Jake Shields isn't certain how many bouts are left on his current UFC contract. He thinks it could be just one, but he doesn't know for sure. He also doesn't know where he stands in the division or whether UFC brass see him a part of the eventual title fight picture.
He'd like to be a part of that, of course, but whether it's one fight or ten, whether he's on the cusp of a title shot or not, he's got his work cut out for him on Saturday when he faces Hector Lombard at UFC 171, a recent but scary addition to the welterweight division.
"No, I haven't really talked to [UFC] about [their plans]. I'm just hoping to go out there and hopefully win and hopefully also finish a fight," Shields told Ariel Helwani on Monday's The MMA Hour. "Go out there and beat him, especially in a dominant fashion. I think it'd make a good case for a title shot, so it's up to me to go out and do what I need to do on Saturday and then worry about the UFC from there."
Shields, 34, has certainly been doing well of late. He hasn't outright lost since September of 2011 to Jake Ellenberger, a bout he took just days after his father passed. While his win over Ed Herman in August of 2012 was turned into a no-contest due to Shields testing positive for an undisclosed banned substance, he's essentially defeated four straight opponents since his last loss. He most recently topped Demian Maia in October of 2013 and Tyron Woodley in June of 2013, two highly-ranked welterweight competitors.
That's where things get interesting. Since losing to Shields, Woodley earned his way back into the win column with a devastating knockout win over Josh Koscheck in November. Yet, Woodley is in the co-main event opposite top contender Carlos Condit in a bout some speculate could set up the next fighter to get a crack at a title shot.
For Shields, this isn't a particularly fair set of events given all he's had to go through to get where he's currently sitting.
"[Our] fight was so recent. It was less than a year ago, so I think I should fight in the co-main event against Condit, but it is what it is," he told Helwani. "It's not that big of a deal, but if he was to win and they gave him a title shot, that'd be unfair. I just beat him. Especially coming off a big win, too. It'd be one thing if I lost and he hadn't, but I've had bigger wins since then. So to give him a title shot would be completely unfair, but again, I don't make those decisions. I just have to worry about beating Hector."
Shields isn't naive about why Woodley appears to be getting fast tracked, although he tries to not over speculate. "I get overlooked," he confesses. "You know what my problem is? Sometimes my fights have been a little too close. I need to go out there and put some dominant wins together.
"It's hard to say the exact reasons. I definitely feel like I'm overlooked a little bit, going on a big win streak with wins over my last couple, Maia and Woodley are big, big wins."
And sure, Shields agrees, "winning helps, but it also has to be entertaining." He knows close fights that are grappling-centric don't always cut it. In his mind, however, all of that is easier said than done when facing the kind of talent he is, fight in and fight out.
"I did well [against Maia]," he argues. "I didn't finish him, but Maia is a phenomenal fighter. He's really tough and he didn't give me much. His grappling was so good, it was hard to do anything. I was definitely happy i won, but again, obviously it would've been a lot better if I could've finished him."
That's what Shields says he plans to do Saturday against Lombard, but also notes that's significantly easier said than done. Lombard, a long-time middleweight talent, recently dropped down to welterweight and in his debut at UFC 166 in October against Nate Marquardt, looked ultra impressive. Shields is the first to acknowledge this, but says one great fight, especially a short one, doesn't mean the Cuban-Australian has reinvented his career.
"He looked great, but it was so short it's hard to judge too much," Shields said. "He looked really, really fast and explosive and in good shape. I'm expecting him to be a tough fight. He definitely looked good in that fight."
The San Francisco-based fighter also knows he can't be foolish about his strategy: do what you do best and don't take unnecessary risks.
"Definitely, it's a no-brainer I want to take it to the ground," Shields confesses about his strategy against Lombard. "He's got too much power. He's too vicious there, but I am willing to stand with him for a while and feel things out, but after a while at some point I hope to get it to the ground and submit him."
Shields is right to prioritize a dangerous opponent in Lombard the way he is, but the questions about where it's all headed are unavoidable. Shields' contract is soon coming to an end, he's racking up win after win and to add more fuel to the fire, former champion Georges St-Pierre told the media recently he believes Shields will be the eventual champion in the division.
"Hopefully he's right," Shields says when learning of St-Pierre's statements. "I like GSP a lot. That's cool he said that. It makes me feel great. Someone told me [he thought] I was the toughest guy he fought before, I heard.
"I've always respected GSP a lot. He's a guy I've looked up to, so that's cool for him to say that."
Still, Shields is casting an eye toward what is going on in his division, not what could happen or has happened. With that, he admits he's surprised with the resurgence of Robbie Lawler, who fights Johny Hendricks for the vacant welterweight title in Saturday's main event. Of note is the fact that Shields holds a win from 2009 over Lawler, one he earned quickly and almost too easily.
"I thought [Lawler] was kind of falling off after I beat him. I beat him, I won't say easily because anything can happen, but I think it was a couple-minute fight. I got him in a guillotine. I think he might've lost one after that even to some body. I remember thinking, 'Aw, Lawler's probably done.' I liked him, but him coming back is great because he's always a guy I actually respected and liked. He's looked great and beating Rory MacDonald is not an easy thing to do."
Does that mean he believes Lawler will be the new welterweight champion of the UFC? Probably not.
"It's a close fight [with Hendricks], but I'm probably picking Hendricks off the wrestling and all that. I was also picking Rory MacDonald to beat Lawler, so I think maybe Lawler's gotten a lot better than I'm giving him credit for. I'd like to see Lawler win, but if I have to pick, I'll go with Hendricks."
As for the bout where he believes he should be in in the co-main event, he can't pick a winner at all.
"That's a tough fight, actually," he says. "I think Condit obviously has the range and is a little more technical of a striker, but Woodley's got more power. Woodley has the advantage in wrestling, so it's about 50-50."
Whatever happens, Shields can't control it. The only thing for him to do is beat Lombard. And not just beat him, although that's the most important thing when seeking a title shot, but to do so in a manner so convincing that he gets a chance at the title GSP thinks Shields is going to eventually hold for some time to come.
That's going to be tough and Shields knows it. In a 39-fight career, Lombard has never been stopped. The American jiu-jitsu practitioner is all too aware he faces another situation where, like the Maia fight, it's going to be difficult to get a lot going against an opponent so tough and so defensively sound.
But what choice does he have? If he wants the title shot, there's only one way to get there. And it's too late in his career to reinvent himself. Shields has looked around the welterweight division and has seen that exciting wins matter in the pecking order. All he can do to create one for himself is try his hardest and see where things end up.
"This guy's a monster, so he's not going to be an easy guy, which is why I won't say I'm going to tap him out first round, but I'm going to come out there and go at him as hard as I can and hopefully submit at some point in the fight."
And if he can be the first to do that, perhaps he'll no longer be the most overlooked welterweight on the shortlist of a UFC welterweight title shot.