Jake Shields in the spring of 2010 was widely seen as the second-greatest active fighter—behind only Fedor Emelianenko, who was just a few months away from losing that status—never to have appeared in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Shields was the owner of the Strikeforce middleweight title, a 24-4-1 professional record and a 12-fight winning streak that included most of the best middleweights and welterweights available outside the Octagon, including fighters such as Robbie Lawler, Carlos Condit and Yushin Okami.
For his first title defense, Shields was booked to face Dan Henderson at Strikeforce “Nashville” on April 17, 2010. “Hendo” had just left the UFC on a three-fight winning streak punctuated by an all-time knockout of Michael Bisping at UFC 100 the previous summer and was by that point a living legend whose trophy case included UFC, Rings and Pride Fighting Championships titles. In spite of a career that dated back to the 1990s, Henderson remained a Top 10 fighter even as he approached his 40th birthday.
It was one of the highest-level fights that could be made outside of the UFC at the time, and with Emelianenko’s originally scheduled main event matchup with Fabricio Werdum forced to a later date, it seemed like the best possible option for Strikeforce’s second foray into primetime network television. It would not be.
Shields took his opponent’s best shot, as Henderson dropped him with his infamous overhand right early in the first round. Shields recovered, but Henderson pummeled him for the balance of the first five minutes, knocking him all around the cage and earning a 10-8 round in the eyes of one judge. Having weathered the storm, however, Shields took over after Round 1. Henderson’s huge early offensive output conspired with the cut to 185 pounds—which by his own admission grew harder later in his career—to drain his fuel tank. Henderson’s exhaustion and Shields’ always-outstanding conditioning and top control made for a predictable sweep of the last four rounds, as the younger man secured takedowns with relative ease in every round but did not seriously threaten to finish.
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Of course, Strikeforce “Nashville” is best-remembered today for what happened immediately after Shields’ unanimous decision win was announced. Jason Miller—whom Shields had beaten to win the vacant title the previous year and who had been victorious in his own bout earlier that evening—walked into the cage and interrupted Shields’ post-fight interview by walking into the camera shot and asking “Where’s my rematch, buddy?”
Shields nudged Miller back with an extended hand, “Mayhem” responded by leaning back in and bumping Shields and then all hell broke loose. Shields’ teammate Gilbert Melendez shoved Miller, followed almost immediately by Nick Diaz and Nate Diaz, as Miller was swarmed by fighters, cornermen and security. Shields himself got in a couple of punches before being pulled away from the melee.
The incident was a black eye for mixed martial arts, in general, and a disaster for Strikeforce, in particular. It marked the end of the promotion’s dalliance with mainstream television and, when combined with Emelianenko’s impending fall from Olympus, likely hastened the company’s downfall. Commentator Gus Johnson’s real-time remark that “sometimes these things happen in mixed martial arts,” while providing an immortal and endlessly versatile punchline for snarky MMA lifers, struck absolutely the worst possible note for the millions of potential new fans watching, as it seemed to confirm everything they had been led to believe about the sport.
After that night, Shields finally made the jump to the UFC, where he dropped back down to welterweight, became an instant contender and ended up giving Georges St. Pierre one of his toughest title defenses. After his release from the UFC, he went on to compete at a high level for the World Series of Fighting and the Professional Fighters League. While he claims not to be retired, he has not fought since a TKO loss to Ray Cooper III in the PFL playoffs in October 2018.
Henderson bounced back from the loss to Shields with three straight knockout wins in Strikeforce before abandoning that sinking ship to return to the UFC. After an unsuccessful shot at the middleweight belt held by his onetime victim in Bisping, he retired in 2016.
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