Jake Shields and the art of AJJ
The Americanization of just about anything is contentious because the word is commonly used to imply something original has been clubbed of its nuances.
But that's not the case with the UFC's new signee, Jake Shields, who has been beating opponents with a sophisticated brand of smothering. He calls it American jiu-jitsu, a hybrid of his bedrock wrestling and traditional Brazilian jiu-jitsu, of which he is a black belt under Cesar Gracie.
Though the name itself started out as a joke while he was fighting at the Rumble on the Rock tournament in 2006 (where he defeated UFC contenders Carlos Condit and Yushin Okami in the same night to win it), it's something that he has evolved over time and now teaches as a singular discipline.
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As he has made his way into the UFC, Shields hasn't made a secret of how it works. He's going to use his All-American wrestling pedigree to force mistakes and his technical prowess on the ground to capitalize on them.
"I came from a wrestling background [at Cuesta College], which was kind of the high-paced pressure where you always attack," Shields said. "Then I got into jiu-jitsu, which was kind of the opposite. The idea was to be more tentative, to wait for a little bit, relax and go for submissions. They're both great concepts."
Already a beast in scrambles and transitions by the time he won the Shooto middleweight title in 2004, Shields resolved to roll out a form of attack-mode grappling, which centered on securing and keeping the top, dominant position.
"I figured with MMA, in a five-minute round, you want that high technical end of the jiu-jitsu with the submissions, but you also want to pressure and bring the fight, so I mixed the two," Shields said. "Brazilians try and say that no-Gi is not Brazilian jiu-jitsu, so that's why I came up with taking two disciplines together, with the high pace of wrestling with the skill and technique of jiu-jitsu."
Testimony to the style's effectiveness is all over Shields' résumé. He is getting set for his long-anticipated debut against welterweight Martin Kampmann at UFC 121 in Anaheim, Calif., in which he will be staking a 14-fight win streak that spans nearly six years. It's an incredible number that puts him in rare company with Jose Aldo and Hector Lombard for longest runs in MMA without a defeat.
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It wasn't until he displayed his cage control (and a good chin) against Dan Henderson in his Strikeforce title defense in April that the 31-year-old catapulted himself into the top pound-for-pound discussions. Shields overcame a big right hand early to dominate the 3-to-1 favorite Henderson from the mid-second through the championship rounds.
The later rounds were just par for the course. He handled Jason "Mayhem" Miller the same way previously to win the vacated middleweight belt and submitted Robbie Lawlor and Paul Daley before that. He got to Nick Thompson and Mike Pyle before that. And so on. One of the reasons he came to the UFC, after passing on the chance once before, was because there weren't a lot of attractive fights left for him with Strikeforce or anywhere.
"I think Jake is a genius when it comes to grappling -- he's like the professor to me, and I feel like I'm his top student," said Gilbert Melendez, his training partner in San Francisco and the current lightweight champion with Strikeforce.
"It's a high-pace action that's very rough and grinding and relentless. Sometimes people say, 'hey, I know what he's going to do, he's going to try and take me down and submit me.' And he does it, even when they train to stuff the takedown."
Danish fighter Kampmann (17-3), who is coming off a victory over Paulo Thiago at UFC 115, is next up in trying to figure out a way to keep Shields from his comfort zone.
Like many of Shields detractors, "The Hitman" sees a problem with the way he fights.
"I think it's a little boring," Kampmann said. "I mean, he's really good at what he does, and he's had a lot of success with it. But I think a lot of his fights turn out to be a little boring.
"Still, I've definitely got to watch out. His biggest strength is when he's on top. All his submissions have come from there. He's not a big bottom jiu-jitsu player. Defending the takedown is going to be key. If I get taken down, I am prepared for that as well and I'll work to get back up to my feet."
While Kampmann is working his sprawl and brawl, he ultimately hopes to exploit what many consider to be the hole in Shields' game.
"Everybody's got a weakness," Kampmann said. "With him, I think it's obvious. His biggest weakness is his stand-up."
Melendez, who has sparred with Shields since meeting him back in 2001 at Gracie's, said that's a popular myth.
"Jake's a tough matchup for anybody, because the day they stuff his shot and they realize they're going to have to stand with him, they're going to be surprised," he said. "I feel like I'm one of the best strikers in my weight class, and I have days where Jake beats the crap out of me standing. It's not very easy to stand with him at all."
"I feel great, and I am doing all I can to get better," Shields said. "I am trying to refine my American jiu-jitsu, and I've been working a ton of striking, as well. I want to go out there and bring it to him. That's my style. And I think Kampmann is a tough opponent. He's a great stand-up fighter, and he's just really well-rounded, with grappling as well. His wrestling's pretty good, too, but I don't think it's at my level."
If it's not, it could translate into a long night of frustration for Kampmann.
"You know when you have a little kid and you put your hand out, a stiff-arm, and you grab his forehead while he tries to swing at you but he can't hit you?" Melendez said, "That's kind of the point Jake's at."
In a round-about way, that's a decent description of this American jiu-jitsu thing.
Chuck Mindenhall is a features writer at FIGHT! magazine, and can be followed on Twitter at @ChuckMindenhall.
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