges St.Pierre in front of a record-obliterating 55,000 fans in Toronto, Canada.
While Shields may rightly have complained about the lack of press attention he received prior to his fight with ‘Hendo’, there’s no such worries this time around.
In the build-up to the fight Shields has taken a starring role in one of the most highly-stylized promo trailers ever released by the UFC, his fight camp has been documented on the weekly UFC Primetime: GSP Vs Shields show (which for the first time in it’s history, has been shown not only on Spike TV, but a number of other networks, most notably ESPN2), he’ll appear on the UFC Countdown show which airs later tonight, and he’s had more media attention than ever before.
For a fighters who’s been sitting just outside of the spotlight for much of his career it’s a dream come true.
All this comes at a price though, as Shields is quickly learning.
“It’s definitely insane. I didn’t realize how much media [I would be doing],” Shields said during a recent conference call. “There are interview requests and stuff. They have me getting up at seven in the morning doing interviews, which is four in the morning my time. It seems kind of ridiculous to me.”
The bad news for Shields is that the media frenzy is only going to increase during the next few days, with the UFC pre-fight press conference, the media workouts and the weigh-ins still to come, while also trying to find time to fit in last minute preparations, training sessions and weight-cutting.
With all that pressure on his shoulders you have to wonder whether it’s going to take it’s toll on him come fight night when he’ll finally escape the constant interviews, but instead be faced with one of the pound-for-pound best fighters on the planet who’ll have the vast majority of the 55,000 fans behind him.
In many ways the 32 year-old is well equipped to deal with it, being a veteran of the sport who’s accomplished a great deal outside of the UFC and been in a number of big fights, but nothing quite like this.
He struggled in his UFC debut in October of last year, putting in an uncharacteristically lethagic and sub-par performance as he scraped past Martin Kampmann by split decision. That performance was put down largely to a 20lb weight cut to get back down to 170lbs after a spell fighting at 185lbs, but he did also admit that he felt under more pressure than normal.
Overall I don’t expect Shields to completely crumble at UFC 129, he’s too experienced for that, but I think the pressure may show in terms of fatigue in the later rounds, should the fight go that far.
That’s when the constant distractions during fight camp, the pressure that comes from constantly being under scrutiny, and the adrenalin rush that comes from competing in front of an enormous crowd and beaming out live to millions of homes around the world will all take their toll.
Fighting against anyone under those circumstances will be trying, but against a supremely talented athlete like GSP any weakness will be quickly exposed.
It’s a tall order, but the bar is always going to be set high when you’re vying to be the champion of the world, and you can bet your last dime that, regardless of the outcome on Saturday night, Shields will look back on this moment in years to come and thank his lucky stars that he was given the chance to perform on the sports biggest stage on an historic night in Toronto.