Who is to blame for the UFC release of Jake Shields? You are, of course. At least, there's a more than decent chance you might be. You may not even know it.
For starters, 'blame' is the operative and appropriate word. While some are rejoicing the news, or at the very least welcoming it, it never should've happened (more on that in a minute).
Second, the answer to the question is a function of sampling the larger UFC consumer fan base. Many of them will suggest it was Shields himself who forced the UFC's hand, and to their credit, they have a point. Shields was still able to compete at a high level, but his dominance was indisputably declining. Since joining the UFC in October of 2010, he went to a decision in seven of eight bouts, three of which were controversial split decisions. For a fighter who is predominately known for his ground superiority, he scored only 1 of his 37 takedown attempts in his final three UFC bouts. Shields was also ranked outside the top 10 of the division upon his release (technically 11). Additionally, his price tag of $120,000 per fight at the age of 35 didn't help matters.
Speaking candidly, the crux of the issue is that UFC fans never truly cared to see Shields compete past the Georges St-Pierre title bout, at least not in appreciable numbers.
Think of all the times you've seen Shields in the Octagon. Now think of all those times where boos didn't rain from the sky for the way in which he fought. Think of all the times where you didn't see unequivocally negative response online or in person to his fighting style from the larger fan base. Think of all the times you saw Shields' fans make their presence known, heard and respected at events or in merchandise sales or any other way to signal real appreciation.
Chances are, you can't.
It's true the more dedicated UFC and MMA consumer hates this move by the UFC (count me in as one of them). They find it borderline heretical, unfair and an admission that what matters in this sport is often entertainment, not skill. Their concerns aren't entirely misplaced, but they shouldn't lay them at the feet of the UFC. At least not exclusively.
There is a direct suggestion this act by the UFC is one of unilateral defiance that has raised the ire of their own fan base. What nonsense. The UFC almost always acts in concert with fan demand or expectation. This doesn't absolve them from strategic misstep in either the short or long-term, but it does mean a significant majority of their decisions are made in accordance with general fan sentiment. Only in limited, typically fleeting circumstances do fans push back against UFC brass for their choices or larger UFC efforts.
The reality is Shields was released not strictly because of his age or declining dominance or price tag or the particular aesthetic of his fighting style, but because a significant portion of the fan base finds those factors more relevant than the sanctity of keeping elite talented grouped to flesh out the most elite among them. Carving out an enclave where 'the best fight the best' is not enough for them. Entertainment, such as they define it, is what they seek even if it means a decline in quality of product.
It's true Shields' costs, age and somewhat declining ability to compete are the highest level greased the wheels of his release. What ties them together, however, is the consent - tacit and audible - of the audience.
A large swathe of MMA fans are not tethered to the idea of Shields being elite as a way to secure his employment. His status or rank is not a guard from their fight palates and consumption preferences. And where that fan base goes, the UFC must follow.
It's fair to suggest the UFC holds some responsibility for cultivating an audience with a narrower sense of what constitutes enjoyable action. If Shields' is widely considered elite yet difficult to shop, isn't that an indictment on the UFC's salesmanship? Somewhat, yes. They've had commercial success with him or a host of other ground operators, but absent other factors entirely unrelated to fighting, it's hard to sustain interest for the kind of fighter Shields is.
UFC middleweight Chael Sonnen's fighting style is hardly the most fan friendly, but he is forgiven for all of the hype and bluster he produces prior to each of his bouts. A conventionally 'boring' style is all but forgotten in those circumstances.
All of this is much more a function of striking's saccharine palatability and the audience's innate and partially taught fealty to that version of prize fighting. Look around and see how many of them - some admitted 'hardcore' MMA fans - openly discuss Shields' style as 'boring', as if doing so is a remarkable moment of speaking truth to power.
Hemming and hawing about Shields being 'boring', as if this is some inalienable truth, is hard to take seriously. More accurately, it's an admission of one's preferences as a fight consumer (dubious preferences at that).
We certainly can't equivocate Shields' UFC tenure to that of, say, a Frankie Edgar. There is something to be said for the high pace of activity Edgar produces and the thrilling momentum swings of many of his now celebrated fights. By virtually any measurement, Edgar's fights are as technical and more exciting to a larger sample of fight fans.
But this is the where the heart of the debate takes place. Ground operating is a central form of fighting in MMA not by design for its no-fail policy of delivering action, although it often can do that, but for its usefulness for winning within the rules. Fighters choose to use those portions of the game because it's typically good for self-preservation amidst the collection of W's. If Shields is the problem for competing on a competitor's terms within the rules set and enjoying a huge degree of career success, yet can't maintain employment despite being still viable as a top fighter, is Shields the problem or is it our approach to the rules and expectations of athletes?
Perhaps it is merely a talking point, but it's a very compelling one: the UFC is where the best fight the best. UFC has openly tried to borrow some pieces of the architecture of other sports leagues as a way to develop a reputation for quality, and with good reason. It works. When it comes to professional sports, results matter. How many points did you score? How many yards did you run per carry? What is your ERA? What is your win-loss record?
Fighters in the UFC believe they'll be protected against release for their unpopularity because they compete under the assumption they're in a place where the best fight the best. That's true even when they are not what they once were and perhaps a little older and perhaps a little expensive and perhaps assailed by boos for their fighting style, yet still quite good. Winning matters in professional sports.
Until it doesn't, which is where we find ourselves now. Perhaps this is where the UFC bears more responsibility, in not resisting all manner of the tide of consumer demand. This is a case where I use 'demand' a bit loosely, though. It's true some openly called for Shields' head after his last bout, but not many. Few, if any, predicted Shields would be axed following a contest where he could've potentially secured a title shot with a win. Yet, even fewer among the average MMA fan base are particularly upset at his departure. Some gleefully cheer it. In either case, though, it is not as if Shields was so toxic he was driving away fans. He also was still valuable to test rising talent even if we admit he's hard to look good against. There was value in retaining Shields.
The key here is defining the terms of 'the best fight the best' isn't absolute, but the sliding scale can go past a tipping point. Either it matters to you that fighters be protected against release and sacrificed at the Altar of Entertainment or it doesn't. To some of the fan base, they'll never even realize Shields is gone. To others, they'll applaud it. The numbers of those who either don't know or don't care Shields is gone are bigger than those who do.
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