Post-fight scuffle mars Shields' career-defining comeback win

Sunday April 18th, 2010

NASHVILLE -- A sense of optimism captured Strikeforce officials this week.

With headlines dominated by AndersonSilva's perplexing effort and a questionable decision that cost B.J. Penn his UFC lightweight title in Abu Dhabi, their impression was the promotion had been dealt the nuts.

Three championship fights. All thought to be competitive and relevant. At worst, a bout or two would run long and slow. There wasn't much thought given to the idea that millions of people watching on network television would feel less than satisfied when it was done.

So much for that.

FOWLKES:Some guys just need to grow up

At the conclusion of the evening's main event before 8,196 fans inside the Bridgestone Arena -- the third consecutive CBS-televised bout to go a full 25 minutes -- Strikeforce middleweight champion Jake Shields beamed a bright smile in the afterglow of a career-defining comeback against Dan Henderson. Not only did Shields defeat one of the most revered fighters in the sport, he now finds himself beautifully positioned to enter free agency as a reigning champion with a major title. It's not everyday that a mixed martial artist in the midst of a 14-fight winning streak appears on the open market. Particularly not on the heels of an impressive effort against a top pound-for-pound fighter.

It was then that Shields, awash in celebration with his Cesar Gracie jiu-jitsu teammates, including Strikeforce welterweight champion Nick Diaz and Strikeforce lightweight boss Gilbert Melendez, who earlier in the evening shut down Japan's best fighter, noticed the appropriately nicknamed Jason "Mayhem" Miller traipse uninvited into the cage.

How or why Miller (23-7), an easy winner on the undercard, wiggled his way between Shields and CBS play-by-play man Gus Johnson is unclear. Strikeforce CEO and founder Scott Coker denied that his people brought the charismatic fighter into the cage as part of some contrived moment. But there he was, loudly demanding a rematch with Shields despite succumbing to a one-sided decision last November.

And then the Strikeforce middleweight champion shoved Miller in the chest. In an instant fists flew and Miller was swarmed on by the likes of Shields, Melendez, Nick Diaz and UFC-signed fighter Nate Diaz.

Order was quickly restored, no one was hurt, and fans in the arena thankfully didn't get into the act. The incident, not Shields' defense or Melendez's domination of Shinya Aoki or MuhammedLawal's light heavyweight title-winning effort over Gegard Mousasi, became the evening's story.

"It was Jake's moment," Melendez said. "He fought five rounds. He beat a living legend. I just didn't want anyone to steal his moment. What did he do that for?"

Whatever Miller was thinking at the time, and we don't know what that is yet, can't justify his actions or excuse the violent response from Shields and his crew.

"I'd just like to say, there's no room in Strikeforce for that type of behavior," said Coker, who apparently missed the melee because he took a head start on making it to the post-fight news conference. "If you're fighting here at the highest level, you're fighting on CBS, you're fighting on Showtime, you're fighting for Strikeforce or any other MMA organization, there's no room for that type of behavior. Please take into account this is not something that happens in this sport."

He's wrong. It happens in MMA like any other sport. Though let's not confuse Saturday's fracas with a machete-wielding motorcycle gang like the one that terrorized a Native American casino in 2002. If that was a blizzard, this was a brain freeze; it's just that this happened on a nationally televised card that could have been tremendous.

Lawal's decision over Mousasi, his first attempted defense of the belt since winning it one year ago against Renato Sobral, came mainly because of his considerable wrestling ability. The former NCAA champion finished multiple single- and double-leg takedowns, forcing Mousasi (28-3-1) to fight from the bottom for much of the five-round title bout. Both were fatigued after three rounds -- neither had gone longer than that before -- but it was Lawal (7-0) who kept up the pressure.

Melendez (18-2) followed with a lopsided effort against the highly-ranked Aoki, whose one-dimensional submission attack was shut down early and exposed. Story lines abounded in the pre-fight discussion of a bout pitting champions from different organizations. For Aoki especially, the pressure to win for his country and promoter, Dream, was suffocating. He showed the intensity of his emotions afterwards, shedding tears immediately upon losing on points (50-45 three times) and later while speaking with the media.

Asked what the blowout decision meant for the legitimacy of Japanese MMA, Aoki (23-5) glumly replied: "the result says everything."

To his credit, Melendez played it smart by refusing to overextend himself. And then he pleaded his case for a top-three ranking. He has a good argument, though the division is so jumbled in the wake of FrankieEdgar's win against Penn last weekend, it will take some time to sort out.

"If you had a 16-man bracket I think in the semis you might see an 8 seed versus 6 and 10 versus 2," he said. "It's ridiculous, the lightweight division is stacked."

Either way, the luster is totally off the Japanese fight scene, which in the mid-2000s flourished at 154 pounds since the division basically didn't exist in the U.S. The UFC didn't maintain a lightweight champion from 2002 to 2006 -- a major reason Aoki came into the bout with Melendez ranked as high as he was, though it's safe to say that line of thinking ended Saturday night.

In a way, it makes sense that the most interesting aspect of Strikeforce's effort in Nashville happened immediately after the fights ended. This night was all about what comes next, no more so than with Shields, who will be free and clear to negotiate with whichever promoter he wants a month from now.

Early on against Henderson it appeared like Shields (25-4-1) would head into free agency without a belt or a winning streak -- built on names such as Dave Menne, Yushin Okami, Carlos Condit, Nick Thompson, Paul Daley, Robbie Lawler and the aforementioned Miller -- that stretched back to 2006.

Henderson, appearing in his first Strikeforce-promoted fight since leaving the UFC, failed to capitalize on an early right that sent Shields sprawling face first to the canvas.

"He fell about the same as my last fight [against Michael Bisping]," said the 39-year-old Henderson. "I jumped on top and didn't crack him good."

From the second round on Shields dominated, owning virtually all the scrambles while treating Henderson (25-8) like a white belt on the canvas. Judges saw it 49-45, 49-46 and 48-45.

"Hopefully this will not be my biggest win," Shields said. "I'm still young. I feel like I haven't hit my prime yet."

Jack Shields, the Strikeforce middleweight champion's father and manager, is expected to speak with Coker next week about cutting a new deal. A source familiar with the UFC's thinking told late Saturday that the company was highly interested in signing Shields, who could compete at 170 or 185 pounds, and would likely be an immediate contender for both titles.

"I believed in myself, that's why I was in no hurry to try to scramble and put some contracts together before the fight," said Shields, whose just-completed agreement carved out a "champions clause" provision that allows promoters to retain fighters for as long as they hold a belt. "I believed I could win this fight. I know I was a big underdog coming in, but I had confidence I could win it."

Most important to Shields as he moves forward with his career might be the opportunity to fight for a No. 1 ranking, which could only happen if meets Anderson Silva or Georges St. Pierre in the UFC.

Two hours after CBS affiliates across the country aired three Strikeforce champions engaged in a brawl in the center of the cage, optimism was at a premium. Whether it was the long week of promotion or the realization that, like Henderson, Aoki and Mousasi, they failed to capitalize on an enormous opportunity, there wasn't much to do but pack up and find a meal. The fights may not have been stellar in the Music City, but Coker and his crew can't say the same about the barbecue.

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