September 18, 2011

Was it reasonable for us to expect something else to happen?

A mere 18 days after his father and manager died unexpectedly, Jake Shields stepped into the Octagon on Saturday night in New Orleans for the main event of UFC Fight Night: The Battle on the Bayou. His return to work lasted 53 seconds.

That was all the time it took for Jake Ellenberger to leave the former Strikeforce, EliteXC and Shooto champion dazed and battered and elevate himself to the top tier of UFC welterweights.

Now, Ellenberger's TKO victory might have happened in the same emphatically explosive way even if Shields hadn't been weighed down by family tragedy. Ellenberger fought the way he always does. He moved forward, taking the fight to Shields.

"The whole strategy coming in here was just keeping the pressure on him," the former collegiate wrestler from Nebraska said afterward in the cage. Ellenberger (16-5) then paused to look up at the arena video screen and watch a replay of the finish. "Man," he finally said, admiring the two big knees -- first to the body, then to the face -- that sent Shields crashing to the mat, face first, to be finished with a succession of left hands. "Came out with the W. Feels great."

Not for Shields it didn't. He was so stupefied when Kevin Mulhall pulled Ellenberger off him that he grabbed the referee's leg and continued grappling as if the fight hadn't been stopped. When finally he settled down, Shields was visibly shaking and glassy-eyed as several medical people and other fight officials swooped in to surround him.

"Just frustrated, you know?" he said moments later when asked how he felt after being stopped for just the second time in his career, the first in 11 years. "I got hit with a good hit, I went down, I was still trying to fight. I wish we'd got to fight a little more, but it is what it is."

It was a good thing, actually, that Shields didn't get to fight a little more. Even if he didn't believe that in the moment.

"I'm not trying to take anything away from Ellenberger," said Shields, the loser of two straight after reeling off a 15-bout win streak. "But I thought I had a little fight left."

He might think differently once he watches the fight on video. When he does so, he might not recognize the Shields he sees. For the few ticks of the clock that the bout lasted, he looked slow, stiff and not as strong as Ellenberger. That might have been the case even if Shields hadn't been dealt a cruel blow less than three weeks ago. We'll never know.

One thing we do know: Ellenberger has taken a big step up, giving the welterweight division another viable contender.

Another thing we know, or at least we think we know: Shields isn't finished being a player in that weight class. Give him time to grieve and to regain his equilibrium, emotionally speaking, and let's see what he can do then.

Just as the night turned out better for one Jake than the other, the undercard produced a split decision, of sorts, for a couple of reality TV stars. Court McGee, winner of Season 11 of The Ultimate Fighter, won a decision over Donghi Yang for his eight straight victory. Season 12 TUF winner Jonathan Brookins, meanwhile, fell short against Eric Koch.

Nothing against Yang, but Brookins had the tougher assignment in facing Koch, who is 13-1 and came in having finished his last three bouts in the first round, twice earning Knockout of the Night bonuses. Brookins, fighting for the first time since his TUF-winning victory last December, used his strong grappling to neutralize much of Koch's attack. But he nonetheless took some big shots against the fast-rising featherweight, who won every round on two of the three judges' scorecards.

As for McGee, he's 14-1 now and on a roll. The aggressive middleweight took the fight out of Yang and nearly finished the South Korean with a guillotine in the fight's final seconds. As the horn sounded, McGee looked like he could have gone another three rounds. Yang? Not so much.

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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