When the announcement was made that Jake Shields was signing with the UFC, it was a bit, well, anti-climactic.
Seriously, did anyone think there was a shot the then-Strikeforce Middleweight Champion/free agent would return after appearing next to UFC President Dana White at multiple Zuffa events, grinning like he won the lottery?
Even when discussion of Shields inking with the UFC was first brought up, there still wasn't a palpable buzz other than with the hardcore fans.
The reason is fairly simple: winning a Strikeforce belt, defeating Dan Henderson convincingly on CBS and an appearance on MTV's Bully Beatdown wasn't enough to make him a star.
Saturday night at UFC 121 in Anaheim, CA, Shields has the chance to do just that as he's in a prime position: the second fight from the top on what's expected to be one of the biggest PPV shows of 2010.
The floor is his. He's got 15 minutes to prove his worth to the mainstream fans in a fight against Martin Kampmann, a tough fighter who is seemingly on the periphery of a title shot but can't get over the hump.
Quite simply, Jake Shields will have the greatest opportunity of his professional life Saturday to ensure his spot in the MMA world to those that have never heard of him.
And that's why Gilbert Melendez needs to be the biggest Shields fan in the world as it happens.
Winning Isn't Enough
Like it or not, the fight game is about drawing money. Since two guys first started throwing down and drawing a crowd, there has always been someone that has been figuring out how to get people to pay to see those fights.
The UFC has a lot of great fighters but not enough talents that can draw those all important dollars when it matters: pay-per-view.
Brock Lesnar? Draw. Georges St. Pierre? Draw. Randy Couture? Waning but still a draw.
Despite an insane past few years, Shields isn't and that's why he's not getting an immediate title shot at GSP. Coincidentally, that's why Jon Fitch has waited so long between title shots despite winning fight after fight. Fans see his style as dull and for better or worse, that has hurt his ability to get a shot.
That's the entertainment in sports entertainment, but that's a story for another day.
It didn't matter what Shields had done over the past five years. It didn't matter he's won 14 fights in a row (fourteen!). It didn't matter that his last six wins came over Mike Pyle, Nick Thompson, Paul Daley, Robbie Lawler, Jason Miler and Henderson.
What mattered was that he wasn't flashy and he went to two 25-minute decisions in his last two fights. By all logic, he should have gotten a title shot in his first fight. He didn't. Why do you think that is?
The Benefits to Trailblazing
Melendez is regarded as a top-flight lightweight and he's earned that as the Strikeforce 155-pound kingpin. He took out Josh Thomson twice and dispatched Shinya Aoki earlier this year. He talks a good game and there's been discussion about a cross-promotional event with Bellator that would pit him against Eddie Alvarez.
But if White introduced him as the newest UFC signee Saturday night, there would be the same tepid reaction Shields received upon his signing. He might be a draw in San Jose, but to Joe Six-Pack in Wisconsin that doesn't know anything outside the Octagon, he means nothing.
To the UFC—and most importantly, their sponsors—Joe means a lot in potential revenue. His opinion—albeit short-sighted—matters.
Shields can help change that mentality Saturday night with an impressive victory. By defeating Kampmann soundly and in a crowd-pleasing manner, he will do several things:
Validate that success outside the UFC matters
You and I understand this, but many don't. A Shields victory would undoubtedly help his status and suddenly raise the importance of those non-Octagon victories. I realize that sounds crazy, but again, look at Fitch. Wins matter, but not at much as you'd think.
Fitch got those wins in the UFC and he still struggles to get consideration. Think how much outside wins are considered.
Raise the awareness level for top non-UFC talent
As I write this, the afore-mentioned Alvarez is soundly decimating Roger Huerta in Bellator's season finale, highlighting that some of the best of the world simply aren't in the UFC. There is a stigma that I somewhat buy into that unless you're competing against the best, it's tough to be considered among the best.
Shields is now among the best. A loss could give an opportunity for critics to prove their case. A win would tip the cap to other organizations that their fights—and more importantly, those competing in those fights—have relevance as well.
Help future free agents get more $$$
If given a truth serum, I think most experts would agree that eventually Melendez will end up in the UFC. When it's time, the contract Shields signed will be used as a measuring stick. A big win would give Melendez some needed leverage when the day happens. A loss would support the mindset of "That's nice, kid...but it's not the UFC" that so many carry around.
Melendez obviously has some control over this if he keeps winning and makes a claim for himself. But Shields could certainly help this transition with a notable victory, giving the UFC no hesitation in signing future top free agents and giving them high-profile fights in their debut—even a title shot.
Shields obviously has enough to worry about in Kampmann, but he carries a lot of pressure into the cage this Saturday night. Around the world, those that don't know him will want to know what he's about and why they should care about this 170-pound kid from California who has a win streak against fighters they've never heard of.
Suddenly, 15 minutes became a lot more important.