Shields pleases White, but needs to win over fans

August 8, 2010

The image was classic: Dana White sitting ringside at WEC 48 with Jake Shields to his right. His arm around the Strikeforce middleweight champion, White couldn’t contain his glee when he smiled and said to the camera, “He’s mine!”

This was before Strikeforce ended negotiations with Shields, but the handwriting was on the wall once Shields defeated veteran Dan Henderson at Strikeforce: Nashville. The company’s ad campaign promoting the show on CBS was centered on the debut of the former Pride FC middleweight and welterweight champion with little mention of their current title holder.

Fast forward: Strikeforce is stuck paying a lot of money to a respected veteran but one whose best days are behind him. This week, the UFC proudly announced its new acquisition, one that’s moving down to welterweight. Shields, also a title holder in Shooto and EliteXC, has won a stunning 14 straight fights, a run that’s included victories over Dave Menne, Yushin Okami, Carlos Condit, Mike Pyle, Nick Thompson, Paul Daley, Robbie Lawler and Jason "Mayhem" Miller.

Shields (25-4-1) will debut at UFC 121 against top contender Martin Kampmann (17-3 MMA, 8-2 UFC). This is not an ordinary premiere against a low-level, little-known opponent. “The Hitman” comes off a win over Paulo Thiago at UFC 115 and the winner could be next in line for a welterweight title shot against either incumbent champ Georges St. Pierre or Josh Koscheck, who challenges GSP in December. White and the UFC have every right to cheer. They swiped one of the world’s best fighters in the prime of his career while sticking it to its competition. They’re holding visions of a mega showdown between Shields and St. Pierre, though also unlike their competition won’t pooh-pooh the credentials of Kampmann or Koscheck, despite the latter and White not quite seeing eye-to-eye.

There’s no denying Shields’ accomplishments, but whether he’s actually a gold mine for the UFC is up for debate. As Jonathan Snowden, author of “Total MMA” (an updated version hits bookstores in November), writes for Bloody Elbow, the internet is not ablaze with the news because Shields is not a draw.

Shields wins fights, but if you don’t impress that’s proven to not be good enough in high profile bouts. Snowden’s piece looks back at CBS’ ratings for Strikeforce’s Nashville show. During his win over Miller, the lead-in to Fedor Emelianenko versus Brett Rogers, the network lost 100,000 viewers. His victory over Henderson – the main event – was not only a snoozer, but viewership dropped 30 percent from the Miller fight. Combine that with the lingering bad taste of the post-fight melee and Strikeforce may not have let Shields walk due to incompetence, but by design.

Ironically, in lieu of Shields or Kampmann, the winner of the UFC 117 bout between Jon Fitch and Thiago Alves may end up with a welterweight title shot. Fitch isn’t as big a name as Shields, but he’s lost just once in his MMA career (to St. Pierre in August 2008). His last six wins have gone the distance and none will ever be confused with a Fight of the Year, though his lone defeat earned Fight of the Night honors. The perception of being a boring fighter has hurt Fitch’s marketability. The UFC will put its promotional muscle behind Shields and him competing on the main card of Brock Lesnar versus Cain Velasquez will help and not hurt pay-per-view buys. For Shields to immediately separate himself from the pack and cut the line to a chance at GSP or Koscheck he needs the obvious win and for it to be aesthetically pleasing. White the judge signed him to the UFC, a great victory in itself. Pleasing the fans, the jury, is his next great challenge.

Originally posted on the MMA Blog.