September 16, 2011

New Orleans would be enough of a distraction for me. If I were tough and talented enough to be a professional mixed martial artist and scheduled to headline a UFC event in the Big Easy, I'd have to bring along a team of bodyguards not to keep the public away from me but to keep me away from the Maple Leaf, the Rock 'n' Bowl and other late-night dens of musical distraction and sleep deprivation. My security team also would be charged with holding me back from Mother's, the Camellia Grill and the Acme Oyster House -- at least until after weigh-ins.

Jake Shields, who fights in the main event of Saturday's UFC Fight Night: Battle on the Bayou, isn't worried about any of that stuff. As a lifelong practitioner of martial arts, he has developed the solemn discipline to shut out even the most soul-stirring zydeco sounds. And as a vegan, he has no use for the rich Creole fare the rest of us might gorge ourselves on.

Likewise, Shields isn't about to be sidetracked by the embarrassing melodrama his Cesar Gracie jiu-jitsu team has been dragged through this past week by his recalcitrant friend and training partner Nick Diaz. Jake is capable of tuning that out, too.

There is one life disruption, however, that Jake Shields cannot elude. He might think he can, but how do you go on unscathed after the loss of a beloved parent? When Jack Shields passed away at age 67 a little over two weeks ago, Jake lost a father and a manager as well. You might assume that the latter void would be the one most deeply felt by Jake in his fighting career, but no, he can hire someone else to negotiate his contracts. No one but Jack, however, can fill for Jake the fundamental role of father, a role interwoven through the fabric of both the fighter's career and his personal life.

It's perhaps too obvious to bother articulating, but consider this: Jake Shields has never known life without his dad. Their lives intersected in essential ways, from an upbringing that began on a Tennessee hippie commune known as The Farm and later moved to the expansive seclusion of the Sierra Nevadas, where Jake was home schooled for a spell and where family bonds are no mere luxury. Even as an adult, Jake regarded his dad as, according to a recent tweet, "one of my best friends." You don't get over that bereavement in a couple of weeks. It stays in your heart and, more dangerously in Jake's line of work, in your head.

A mind weighed down by personal loss might not focus like it usually would, and a fighter with an unfocused mind has no business being in the cage. Especially against a guy with the opportunistic explosiveness of Jake Ellenberger (25-5), who has 16 knockouts in his 25 career victories. He's won his last four fights, ending three of them by KO.

Shields (26-5-1), on the other hand, is coming off a loss. That defeat, though, came at the hands of UFC welterweight champ Georges St-Pierre. And therein lies one significant area of distinction between the two Jakes. At the same UFC 129 event in which Shields was going five rounds with GSP, Ellenberger was fighting in the free-TV prelims, not even the pay-per-view undercard. His opponent that night was Sean Pearson, and his two fights before that one were against Carlos Eduardo Rocha and John Howard. Before GSP, Shields's most recent foes were Martin Kampmann and Dan Henderson. Ellenberger hasn't beaten anyone like those guys.

But Jake E. isn't willing to take on the subordinate role of up-and-comer in this fight's story line. "I don't think it's a huge step up in competition," he insisted in an interview with last week. He's right, I suppose, if you focus on the "huge" part. He's fought Carlos Condit, who next month will challenge St-Pierre for the belt. He's fought Rick Story, a tough guy who was on a meteoric rise in the division before an upset loss this summer. But Ellenberger was beaten by both of those top-level fighters. They were his only defeats in a dozen bouts over nearly four years, and the Condit result was a split decision, but the fact remains: He's staring at a step up. Ellenberger hasn't beaten anyone on the level of Shields.

How does he plan on changing that? He's said he'll pressure the former Strikeforce, EliteXC and Shooto champion in the standup, where no one would dispute that Ellenberger has an edge, and also on the ground, where Shields is a submissions virtuoso. That last part of the plan sounds like playing with fire, but to Ellenberger, a former collegiate wrestler who has shown himself to be no slouch in grappling, it's simply a matter of bringing into a bout all the tools of a well-rounded fighter and conceding nothing to an opponent. That way Ellenberger can walk into the cage with more ways to win than the other guy has. As he said of Shields in that FightHubTV interview, "He's got a lot more to worry about than I do."

That's true in more ways than Ellenberger even intended. Before the loss to GSP last April, Shields had won 15 straight fights to establish himself at the highest level of the sport. A second straight defeat, especially against an opponent who hasn't yet been to the top of the mountain, would drop Shields down into the pack, a place where it can be easy to go unnoticed when it's time to book main events. So he has a lot of career momentum riding on this bout.

And, of course, that failed attempt to wrest the title from St-Pierre will not be the only loss on Jake Shield's mind Saturday night. A more immediate and emotionally challenging concern will be the loss he suffered a couple of weeks ago. Maybe it won't end up working against him, though. Maybe the grieving son will find strength in the death of his father. Maybe that resolve will enable Shields to reach down for a little extra when he needs it, if only because he cannot fathom watching the other guy's hand being raise on a night he is dedicating -- if only in his private reflection -- to the man who helped make him the fighter he is. Then, when all is said and done, he can go out on the town in New Orleans and lift a glass to a memory.

Questions? Comments? To reach Jeff Wagenheim or contribute to the MMA mailbag, click on the e-mail link at the top of the page.

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