When you run a promotion like Strikeforce, one with a limited budget and a mandate to produce interesting and dynamic fights, sometimes you have to make hard choices. But when it came to deciding between Jake Shields and Dan Henderson, there wasn't much of a dilemma. Strikeforce went with Henderson and hasn't looked back.
Henderson, one of MMA's most enduring stars, was a known quantity. He'd been in action packed fights since going tit for tat with Carlos Newton all the way back at UFC 17. From that amazing U.S. debut right up until his spectacular knockout of Michael Bisping at UFC 100, Henderson had delivered time and time again on the largest stages in the sport.
Shields was a known quantity as well. His position grappling based game plan had failed to make an impression on audiences on two continents. While Henderson was a crowd favorite in Japan, Shields floundered. Against Hayato Sakurai, his corner vocally implored him to do nothing, willing him to ride out a decision in one of the Shooto promotion's all-time worst fights. It was just one among many in that era, as Shields went to a final bell in eleven of twelve fights in a row.
Fans wanted to love Henderson. Shields was met, instead, with collective indifference. His Showtime main event against Robbie Lawler in 2009 did almost 100,000 fewer viewers than the previous Showtime main event and less than half of the viewers of the following Showtime MMA event. And things only got worse as the two men came together for the main event of Strikeforce's second show on CBS. It was clear that Shields was a ratings pariah:
Shields has come up snakeyes in his two highest profile fights on CBS. In a war of attrition on the ground against "Mayhem" Miller, Shields actually lost almost 100,000 viewers leading into the main event at Strikeforce: Fedor vs. Rogers. When, astoundingly, he was given the main event spot against Dan Henderson this April in Nashville, Shields set a new record for futility, attracting less than 3 million viewers, down 30 percent from November's subpar performance. The numbers were a disaster on every level.
Despite Shields making a comeback to beat Henderson in a dull fight, letting him go was an easy call. To add insult to injury, Strikeforce announced publicly that they wouldn't be tendering Shields an offer. His leverage gone, Shields didn't have to juice to make his debut at middleweight with an immediate title shot against Anderson Silva. Instead, he'd join the UFC's welterweight division where he'd have to earn a shot at the champion.
The "trade" seems to be one sided for the UFC. But the story isn't over yet. More after the jump.
Of course, sight unseen, Shields was a coup for the UFC and President Dana White, who smiled like a kid at Christmas while sitting next to Shields at WEC 48. In true Jake Shields fashion, he quickly threw water on the fire with a tepid UFC 121 debut against Martin Kampmann:
Jake Shields passed the test last night at UFC 121, but it was hardly with flying colors. The Cesar Gracie grappler took home a split decision win over UFC veteran Martin Kampmann, but impressed no one over the course of 15 minutes. Shields looked tired in the very first round. By the middle of round two, he was blatantly checking the clock to see how much time was left. By the third round he was heaving.
...Shields was able to do just enough to win, but that has more to do with Kampmann than anything Shields did in the cage. The Xtreme Couture fighter was insistent on engaging Shields on the ground, running into the clinch and refusing to trade at distance, where he had the obvious advantage. I'm not sure why Ron Frazier didn't do more to corral his fighter. There was either a major problem in Kampmann's gameplan, his discipline, or his corner. Perhaps in all three. He turned a winnable fight into a losing proposition by failing to fight to his strengths.
As Shields floundered, Henderson did what he always does in the face of adversity. He came back as good as ever. It was easy to dismiss Dan Henderson before Saturday night's Strikeforce Light Heavyweight title fight in Columbus. He was too old. Too predictable. Like the other warriors of his generation it seemed like it was time for Dan Henderson to call it a career.
But Henderson is back where he wants to be - at light heavyweight. He hasn't lost a fight there since a super close bout for the UFC championship back in 2007 against Quinton Jackson. It's always been his preferred weight class and the Shields loss simply gave him leave to return to familiar stomping grounds. He's made the most of that opportunity, winning consecutive fights with big knockouts.
Strikeforce got what it wanted from Henderson: a fighter who will do his damnedest to deliver exciting fights in the cage. The UFC got exactly what they bargained for as well - Jake Shields, warts and all. After he loses to Georges St. Pierre in Canada at UFC 129, which fighter would you rather have? A guy who will make crowds smile as long as he can and then undoubtedly go out on his shield and help create a new star or two along the way? Or a new Jon Fitch to stand alongside the original, the one man who has been giving White headaches for years?
Scott Coker, for once, may have gotten the last laugh.