Jake Shields: An Unexpected Journey

By: Joseph Santoliquito
Dec 21, 2016

About the only color in the sterile, white hospital room came from an unusual place. It emanated from the fighter sitting awake in his bed groping at the gauzy figure around him, more specifically, his eyes. A distorted, purplish hue had already taken shape around swollen, tear-filled, mini-mountains of stretched flesh that jutted up beyond his forehead. He was broken, and his mumbled words were depressing.

What hurt Jake Shields more than anything that night was the feeling that something he loved, his passion, had robbed him. Everything he did right was defeated by an opponent who did everything wrong. This was his price, he thought, for the countless hours and sacrifice, lying in this hospital bed wondering if he would ever be able to clearly see his daughter or family again.

The last time Shields was in the cage, he submitted to Rousimar Palhares at World Series of Fighting 22 on Aug. 1, 2015 in Las Vegas. It was a fight Shields had controlled until he became entangled in a Palhares kimura and tapped 2:02 into the third round. Grave controversy had arisen earlier, however, as Palhares had pressed his thumbs into Shields’ eyes. Referee Steve Mazzagatti warned the Brazilian and threatened a point deduction in the second round. In the closing seconds of the frame, Palhares again attacked the eyes. No point was taken. Worse yet, Palhares refused to release the kimura following the tapout, leading Shields to respond by punching him after the fight was over.

Palhares’ actions were so egregious that incensed World Series of Fighting Vice President Ali Abdel-Aziz stripped him of the promotion’s welterweight championship and suspended him indefinitely. Abdel-Aziz went so far as to say Palhares “has mental problems and shouldn’t be allowed to fight until he fixes them.” The aftermath did not help Shields much.

The former Strikeforce, Shooto and EliteXC champion hopes to put the incident behind him when he faces Jon Fitch for the vacant World Series of Fighting welterweight crown in the WSOF 34 co-main event on Dec. 31 at Madison Square Garden in New York.

“I was hoping that they overturned the decision, and the ref should have been banned, as well, but I won’t forget what happened to me,” Shields said. “I couldn’t see. It was just me and [trainer] Tareq [Azim] there. I was supposed to go in there and win another title, and I have lost before. I can deal with it. This was just something where I was cheated out of the fight.

“I had to think about fighting again,” he added. “I seriously thought about whether or not this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. When you get thumbed in the eye, it gets kind of scary when you can’t see. When you start thinking about losing your eyes, you do get scared. I started to think more about real things. I couldn’t see out of either eye, and I wanted to take some time off and see what I wanted to do next.”

It was a cathartic moment for Shields, 37, who will carry a 31-8-1 record into his fight with Fitch on New Year’s Eve. Time off allowed him to rinse away the hard feelings and gradually put himself back together again. Shields will return on the heels of one of the longest layoffs of his career. Azim knew he was coming back, as did his pal, Beau Taylor; they both go way back with Shields. Azim has known Shields for a decade. He started as Shields’ training partner and became his trainer after being injured. It was Azim who tried to go after Palhares following WSOF 22. Standing by Shields’ side in the hospital room made Azim twist inside. Here he was watching his best friend despair over a situation that was not exactly his fault.

“It was hard seeing Jake like that, and it was frustrating because it was a situation outside of Jake’s control,” Azim said. “I see how the guy works, and he is one of the reasons why mixed martial arts is where it is today. It was frustrating to see all of this end, because what happened could have blinded him. Everything Jake built could have been taken away from him. Being there in the hospital sucked. I saw him go through a lot of pain and injustice. It was definitely a sad scene. I didn’t want that hard conversation with him about the future. I couldn’t wait for the night to pass.”

It did. Shields took a few weeks off in Indonesia and felt the sun on his face. Within a month, he was getting the itch to work out again.

“It’s why I look up to Jake and he’s priority in my life, because he makes everyone better around him,” Azim said. “Jake never feels sorry for himself. He had that moment in the hospital. It’s something that can happen to anyone, especially with what happened to Jake. We have a motto here at Empower Gym that we don’t do normal people things.

“Right now, Jake is in the best shape and best mental state he’s ever been in,” he added. “He didn’t shut himself down. This fight with Fitch is a great opportunity for him to fight someone who he should have fought who he hasn’t fought. Look at Jake’s resume. He has a hall-of-fame resume, and as a friend, Jake has nothing else to prove in this sport; but you can tell he still has some unfinished business in this sport. I knew Jake was going to move forward with this fight after a few jiu-jitsu tournaments.”

When Shields asked Azim to spar during the first week of February, he knew something was in the works.

“That’s when I said to myself, ‘I think we’re getting ready to fight again,’ and I could see his fight-fix face,” Azim said. “There’s this tunnel, zoned look when he gets ready to fight. Jake always has purpose why he does what he does.”

Taylor and Shields once trained together with Chuck Liddell. He watched his friend’s fight against Palhares live, screaming at his television screen. From a distance, it was nauseating.

“Jake loves to fight; he really doesn’t care about the money, because when he started, there was no money out there,” Taylor said. “The money was an added bonus. The business came afterwards. Jake’s entire life has been competition, so for Palhares to push Jake to the extreme about asking himself about his future, that says a lot.

“We would talk about where to go,” he added. “Jake was completely frustrated and wondered why he was fighting. He was unfairly dropped by the UFC after losing to a guy [who tested] positive for PEDs (Hector Lombard). Now he’s in the WSOF, and something else crazy happened. Anyone would reconsider why they were doing this. Jake dominated Dan Henderson in his prime. Look at whom this guy has beaten, and it’s a hall-of-fame resume. He has a history of shocking people.”

It has been an interesting climb back for Shields. He went from being empty to suddenly rekindling a passion. He never fell over the edge. Now, he feels whole again.

“I don’t feel any older, though there are times when you fight so many years when you feel better than other times; there are times when you feel a little bit off and life distractions pull you certain places where you don’t feel 100 percent,” Shields said. “I feel 100 percent right now. My training is going amazing, and I feel that I’m evolving. Everything feels great right now. You’re sitting in a hospital bed and you don’t think about a lot of positives. I’ve always loved to fight. I don’t think that’s ever going to change.”

It was ingrained into him early.

The Urge That Started It All

Shields used to work out with Liddell before he became “The Iceman.” Originally from Calaveras, California, where he wrestled at Calaveras High School, Shields went on to wrestle a few years at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo, California, and a year at San Francisco State University.

“I watched a little bit of MMA in high school and thought it was crazy,” Shields said. “It wasn’t something that I planned on doing for the rest of my life, but the wrestling coach at Cuesta knew Chuck, so after wrestling season I would mess around with Chuck and got beat up a little bit by Chuck and thought it was pretty cool. Chuck was a local badass at the time. This was before Chuck became really known. At the time, I didn’t take it too seriously -- until I actually went to watch a fight.”

Then the direction of his life changed. Shields went with a group of friends to see an MMA show at one of the Indian reservations in Temecula Valley. The emcee at the event made an announcement: “One of our main event fighters didn’t show up, and we’re looking for someone out there who might be interested in fighting.” That was all Shields had to hear.

* * *

First, you have to imagine the setting. It was the late 1990s, which in this tableau could have been the late 1890s on a barge in the middle of a bay. There were no sanctioned MMA fights in California at the time, so the fights were done ad hoc, bare-knuckled, sans weight classes and usually held in out-of-the-way venues the “authorities” couldn't care less about. Shields’ first venture into the seedy, underground world came outside under a tent. The audience sat in white folding chairs imbedded in grass, and the fighters fought amid a bunch of stumbling, loud drunks and power drinkers thirsty to see blood, as long as it was not their own.

They held it in a rickety boxing ring on a blood-blotched canvas, where there was sure to be small pieces of an ear or a nostril lying around, too, Shields said with a laugh. Still, something caused him to get up and want to take on the so-called “champion” of the promotion. They handed Shields a mouthpiece, and he placed a borrowed cup inside a pair of borrowed shorts.

“It was pretty rough, and they just put it out there if someone wanted to fight,” said Shields, who was around 20 at the time. “I was there because some guys from our SLO (San Luis Obispo) kickboxing gym were fighting. I had a wrestling background, and back in the day, guys weren’t as well-rounded as they are today, so you could get by with one discipline.

“Having a wrestling background, I could beat a lot of guys just with the wrestling,” he added. “Everyone was drinking, no rules in this boxing ring, and it might cost $10, $20 to get in and see this. I was in jeans and a T-shirt, and I heard this announcement that they were looking for someone to fight. My dumbass got up and walked to the back room and told one of the guys that I would fight.”

It was a walk that stirred a love affair, a walk that changed his life. Adrenaline pushed each step.

“I was hyped from watching the fights, and I told one of the organizers that I wanted to fight,” Shields said. “Then once they told me I could, reality kicked in, and I was like, ‘Oh s---, what did I just do?’ Before that happened, I was super pumped, but then it was too late and I had to get it together. I had no idea who I was going up against. I didn’t see him until I got in the ring. I borrowed someone’s shorts.

“The whole thing was completely unexpected,” he added. “It was one of those things that happened so fast you don’t know what you’re doing. They didn’t even tape my hands. They handed me shorts, a cup and a mouthpiece. They had me in against an older Indian guy who was pretty muscular but not really that scary looking. I thought I could take the guy. I was young and won some street fights. I was confident, and a reason why I did it was because I thought I was a lot tougher than I was.”

Shields proved himself right. He submitted the guy in two minutes. Being an accomplished wrestler, Shields took down his opponent, pounded away and caught him in a choke.

“That made me feel pretty good,” he said. “It was a small show out in the middle of nowhere in front of a thousand people, but that started it. I really liked it. They stuffed a few hundred bucks in my hand, and that was good for me, because I was broke at the time. I had money for beer and Fritos. I didn’t want to do it as a career, but I thought it was something I could do on the side to make a few bucks.

“Those early days were crazy,” Shields added. “There was one fight when the crowd started fighting. They were hitting each other over the head with folding chairs. It turned pretty ugly. These are the early fights you won’t see on my record. The competition level wasn’t the greatest, but this was a time when no one really knew what they were doing. They would put you in with anyone, without any rules.”

Launching Point

By 2002, Shields had moved to San Francisco, was training at Cesar Gracie’s gym and somehow managed to maintain going to school while living in a cramped, one-bedroom apartment with his girlfriend at the time and an infant daughter. To keep things afloat, he subsisted on a job moving furniture. He was so tired he walked around with his eyes at half-mast. He worked, tended to his daughter, trained, fought and wrestled for school. The days melded together. Sometimes he was forced to take his baby girl to workouts. He often fell asleep in class. Something had to give, so he opted to drop out of school for a year to focus on fighting.

Across the Pacific Ocean, Hayato Sakurai was looking for a cupcake to get on track. The Japanese star was seeking a glorious return to Shooto after losing a five-round decision to Matt Hughes in the Ultimate Fighting Championship in March 2002, and a hand-picked opponent fell through. Word spread through reputable MMA gyms in the United States that “Mach” was looking for a late replacement.

Up stepped Shields. He had never flown before leaving for Shooto Year End Show 2002, which was held on Dec. 14 in Tokyo. Shields took the Sakurai fight on two and a half weeks’ notice. He went with training partner Nick Diaz, who had never been on a plane before, either.

“They used to do it all of the time in Japan, where they would pair their Japanese stars against guys that they would get at the last minute, hoping they were out of shape,” Shields said. “That was their game plan, but I was training and in shape. Nick and I landed in Japan, and there was definitely a culture shock. Being with Nick helped. Neither of us were ever out of the country before, and Cesar didn’t want to go to Japan, so it was me and Nick.

“The funny thing is Nick didn’t want to go,” he added. “Too late. We’re already on the plane. We were like, ‘Oh s---, we’re off to Japan.’ They had someone pick us up, and we’re staying near the Tokyo Dome, but we weren’t anywhere near anyone who spoke English. The accommodations were good. There was no way to cut weight. We were looking for a sauna and got no help. I’m a vegetarian, so that made it even tougher to find food. Nick was probably around 18 or 19 then, and I was a little older. Nick and I walked around and didn’t talk to anyone. I want to make sure I’m clear here: The Japanese weren’t mean. The Japanese culture, they’re very, very nice people, but they certainly didn’t do anything to help you. You were there to lose.”

Shields made the 167-pound weight limit. He was dried out but felt good. Then he did something no one expected: He won. Shields dominated almost every second of every round in winning a unanimous decision over Sakurai.

“They weren’t too happy,” Shields said. “That changed things. It allowed me to start putting all of my energy into fighting. The fight wasn’t big in Japan, but it helped me internationally. It put me on the map at least. I’ll say this, before Sakurai, I had my doubts whether I could make it in MMA. I was still new to the sport, and that made me decide to put full energy into the sport. My father got behind me by then and really helped me take off.”

Shields minimized the distractions in his life. He was studying kinesiology, also known as human kinetics, the scientific study of human movement. It is brain-bending work. He discontinued those efforts and made his crossover fight, beating Henderson under the Strikeforce banner before a national television audience on April 10, 2010. From December 2002 until his decision loss to Georges St. Pierre at UFC 129 on April 30, 2011, Shields went 18-1-1. He enjoyed a 15-fight winning streak and beat some of the best fighters in the world, including Henderson, Robbie Lawler, Carlos Condit, Tyron Woodley and Demian Maia, winning a Rumble on the Rock tournament and capturing titles in Shooto, EliteXC and Strikeforce along the way.

“Beating Henderson put me on the mainstream vane, but before that, I was doing OK, making good money, and I was able to train full-time,” Shields said. “Making money changes things, because you don’t have to live fight to fight anymore, but there were also distractions that came with success, too. You start doing well and everyone starts pulling you everywhere. Girls were everywhere, which really isn’t such a bad thing, but it can be a distraction.

“I had fun in my life, but I learned to become more disciplined and learned when not to party,” he continued. “I partied a little bit, but I was never one of those guys that would party right up to my fight. It is easy to get distracted when everyone wants you to go out and do things. My daughter is a huge part of my life, and she’s only known me as a fighter. She gets a little nervous when I fight, but she knows how to deal with it. I’m fortunate. I’ve never suffered any major injuries. I love it.

“It’s been 17 years, and I still enjoy it,” Shields added. “I’m financially good. I don’t have to fight. I love to fight. I don’t think that will ever change. Fighting is a part of me. Some scumbag like Rousimar Palhares wasn’t ever going to change that. It’s why I’m back, and I really can’t wait for Dec. 31. I’ll be back doing what I love.”

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