"This is the first guy I've fought who I feel has the ability to submit me."
Jake Shields spoke these words with not a trembling trace of fear or uncertainty in his voice. He spoke them the way a diner might at dessert time. Bring it on.
Next week he will fight Demian Maia, a fourth-degree Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt with multiple world championships in grappling, a pretzel twister who might very well be the most accomplished ground fighter in mixed martial arts. Jake can't wait to go to the mat with him.
Not if you're Shields, who is himself a black belt in the Brazilian martial art. The 34-year-old Californian calls his style American jiu-jitsu, though, owing to his reliance on not just submission maneuvers but also the takedowns and transitions from his freestyle wrestling background. So when he steps into the octagon on Wednesday night in Barueri, Brazil, for the welterweight main event of a UFC Fight Night, Shields will be looking to show the folks down in South America a thing or two about how this submission grappling thing is done.
"I'm extremely excited to be fighting a guy who is most likely going to want to play right into my strengths," Shields (28-6-1, 1 NC) said in a phone interview this week. "I'm not saying Maia can't submit me, because he's one of the best and I have a lot of respect for him. But I welcome going to the ground. I'm confident I can hold my own and even submit him. That's what I plan on doing."
If Shields does submit Maia, he would join a group that includes, well, no one. Maia, 18-4 overall and 3-0 since dropping down from middleweight last year, has never tapped out. Neither has Shields, also a former middleweight, also unbeaten in his last three fights.
"I want to go out there and mix it up," said Shields, "and see who can submit whom."
It's refreshing for Shields, he acknowledged, to be going into a fight knowing that when he says "mix it up" he doesn't mean that he must rely on his awkward standup game to keep him in the fight until he can get it to the mat. That was the circumstance he faced in his most high-profile bout, in April 2011, when he carried a 15-fight winning streak into a summit meeting with Georges St-Pierre. It was UFC champion vs. the reigning belt holder of newly defunct Strikeforce. But while there was intrigue early on when a Shields punch damaged GSP's vision, the champ proceeded to pick Jake apart for five shooting-fish-in-a-barrel rounds.
That loss was followed by another, with Shields's standup failing him again, this time in a sudden and dramatic flash. It was a bout that, in retrospect, maybe he shouldn't have followed through with, as it came shortly after the unexpected death of his father, who also was his manager. Shields was knocked out in less than a minute by Jake Ellenberger, and his ranking fell with as much of a thud as he did.
Since then Shields has been building himself and his career back up. He's had his hand raised following decision victories three straight times, although his win over Ed Herman a summer ago was changed to a no-contest after Shields tested positive for an unnamed prohibited substance. He returned from a six-month suspension with a somnolent split-decision win over Tyron Woodley in June. What could have -- should have -- been a dual display of mat mastery, considering Woodley's credentials as a two-time NCAA Division I All-America wrestler, turned into a tepid trading of pawing standup.
Shields is looking for something more compelling in this date with Maia. Although both men have improved in standup -- "It's finally starting to click for me," said Jake -- this is a crossroads fight so grappling would seem to be what's called for. In the grave new world of UFC roster trimming, fighters are wise to go with their "A" material. Maia, 35, has been on a tear at 170 pounds, but a mere victory over Shields would not elevate him. The winner here needs a high-octane performance.
In search of the best that's to be found inside of himself, Shields has looked outside his comfort zone. He's trained forever with the Cesar Gracie Jiu-Jitsu team, working on a daily basis -- for year after year -- with the likes of Nick and Nate Diaz and Gilbert Melendez. During this fight camp, however, he's taken one day a week to go to a different gym for sparring.
"Those guys are my team, they're my brothers, they always will be," he said. "I love those guys. I wouldn't be where I am today without them. But when you train with someone so many times, you develop familiarity. I know what Nate's going to do, what Nick's going to do, what Gil's going to do. I know their styles. So I go off and work with less familiar sparring partners."
That extracurricular pursuit gave Shields a rude awakening one day recently. He was at the American Kickboxing Academy gym and was paired with a young fighter for a couple of rounds. "Who the hell is this guy?" Shields asked himself afterward, making a mental note to look up "this nasty Russian" on the Internet when he got home. It turned out to be Khabob Nurmagomedov, the 21-0 lightweight who is making a name for himself in the UFC. "I thought he was just some kid being thrown in to give me some easy sparring," said Shields. "Well, he is one tough guy, really legit. I liked his hunger."
That day at the gym has stayed with Shields. He'll carry its lessons into next week's fight. Jake is not about to underestimate Maia -- that's not even remotely a concern -- but he has to keep reminding himself that the Brazilian could very well bring surprises to the octagon. He also continually reminds himself that hunger will be the fighters' shared currency -- which is to say, no matter how much he thinks he has, he's going to need more. More of everything.
"I can't wait to see how it goes," said Shields. "What an opportunity to do what I do best."