Jake Shields may be something of an old dog in the sport, but he keeps learning new tricks.
When Shields steps into the cage to face Ray Cooper III in his first match of the Professional Fighters League’s 2018 regular season on Thursday in Washington, D.C., it will have been nearly a year since his most recent appearance -- a decision victory over Danny Davis Jr. on July 29. The 39-year-old grappling ace has not sat idle in the meantime; Shields has spent much of the last year living in New York and training at the Renzo Gracie Academy.
Some might be surprised that a fighter with Shields’ long and storied tenure -- a fighter who is so closely associated with Cesar Gracie Jiu-Jitsu as to be almost synonymous with it -- would seek out such extensive cross-training at this point in his career. However, the Bay Area native’s enthusiasm is obvious as he explains the benefits of the change in personal and professional scenery.
“I’m still part of Cesar Gracie Fight Team,” Shields told Sherdog.com. “Absolutely. In fact, I was back there just the other week because Nate [Diaz] was in town to train; and we’re affiliated anyway. Cesar Gracie and Renzo Gracie have always gotten along fine, so there’s no weirdness there. I was getting sick of San Francisco and wanted a change of pace, and I’ve really been able to work on a lot of new things here. I’ve gotten to work with great striking coaches, and while I’m already a Gracie Jiu-Jitsu guy, obviously, it’s always nice to get some different looks in grappling.”
Shields is eager to show some of the new wrinkles in his game against Cooper at PFL 3. Many have pointed out the fact that Shields has fought Cooper’s father, Ray Cooper -- twice, in fact -- which may be a first in mixed martial arts. Shields is amused by the side note but focused primarily on the challenges the younger Cooper presents.
“I’ve watched a couple of his fights, maybe three or four,” Shields said. “It’s actually hard to find much on him. From what I’ve seen, he’s a real aggressive guy who hits really hard.”
While the veteran is ready for whatever transpires in the fight, he understands his own strengths and allows that understanding to inform his strategy.
“I mean, I may be better than him everywhere,” Shields said. “Who knows? But my specialty is jiu-jitsu, and I know that’s where I’ll have an advantage, for sure, so it only makes sense to use that, to take the path of least resistance or least risk.”
Beyond the Cooper fight, Shields claims he does not know the identity of his next regular-season opponent. However, he is enthusiastic about the PFL’s unique competitive structure, as it harkens back to the early, wilder days of his lengthy career.
“I like the idea of fighting six weeks apart,” Shields said, “and fighting twice in one night. It does remind me of the early years, when I’d fight much more often, against anyone.”
Shields is also happy about the PFL’s new broadcast format, in which it has embraced a Thursday night slot on NBC Sports for its regular-season events. He sees it as likely to avoid the kind of head-to-head programming clashes that hampered his last fight, as PFL “Everett” took place the same day as UFC 214.
“My last fight was the same night the UFC was doing Jon Jones vs. [Daniel Cormier 2],” Shields said, “so yeah, I’m sure a whole lot of people missed it.”
Though Shields is realistic about being in the later stages of his competitive career, he is not quite ready to call it a day yet. That should come as little surprise, in light of his willingness to pull up stakes and make bold moves to expand his skill set even as he approaches 40.
“I doubt if I would fight for another five years,” Shields said, “but [Randy] Couture fought until he was 47 or something, so never say never. If I win this [PFL tournament] and the million dollars, it would be tempting to walk off into the sunset and have that really good ending, but you never know.”