After a storied journey through smaller promotions before finally appearing in the Octagon, 13-year MMA veteran Jake Shields will return to the middleweight class against TUF 3 finalist Ed Herman at UFC 150 on Saturday. The show's main attraction is the rematch between Ben Henderson and Frankie Edgar for the UFC lightweight strap while lightweight bangers Donald Cerrone and Melvin Guillard assume the co-main slot.
Jake Shields (27-6) is a pioneer in the sport for the way he's effectively combined traditional, American-style wrestling with highly technical submission grappling. Finding his way onto the wrestling mats at age 9, Shields went on to be a standout wrestler in high school and at Cuesta (community) College in California, where he earned 2-time Junior College All-American honors and later qualified for the FILA World Team Trials (junior and university).
The real magic transpired when Shields tailored his trade to full-contact fighting by hooking up with Cesar Gracie immediately after graduating. This early fusion of wrestling and submission grappling has endowed Shields with excellent MMA wrestling despite his lack of lofty credentials while propelling him to an absurd collection of championship belts (Strikeforce, EliteXC, Shooto, Rumble on the Rock), medal-worthy performances in submission grappling at the 2005 Pan Ams (gold) and 2005 ADCC tournament (bronze) and a longstanding -- albeit fluctuating -- presence in both the welterweight and middleweight MMA rankings.
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Ed "Short Fuse" Herman (20-8) has wrestling in his blood, as his father competed under the legendary Dan Gable at the University of Iowa. Herman followed somewhat of a similar path by wandering into Team Quest shortly after his high school wrestling stint where his combat base was molded to MMA's unique environment.
Herman engaged Kendall Grove in a gritty war of attrition in the TUF 3 finals and, despite the razor-thin decision loss, was still awarded a contract for his respectable showing. Since then, he's stayed afloat in the mid-level of the 185-pound division with hot and cold streaks: he tapped to a Jason MacDonald triangle choke, rebounded from consecutive defeats by surging with a 3-fight roll, but disappointment resurfaced when he dropped 3 of his next 4 and was sidelined for almost 2 years with a debilitating knee injury.
The extended hiatus ended at the TUF 13 Finale in June of 2011, where Herman re-emerged with swagger by crushing Tim Credeur with an electric volley of punches to notch a devastating stoppage. That TKO win was the 1st in the 3-piece win streak he's currently riding, as Herman enforced his submission acumen to elicit stoppages over Kyle Noke (inverted heel hook) and Clifford Starks (rear-naked choke) in recent turns.
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Considering how sharp his stand up has been looking lately, Herman might finally qualify as a legit 3-dimensional fighter. His wrestling has always been his base but now his submission prowess is catching up and his striking isn't far behind. Herman's trio of specialties is pivotal because Shields is widely known as a dual-pronged threat with his wrestling and sub-grappling.
Had he not improved so much on the feet, Herman would be facing a particularly adverse match up here, as any advantage with takedowns would only entangle him in Shields' serpentine guard game, which has proven to be a hostile and complex environment. Herman's increasing confidence and success with his kickboxing might enable him to challenge Shields in his weakest area instead of his strongest by employing a sprawl-and-brawl strategy. However, Shields has cleaned up his striking as well and I'm not sure if Herman's willing to adopt that approach, or even able.
The other key factor of this clash is how the wrestling and takedown encounters play out. Shields is uncanny in imposing his overbearing wrestling, even if you know it's coming from a mile away, and ran a takedown clinic on Dan Henderson, a 2-time Olympic Greco Roman competitor, and held his own with Yoshihiro Akiyama, a 2-time gold medalist at the Asian Judo Championships.
For Herman, and pretty much everyone else, keeping Shields on his feet and out of his element is of cardinal importance. Why? Because Jake Shields doesn't lose on the ground. It's really that simple. While almost every fresh entry who's competed outside the Octagon is fairly untested against elite opposition, Shields is not. He's out-positioned, suffocated, strangled or otherwise subdued a prestigious array of past or current UFC fighters: Mike Pyle, Paul Daley, Robbie Lawler, Nick Thompson (all via submission), Carlos Condit (current interim welterweight champ), Dan Henderson (current #1 light-heavyweight contender) Yushin Okami, Martin Kampmann, Yoshihiro Akiyama and Jason Miller (all via decision).
Realistically though, and in spite of his sterling body count, that doesn't mean Shields can't lose on the ground. Herman, a black belt himself, might've developed to a height where he could withstand Shields' nonstop chain of submission attempts or silky smooth sweeps and pull out a victory. Better yet -- he could enforce his takedowns in conjunction with his striking to take control of the tempo and then try to back out and reset on the feet to gain footing on the score cards. This is all, of course, assuming he can put Shields on his back and pull the Eject Lever to get free before Shields sucks him in.
The fact remains: Herman's choices are to resist takedowns and try to out-strike Shields, courageously pursue his own takedowns and duel in Shields' most dominant realm or try to phase-shift between striking and wrestling as illustrated in the last paragraph.
I'm not sure which strategy Herman will adopt, and I might be over-estimating his striking (or under-estimating Shields'). It's probably not outrageous to conjecture that the rugged chin that's carried Shields through a number of wars could be on the outs, nor that his recent TKO-loss to Jake Ellenberger -- Shields' 2nd overall and 1st since his 3rd pro fight back in 2000 -- could be attributed to the tragedy of having just lost his father a few weeks before.
From the strict comparison of skill and performance, Shields' has faced and defeated better wrestlers, submission artists and strikers than Herman, which is why I agree with his moderate lead on the betting lines. On paper, Shields should walk away with the win but Herman has the type of hard-nosed tenacity and big heart to pull off the upset, much of which will hinge on his strategy and ability to follow it.
My Prediction: Jake Shields by decision.