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Proving the Haters Wrong: Jake Shields' Life of Resilience and Self-Belief

Jake Shields doesn’t care what people think about him. Throughout his whole life, Shields has been criticized. He has learned to not only take this criticism in stride, but allowed it to create an unbreakable level of self-belief. While the positivity of his loyal teammates at Caesar Gracie Jiu-Jitsu motivates Shields to train hard, it is truly the criticism of his detractors that gets him out of bed in the morning. It always has been.

Growing up as a lifelong vegetarian, Shields was always told he couldn’t be successful, as he recalls, “All throughout high school and college everyone told me I couldn’t be an athlete, so I wanted to prove them wrong.” Prove them wrong he did, as Shields became a two-time all-American wrestler at Cuesta College. However, the criticism didn’t stop there. Upon becoming a martial artist, he was criticized for his style and approach. Mixed martial arts critics have written him off as “conservative,” while the jiu-jitsu community has doubted his ability to succeed outside of their traditional standards. Shields also proved these detractors wrong. He has reached an unprecedented level of success in mixed martial arts and submission grappling, utilizing his unique brand of “American jiu-jitsu” to capture multiple world championships in two different weight-classes, and defeat some of the world’s greatest athletes in the process.

As Shields prepares for his upcoming fight with Ed Herman at UFC 150 this August, he finds himself as confident as ever. Fresh off a unanimous decision victory over Yoshiro Akiyama in Japan this past February, it is easy to see why his confidence should be soaring. Surprising many critics who predicted Akiyama to dictate the stand-up action, it was Shields who was able to keep the notoriously tough judoka at bay with a steady dose of stiff jabs and leg kicks. Shields sealed the deal with a slick takedown in the third round, taking Akiyama’s back for much of the final frame, and forcing the resilient hometown favorite to fend off rear-naked choke attempts until the end of the fight.

The markedly improved stand-up displayed in the Akiyama fight impressed many in the MMA world, and he while he emphasizes that this remains a strong focus in preparation for Herman, he is also quick to add that he has not forgotten the base of his success. “I am really focusing on my stand-up, but I am also going back to my roots and doing more wrestling. Brazilian jiu-jitsu is my strongest point, but it’s hard if you can’t get it to the ground where you want to be, so I am definitely going back to a lot of wrestling.”

Jake is quick to acknowledge his upcoming opponent’s grit and versatility. “Herman is a well-rounded guy. His biggest strength is probably his jiu-jitsu, which is also my biggest strength; he also has good hands and good wrestling. He is tough everywhere, so I am not taking him lightly.” While Shields is definitely wise in not overlooking the gritty veteran, he also views the match-up to be stylistically favorable to his skill set, and is confident in his ability to finish Herman. “I think it’s a good fight, we both have great ground skills, so hopefully I will take it there, and I am planning on submitting him.”

The Herman fight also marks Jake’s return to the middleweight division, a weight class he says he feels much more comfortable competing in. “I fought there before and felt stronger. Fighting at seventies, I felt that when I dropped the last five or six pounds I was a little weak. I decided to move up to one eighty five-a weight I am undefeated at. I beat guys like Dan Henderson. I figured I had done so well there, so why am I cutting all this weight?”

As Shields is moving up a weight class, strength-training is very important to him in addition to his rigorous MMA workouts. “Everything is going really good. I’m in the early fight prep. Just doing a lot of fundamental striking and wrestling. Lifting a lot of weights. I am trying to bulk up, because I am moving up a weight class.”

Along with strength and conditioning, Shields finds himself eating much more liberally as he prepares for his return as a middleweight. “I work out so much so I have to make sure I eat a lot. I try to eat about six meals a day. I take a couple protein shakes. I use Sunwarrior protein. I drink one shake in the morning and one at night, and just try to eat as much as possible.”

For Shields, his decision to partner-up with Sunwarrior came very naturally as the company’s products provide him the quality of nutrition he demands as a professional athlete, while also abiding by his ethical beliefs as a lifelong vegetarian. “I am a vegetarian, and mostly vegan; I am not strict on the vegan, but I try to eat a mostly vegan diet. It gets tough using protein, because a lot of them use whey, not to mention a lot of chemicals and all kinds of stuff I don’t like putting in my body. Sunwarrior got in touch with my manager, and said they had a product out to try. It’s great. It’s all vegan, and doesn’t have a bunch of additives I don’t want in my protein. I started using it, and it is all I have used ever since.”

Unlike many vegetarians who face criticism from family for their decision to abstain from eating meat, Shields was blessed with a father who raised him on a plant-based diet. “Being a vegetarian is great. I have always grown up this way, so it’s not even something I really think about too much. I think a lot of people have to make the decision whether they want to do it or not, but for me it’s been easy; I never even really thought about eating meat, it’s something that always seemed a little gross to me, especially with the way animals are treated and what not. The older I got, the more I started doing a little research, and started realizing all the health benefits as well.”

Now Shields says he sees others looking at his success and reconsidering their own lifestyles. “Now that I have done it even longer, everyone is starting to switch my direction and realize that ‘Oh it’s actually better to be a vegetarian or vegan.’ So it’s good to see a change in how people view things.” While his peers as a youth criticized his decision to abstain from meat, many of his sparring partners at Caesar Gracie Jiu-Jitsu have embraced Jake’s plant-based diet. “It’s cool a lot of my friends I train with have become either vegan or vegetarian, or at least close to it now. So it’s good to see them do something I have been doing for so many years.”

While Shields acknowledges the impact he has had in influencing other fighters to convert to a plant-based diet, he also sees the lifestyle gaining popularity within the MMA community, and the influence that others have as well. “I’m not the only person who has an influence, but I do think I have been a big help, because, at least as far as I know, I was the first vegetarian fighter, and I think the fact that I have been a life-long vegetarian shows that you can actually grow up this way and do fine. I think other athletes started seeing this. Guys like Nick Diaz, who did some research on his own, realized he didn’t want to eat all this stuff, and he is very strict on his diet. Guys like him, Jon Fitch, more guys started seeing it and switching over, and the more people see successful guys like this doing it, they will realize that they can also be successful doing it.”

Along with being raised a vegetarian, Shields was very physically active growing up, something he feels has attributed greatly to his success as a martial artist. “I grew up about three hours out of the Bay Area, up in the mountains; out in the middle of nowhere. There wasn’t a lot to do, and being a kid with a lot of energy, I ended up doing a lot of physical stuff. I got into mountain biking, rock climbing, snowboarding, and I think that all those extreme sports pushed me into the direction of fighting. It isn’t a big transition going into fighting when you grew up snowboarding and mountain climbing all the time.”

While the transition to fighting came easy for Shields, his road to the top of the sport was anything but. For over ten years, Jake fought around the world in various mixed martial arts promotions and competed in hundreds of grappling tournaments, before finally signing with the UFC. While he has dealt with an immense amount of adversity to get to this level of the sport—being broke, not having insurance, and raising a daughter as a single father, to name a few of his obstacles—he has attributed his ability to succeed and overcome these obstacles to the strength and loyalty of his team around him.

It is commonplace in MMA for fighters to switch gyms and change affiliations between fight camps, but Shields and his teammates at Caesar Gracie Jiu-Jitsu have remained devoutly loyal to one another over the years. The “skrap pack” which consists of Shields, UFC fighters Nick and Nate Diaz, and Strikeforce lightweight champion Gilbert Melendez, is arguably the most successful fight team in MMA today. Jake attributes the diverse styles and contrasting skill sets each of them brings to the table to the high level of success his teammates have each had individually in the sport. “I think it helps a lot, because we do all have very different styles. We are able to push each other, and we prepare each other to fight guys with different styles. We train together all the time, and we have all managed to adapt our own styles, and I think it just shows that we are all our own people, and that is why we are such a great team.”

Shields’ forearm is covered with a tattoo depicting an eagle clutching the Great Seal of the United States and a banner which reads “American jiu-jitsu.” This tattoo is bearing homage to his particular brand of martial arts that was developed through his years of sparring with the team. “American jiu-jitsu is my brand of grappling. Originally, I was an all-American wrestler, collegiate style, and then I got my black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Both are phenomenal styles of grappling, but I try to blend the two together. I never used a gi in jiu-jitsu, so American jiu-jitsu is kind of just blending the two together. It’s aggressive and constantly attacking like wrestling, but a little more technical and relaxed like Brazilian jiu-jitsu.”

Shields has proven the efficiency of his American jiu-jitsu by submitting opponents on the largest stages of mixed martial arts, and defeating numerous world-ranked grapplers in jiu-jitsu competition, but the martial arts community has not always been embracing of Jake’s unique style. Jake won the 2005 Pan American jiu-jitsu tournament in a gi with basically never having trained in one prior to the tournament. Many fans view this accomplishment as one of Jake’s greatest, but when asked about his gold medal, Jake shrugs it off, recalling the criticism he endured in order to earn it. “Caesar Gracie gave me my belt, and a lot of people were saying, “Oh you can’t possibly be belted without ever having trained in a gi.” So I wanted to prove all the haters wrong. I went into the tournament and tapped out and beat a lot of the best guys in the world just to prove a point.” His point has certainly been proven, as Shields now bolsters one of the most impressive resumes in submission grappling, including victories over Jon Fitch, Vinny Magalhaes, and Diego Sanchez.

Jake only sees more to come from Caesar Gracie Jiu-Jitsu in the future, and hopes that some of his less-publicized teammates will be given the spotlight as well. “We have a lot of guys to look out for. Josh McDonald is a very tough guy. There are a lot of great up-and-comers, and hopefully some of these guys will break out. Me, Nate, Nick, and Gil have really been the ones to make a name for our team, but hopefully in the next year or so, some of these other guys will be able to get out there and do the same as well.”

While Shields has reached great heights in the sport, it is hard for him to nail-down an exact moment or achievement as his favorite. “It’s hard to say because I have had a lot of good moments. Winning the Shooto belt in Japan was quite an accomplishment, because that was before I was a big name. I won the Elite XC belt. I won the Rumble on the Rocks tournament, and that was a completely stacked tournament. Even guys like Anderson Silva were involved in that, so that really means a lot to me.”

Along with the glory of victory, the Rumble on the Rocks tournament brings on a humorous memory for Shields. After defeating current UFC interim welterweight champion Carlos Condit, Shields advanced to the finals to take on the world-ranked Yushin Okami. This was all in the same night, mind you. Earlier in the night, Shields had told the DJ he would like some “old punk or metal music” to be played during his entrance. As he was getting pumped up and poised to make his walk-out, he was thrown for a loop as “All the Small Things” by Blink 182 came out of the speakers. Shields became furious, and almost did not even want to walk-out. Good thing he did, as he would go on to defeat Okami and be crowned the tournament champion. Defeating two top-ten fighters in a single night, with both fights going the distance, is an amazing feat in this sport, and one certainly worth enduring a less than desirable entrance song for.

Shields now laughs looking back on the escapade, saying, “Nothing against Blink, they’re okay and all, just not exactly what I would look at as old punk music. I had asked for old punk or metal, and they were definitely not what I was looking for, but, oh well, I guess I definitely learned I have to be a little bit more specific about punk music.”

While on the subject of music, Shields mentions that he enjoys an eclectic variety of artists, and cites several from his native California as being some of his favorites. “I listen to a huge variety of music. Lars Frederickson and the Bastards and Rancid are some of my favorite bands. I listen to other stuff as well; I listen to some reggae, Sublime, you know I switch it up, really it just depends on my mood.”

While Jake has accomplished many things and won many world championships, he is still in pursuit of his ultimate goal: a UFC world championship belt. “Capturing the UFC belt has always been my dream, so I am still after that.” However, he knows that to accomplish that goal, it is imperative for him to be focused on the current task at hand. “First getting through Ed Herman, and then I would like to get another fight this year for sure. After Ed Herman, I would like to fight one of the top contenders; I don’t really care who, I just want to get back into title contention again.”

As Jake Shields prepares for his next run for championship gold, the competitive fire inside him burns stronger than ever. At thirty three years old, and after over thirteen years in the sport, Shields has amassed a record of 27-6-1 and defeated some of the sport’s biggest names. While many competitors would be content to call it a day, Shields will not be satisfied until he fulfills his goal of becoming a UFC world champion. Even then, it is unlikely that he will be itching for retirement, because as long as haters keep hating, Shields will continue to find the motivation to prove them wrong.

Read more by Dylan Falduto

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