After eight months away from the cage while in legal limbo, former EliteXC welterweight champ Jake Shields returns in one of the biggest tests of his career, moving up to a 182-pound catch weight to fight former EliteXC middleweight champion Robbie Lawler.
The matchup takes place Saturday night at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis, Missouri, about a 15-minute drive from Lawler's current hometown in Granite City, Illinois. The event airs on Showtime at 10 pm ET.
Shields was nice enough to take some time out of his fight week schedule and talk to FanHouse about moving up in weight classes, why he'd fight either Joe Riggs or Kimbo Slice, how close he came to joining the UFC and more.
Mike Chiappetta: You've sort of been on ice since the end of EliteXC. How excited are you just to be getting back in the cage?
Jake Shields: I'm super excited. I love fighting, so I like taking a few months off sometimes, but then you start getting the itch, and I want to get back in there and start fighting. I'm super excited. I had a really good training cycle and just can't wait to get out there and fight.
Can you describe what it was like for you to be in legal limbo while your fate was being decided?
It just sucks, because you don't know how long it's going to last. Especially because I was in a good winning streak, and all these places wanted me to fight for them, but I was stuck in that legal battle. I had even gone so far as I had hired a lawyer, and was getting ready to file a lawsuit, but you just never know how long it's going to take, so once Strikeforce bought it up, I was happy to talk to them and get things worked out.
During the time you were away, did you work on any specific aspects of your game?
I worked on all my skills. I just opened a new gym, so I had to get that up and get that running. But I worked on my jiu-jitsu, wrestling, boxing, muay thai. I'm trying to constantly get every aspect of my game better.
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Did the time help you heal any injuries?
I didn't have any injuries so that wasn't a problem, but it's good to rest your body sometimes. Plus when you're not fighting, you have more time to work on more technique. When you're getting ready for a fight you spend a lot of time doing hard sparring and running and all that, and you don't really have time to sit back and focus on techniques. The time off gives you a chance to do that.
Did you ever come close to making a deal elsewhere to fight, whether in Japan or maybe the UFC?
I came close to a few different deals; had a bunch of offers. Some of the shows were very interested and I thought about it but I really wanted to be in the UFC, and to be in the UFC, I had to have the legal matter cleared up with EliteXC. I had a lawyer and I was trying to get released but Strikeforce ended up buying it up before I got released, so here I am.
And what made you decide to stick with Strikeforce rather than continue to pursue a UFC deal?
Several things. One, I think Scott Coker is a great promoter and he could do great things with Strikeforce. He's putting them in the right direction. Second, he said he wanted to build me as one of their top guys and give me big fights. I wanted to fight the best, and he put me in with Robbie Lawler, which is a great fight and a step up in competition, so that made me happy. And obviously I didn't want to get stuck in a legal battle because you never know how long that is going to take.
In your last event, you were on the same card as Kimbo Slice, but he was in the main event while you, a much more seasoned and decorated fighter, was below him on the card. Did that bother you at all?
I don't think it bothered me. Well, maybe a tiny bit. It kind of sucks because he's the one that got all the promo and push, but then again, for some odd reason he became super-popular and had that Youtube success. Everyone knew who he was. It was a tricky situation. There's several ways to look at it, so I wasn't too angry, because they definitely should've used Kimbo, but my personal feeling was they should have still given him the promo but have him fight earlier in the night and building him up. Be more realistic instead of pushing him as a poster boy because obviously that was just setting him up for failure.
In the past you said you'd fight him because although you respected him, you didn't think he was seasoned enough to compete at a high level. So I have a two-part question: One, would you still fight him? And two, how do you think he'll do on The Ultimate Fighter?
I'd definitely fight him if it was a good opportunity. I'd have no problem with that. I doubt it's realistic but if someone called me and said, 'Hey, you want to fight Kimbo?' and the money was right, I'd jump on it without thinking twice.
How he'll do on the Ultimate Fighter? That's a tough call. I have no idea who's on it so it's hard to say what kind of competition he's facing. Odds are he's not going to win it, but it's possible. He's got a chance with the right matchups. And also, I don't know if he's been training hard during the last eight months. I don't know what he's been doing. If he's been sitting around not working on his skills, then probably not; a more seasoned guy will beat him. He's a good athlete. If he had the time, the resources and training, he's got a shot of taking it.
Does this fight week feel different because you're not so much worried about cutting weight?
Yeah, it definitely feels a little different. It's kind of nice to be able to eat and just relax, not worry about cutting weight and all the running the week before. I could get real used to this.
You're on an 11-fight win streak. What makes Lawler the right fight for you?
I just think I've been fighting a lot of really tough opponents, but not necessarily the biggest names in the U.S. I wanted to fight some bigger name competition. Lawler is a name most people know and he's a very good fighter. He's respected both inside and outside the industry. That's a good opponent for me.
Are you expecting any added difficulty fighting him on his home turf?
The fans will definitely be on his side. But that doesn't bother me. Yeah, I might get booed a little bit. As long as it doesn't effect the reffing and judging, that's all I care about. I have no idea who they'll be, but I just hope we have a good ref and judges, and not people who are going to be influenced by the crowd. I hope we have seasoned refs, not guys who are going to stand us up in 10 seconds like I've seen in some places.
How did the decision to do a 182-pound catch weight come about instead of just fighting at 185?
I think my manager asked for a catch weight. Obviously I was hoping to do a little lighter, but he didn't want to come down any more. They came back with 182, and I said sure. But I would've agreed to 185 if they didn't want to come down. But since they agreed to the three pounds, I figured, might as well take it.
Is this weight a one-shot deal, will 185 be your new home or does it all depend on your results?
It more depends on the result. I fought [Kazuo] Misaki once at this weight. If I feel strong enough, then yeah, I want to stay. But obviously if Lawler feels a lot stronger, then I might say, OK, I need to stay at 170. But if I feel good, there might be some bigger fights in Strikeforce in the 185-pound division, so I might stay here for few fights.
I'm sure you sparred with plenty of 185-ers leading up to this. Did you feel any difference in strength and power with them?
Sparring felt great. I've had no problem handling 185-pounders, but Lawler's a different level of competition, so we'll see.
Do you have concerns about the depth of the 170-pounders Strikeforce has?
I do. That's why I wanted to bump up a weight. Right now there's more big fights and 185, so hopefully this goes well. They talked about bringing in [Mach] Sakurai for a rematch with me, which is not a bad fight. He's a great fighter. There's also Phil Baroni and Joe Riggs down there. Both of them aren't bad fighters.
Riggs was at one time the guy you were supposed to face. I thought that was a fight you didn't find too intriguing.
I just think he's so up and down. I'm willing to fight him but he hasn't had the best winning streak lately. So I figured he's got to get a few wins. But we'll see how he does against Phil. If he beats Phil, I guess that puts him back on track. Personally I don't really care for Riggs. I don't care for him as a person, but if that's who they want me to fight, I'll do it.
Why don't you care for him?
He's just constantly whining and complaining, making excuses. When Strikeforce wanted me to move up to fight Lawler, he started saying I'm running scared from him, and all these ridiculous things. Clearly it was a business decision to move up a weight and fight in a main event. But he tries to make it sound like I'm running from him, and he's constantly running his mouth against Phil Baroni and looking for attention. He's just a guy I don't care for.
Do you feel Lawler can hang with you on the ground?
You never know, but I think my ground game is better than Lawler's by a lot. In some ways I'm not sure how good his ground game is because we haven't seen him there for a while. I can't really judge what his jiu-jitsu level is because it's been a few years since we've seen him on the ground. But I think mine is way ahead of his.
Let's assume you win the fight Saturday? What is the next logical step for you?
I'd like to fight for title. Cung Le holds the belt. He's a friend of mine, but I think that fight would be a great fight. I'd love to get in there and take that belt. It'd be exciting, plus we're both Bay Area fighters, so I think it'd make sense to do it in San Jose.
Finally, you did an episode of Bully Beatdown while you were in legal limbo. How did that come about and what'd you think of the experience?
I first went and shot the pilot for that after the Nick Thompson fight, and that went really well. It was a fun experience. I got to smack some guy around and they used it to sell the show. They loved it and asked me back because they wanted me to do two more episodes. It was a fun experience, nothing too serious, just go hang out and go beat some bullies up. I guess we pretty much were the bullies.