The American understanding of sports is so colored by its football-mania that "winning isn't everything, it's the only thing," might as well be our national sports credo. In football, baseball, basketball and hockey, fans rarely complain when teams "win ugly." In that case, it's more customary to exhale and celebrate at surviving a challenge.
is a different beast. While victory is still grandly important, we often care just as much about how a fighter wins. Did he dominate? Did he finish? Did he squeak by? And worst of all, was he boring?
In rare instances, those impressions end up as the most important takeaways from a fight. Take Jake Shields
, for instance. Over the last several years, he's been one of the most successful fighters on the planet, ran off 15 straight wins at one point, and held multiple titles, yet he just can't capture the fans' imaginations.
It's not always easy to understand their complaints about Shields. They say he's not a finisher, but from September 2006 to June 2009, he finished eight straight opponents. Somehow that's forgotten as if it never happened. Some think he's not tough, but he nearly got his head knocked off by Dan Henderson
and came back to win, and he just went five rounds with Georges St-Pierre
and though he lost, he also snapped GSP's streak of winning 33 straight rounds.
On Saturday, Shields faces Jake Ellenberger
, a 26-year-old who enters with wins in eight of his last nine bouts. Like Shields, Ellenberger hasn't yet turned the corner into a fan favorite, though he's finished three of his last four bouts (all wins).
Perhaps because of that, there hasn't been heated interest in Ellenberger vs. Shields, despite the fact that Shields is still universally considered a top five welterweight, and Ellenberger is somewhere near the periphery of the top 10.
Another factor is their fight style; both prefer to take it to the mat. According to Compustrike
, Shields has spent more than 55 percent of his last nine fights on the mat, and that's after he spent nearly the entire 25 minutes of his last fight standing and trading with GSP. Ellenberger, meanwhile, has spent even more time on the mat; about 60 percent of his last five bouts.
Yet there are some indications that suggest this fight will not follow that type of style. For one, this is a rare Shields' fight in which he is not the better wrestler. Against St-Pierre, he didn't even bother wasting his energy trying to put him on the mat, instead choosing to strike with him. Ellenberger doesn't have GSP's reputation, but FightMetric stats show
he's far above average both offensively and defensively in wrestling. He successfully takes down his opponent 74 percent of the time, while he's only been taken down on 11 percent of attempts against him.
Contrast that with Shields, who's only managed a 42 percent takedown accuracy, and you'll see that Shields may be facing a tougher task than most realize.
If the fight does stay standing, Ellenberger has been the more accurate striker, 44 percent to 35 percent. He's also gets hit less of than Shields does.
Two things Shields has that are unquestioned though: his granite chin, and a fierce relentlessness. In the past, both have helped him win fights he probably otherwise should have lost.
Shields also comes into this fight with the motivation of his father's memory. Sixty-seven-year-old Jack Shields -- who also served as Jake's manager -- passed away in late August. But emotion can only carry you so far in a fight. If his father's passing led him to miss time in camp or affected his concentration, Shields will have more to overcome than a hungry opponent. Fights are often won and lost in camp, after all.
Ellenberger's offensive game is high pressure attacks, competent striking and a strong wrestling base. He has the tools to upset Shields, who comes in at slightly less than a 2-to-1 favorite. Before Shields lost to St-Pierre, he was nearly upset by Martin Kampmann, a fighter with a skill-set that is roughly similar to Ellenberger's.
The common characteristic shared by the three is strong takedown defense. If Shields can't get the fight to the mat, he becomes a somewhat ordinary fighter. Though his striking continues to improve, he doesn't have the power to threaten most opponents or the combinations to truly slow them down. His offensive shot will always be his most threatening weapon, and if it gets stuffed, the upset watch is on.
Ellenberger will be well prepared for Shields. He recently relocated to California, where he trains at Reign Training Center alongside wrestling standout Mark Munoz. As long as his conditioning holds up to withstand multiple takedown tries, he has the abilities to take this fight over.
Shields deserves a great deal of credit for competing in such close proximity to a devastating loss. In a "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing" sports climate, no one rewards simple participation. In instances like this, that's wrong, and win or lose, Shields deserves a tip of the cap. That said, I see Ellenberger mostly shutting down Shields' efforts to turn the fight into a grind. Ellenberger's power will win striking exchanges, and his wrestling defense will sway the judges he controlled the fight, leading to a decision victory.