The co-main event at UFC 129: St-Pierre vs. Shields will feature two fighters who share very similar profiles.
UFC Welterweight Champion Georges "Rush" St-Pierre is a holy terror when it comes to pursuing and securing takedowns, then abuses his unfortunate opponent with the skills of a master ground tactician. One of the most well-rounded gladiators in the sport, GSP gets the job done using any combination of his wrestling prowess to maintain control, his Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt to work submissions or some good ol' fashioned ground-"n"-pound.
The one hole in the Canadian's game is his striking, but it's not a gaping chink in the armor. That jab he broke out against Josh "Kos" Koscheck was savagely surgical, turning the right side of Josh's face into a bloated mess at UFC 124.
Much of the same praise (and criticism) can be lavished upon the man coming for GSP's strap, No. 1 contender Jake Shields.
One major—MAJOR—difference between the two, however, is the level of hype that each engenders.
Georges is arguably the most marketable competitor in the UFC stables, at least until Jon "Bones" Jones' next appearance. Everywhere the 29-year-old goes, hysteria follows...OK, that might be a slight exaggeration, but you get the point.
On the other hand, Jake Shields walks around in a cocoon of relative anonymity.
It's no coincidence that the UFC 129 promotional reel shows Shields without the glitz or glamor. I've shared planes with Jake, and the only person who approached him was a nurse who had worked on one of his cuts way back when.
But that could all change in the space of 25 minutes (or less).
Because there's a reason many close observers of the sport are tabbing Jake to pull off the upset—the 32-year-old is a bad, bad man. Even if the casual MMA fan doesn't believe it.
In an effort to counter that perception, let's meet the most underrated fighter in mixed martial arts.
In 2002, Jake Shields started fighting in Japan's Shooto promotion; by 2004, he was the Shooto Middleweight Champion (yes, he lost the belt soon after—I didn't say he stayed the champ).
The man from Mountain Ranch eventually hopped over to the Rumble on the Rock promotion where he beat Yushin "Thunder" Okami and Carlos "The Natural Born Killer" Condit to take the ROTR Welterweight Tournament title in 2006. Not bad, especially when you add the fact that he did it in one night.
In 2008, Shields surfaced with EliteXC, took home the welterweight championship and defended it several months later against none other than Paul "Semtex" Daley. He dispatched the Brit by armbar in the second round.
One year later, he took out Jason "Mayhem" Miller to get his hands on the Strikeforce middleweight strap before defending it in the now-infamous "upset" of "Dangerous" Dan Henderson.
If you haven't been keeping up, that's a championship in every organization that gave him more than one fight since '02.
The title bout at UFC 129 will be Jake Shields' second in the UFC.
Jake Shields' record is a gaudy 26-4-1 with 11 submissions and only three knockouts.
So, no, he won't be confused with Anderson "The Spider" Silva or any of the other great strikers the sport has to offer. Not yet anyway.
But people seem to recoil from the fact that Jake is smart and humble enough to recognize that reality so he doesn't press the standup unless it makes sense in his gameplan. I'm no expert, but isn't that what most successful gladiators do? Especially when they are facing the top tier of competitors?
Last time I checked, intelligence and humility were not character flaws.
Additionally, the Cesar Gracie guys don't lay-"n"-pray—they're trying to improve position and/or open up grappling windows. There's a galactic difference between a slouch who lies in someone's guard while hoping the ref doesn't reset the action and a fighter who deploys a strategy bent on winning, but goes to the canvas to do it.
A thunderous KO is always a crowd-pleaser, but there is nothing in the MMA rulebook that says you must try to win via strikes at all costs.
In fact, I'm pretty sure Cesar's cousin had some moderate success using grappling as his weapon of choice.
It's not GSP; he's only got eight wins in a row.
UFC Heavyweight Champion Cain Velasquez also has some work to do before catching the leader as he's stuck on nine and counting. Strikeforce Welterweight Champion Nick Diaz just notched his 10th consecutive win, but it's not him, either.
UFC Middleweight Champion Anderson Silva has a robust 14 straight wins, which is good for second place. But the Brazilian future Hall of Famer needs a couple more to overtake the leader.
Technically, I guess you could say that Bellator Middleweight Champion Hector "Shango" Lombard has the longest win streak since he's been triumphant in 17 straight trips to the cage. Of course, the most impressive win during the "streak" is over an undersized Brian "Bad Boy" Ebersole since it's been authored in the sport's soft underbelly.
In other words, not all streaks are created equally.
Nope, the guy I'm talking about is—obviously—Jake Shields.
With 15 consecutive victories heading into UFC 129, the adamant vegetarian is the proud standard bearer in this particular category. He trumps Lombard's run because his hit list features a slew of legitimate and cage-hardened warriors—Okami, Condit, Mike "Quicksand" Pyle, Daley, "Ruthless" Robbie Lawler, Mayhem Miller, Hendo and Martin "The Hitman" Kampmann to name more than a few.
Say what you want about Jake Shields, but 15 wins against elite competition do not happen simply by circumstance.
Here's where everything gets interesting—comparing the two pound-for-pound warriors side by side.
The other stuff sounds great and looks even better on paper, but all the past championships, impressive victories and win streaks in the world don't mean squat when you're going up against Georges St-Pierre.
Make no mistake about it, Rush is probably about 180 pounds (by fight time) of highly-trained muscle wrapped around supremely athletic DNA. He is unanimously considered to be one of the two best pound-for-pound fighters on the globe and justifiably so.
But he is not unbeatable; nobody is.
And Jake Shields has a lot of the same tools as GSP, some of which are even better.
There is no one more dangerous when it comes to securing a takedown than the relentless Rush. There are few competitors who can withstand the initial charge and even fewer who can stuff GSP altogether (possibly none).
Nevertheless, Jake also knows how to get a tussle to the ground.
Just ask Dan Henderson, the current Strikeforce Light Heavyweight Champion and two-time Olympic wrestler—Jake was successful on 5-of-9 takedown attempts against Hendo. Meanwhile, Martin Kampmann avoided takedowns from Diego "The Nightmare" Sanchez with relative ease in the Dane's last bout. When the Hitman faced Shields, Jake was successful in 15 of his 23 takedown attempts.
The question as to who can better withstand an assailant bent on dragging the action to the ground is even closer. So give the overall advantage to GSP but not in the romp that public opinion might have you believe.
Of course, that advantage might not actually be an...uh...advantage given Shields considerable prowess in jiu-jitsu. Although Rush can point to his own BJJ black belt, you'll be hard-pressed to find anyone who would give the edge here to the Canuck.
Grappling is Jake Shields' world, and we are just living in it.
Strong as he is on the ground, Georges still might prefer to keep this thing standing.
Which begs the question...
Georges St-Pierre has eight knockouts in 21 career wins and certainly looks like the better striker.
He's a fluid athlete, and the asset translates to a smooth, varied arsenal that continues to evolve on a per-fight basis. GSP has also stopped B.J. "The Prodigy" Penn and Matt Hughes with strikes. Those are two rugged, all-time greats so he has at least some real world evidence to accompany the easy-on-the-eyes visuals.
By superficial contrast, Jake Shields doesn't stand a chance—the salvos don't look quite as easy from the American plus his best TKO (Renato "Charuto" Verissimo) doesn't compare.
And that's exactly where St-Pierre's camp would like the analysis to end.
Au contraire, mon ami.
Look closer at Jake's resume and you see several notorious strikers like Carlos Condit, Paul Daley, Robbie Lawler, Dan Henderson and Martin Kampmann. You'll also see that Shields defeated all of the above, and he didn't simply tackle them, then hold 'em down to the delight of the judges.
According to CompuStrike, the UFC's No. 1 welterweight contender actually outstruck Hendo and his heralded right hand by a wide margin. Ditto Kampmann.
It might not be as pretty as GSP's attack, but this ain't a beauty contest. Given the shots the challenger weathered in his bouts with Ruthless Robbie, Semtex and Dangerous Dan, you can make a persuasive argument that the scales tilt in Jake Shields' favor here (cough, Matt "The Terror" Serra).
Regardless of which way you lean, the more important take away is that we have yet another razor-slim margin of superiority.
When you boil it all down...I have no idea what you get.
But that's the point—this truly is either man's bout to win.
In the wake of MMA's explosion, Georges St-Pierre is on the verge of becoming a global icon. The challenger is a relative unknown on that spectrum, but far too many people are making the mistake of equating low profile with low potential.
And ignoring the fact that understated is often underrated.
Jake Shields has proven it before, and he's out to do it again.