Yoshihiro Akiyama hopes that a drop to welterweight will help to rejuvenate his career as he returns to fighting in Japan for UFC 144. (Photo by Koki Nagahama/Getty Images)
The third bout on Saturday's fight-packed UFC 144 broadcast features two fighters on losing streaks at the hands of some of the UFC's best fighters as Jake Shields fights Yoshihiro Akiyama. For the winner another shot at a fringe top-ten fighter likely awaits, while the loser may well find himself out of a job.
Akiyama's addition to the UFC's middleweight division was met with great anticipation by fight fans, as Sexyama was considered to be one of the best fighters outside of the world's top promotion. Since moving over to the UFCAkiyama has struggled greatly, though has curiously seemed to fail upward in prior bouts, seeing a steady improvement of opponent ranking in each of his prior four bouts.
Akiyama entered the UFC on a three fight winning streak, which followed a string of three fights in which he saw both a win and a loss turned into no contests as a result of illegal actions. For his debut fight Akiyama took on Alan Belcher as a strong favorite. Akiyama struggled with the American, however, escaping with a contentious split decision. In his next bout Akiyama faded late in a fight with Chris Leben, getting submitted by a triangle choke, then was paired with Michael Bisping where he dropped a unanimous decision. Riding a two fight losing streak, Akiyama was still paired up with Vitor Belfort, who one fight prior was vying for the UFC middleweight title. Belfort made short work of Akiyama, handing Akiyama his third straight loss and prompting a drop in weight.
Strengths and Weaknesses
Akiyama has struggled to truly establish his winning style for the upper level of the sport since signing with the UFC. On both the feet and on the mat Akiyama is a serviceable opponent, and has multiple finishes by both TKO and by submission, however his UFC tenure has been marked by two large problems -- lack of potency in his attack and woeful cardio issues. Although Akiyama showed toughness in his bouts prior to the Belfort fight, continuing to press forward through brutal fights, the proven ability to press on necessitates that your style has also left you open to taking a lot of damage. Taking punishment can also be one of the most draining aspects of the sport, and accordingly Akiyama has shown a trend of fights getting progressively harder for him as the fight drags on into the later rounds.
Akiyama is the big betting underdog, and also carries with him a +2 bonus for successfully picking him in the pick 'em game. This is with good reason. Although Shields himself is a flawed fighter, the holes in Akiyama's game match up dangerously with Shields' strengths. If Akiyama is to win it will likely be with an early knockout, however you are better suited staying away altogether, as it is more likely that Akiyama fails to put Shields away and, when the fight grinds on and Akiyama wears out, he finds himself on the wrong side of Shields' top game.
Jake Shields analysis after the jump.
Like the opponent who will be standing across from him Saturday, Shields was expected to be a strong force in the UFC right out of the gate. After winning the Elite XC and Strikeforce welterweight titles, Shields moved up to middleweight and bested Dan Henderson to claim the middleweight belt, earning him a spot high on the pound-for-pound rankings before his UFC struggles damaged his stock.
Shields put together a winning streak of 14-consecutive wins prior to his signing with the UFC in late 2010, having gone unbeaten for nearly six years. In his first fight for the UFC, Shields was paired with Martin Kampmann. The two fought a close fight, and has become a bit of an unfortunate routine for the Dane, Kampmann dropped a controversial split decision to Shields. The win for Shields set up a title fight against George St. Pierre. Although Shields surprised many by winning a late round in the stand-up with a one-eyed St. Pierre, his inability to score a takedown led to a comfortable decision win for the champ. Shields was then paired with Jake Ellenberger, and after jokes in the lead up to the fight where he insinuated he didn't even know who Ellenberger was, Shields was knocked out quickly by the division's current #1-contender in waiting.
Strengths and Weaknesses
When Shields is able to take his opponent down and work from top position, he is a very difficult fighter to get out from under. Dan Henderson learned this the hard way when he gassed after an explosive first round against Shields, failed to stuff takedowns in the late round and was grinded on for a unanimous decision defeat. Unfortunately for Shields, he appears to be in an inverse situation as Melvin Guillard -- it's not that anybody really thinks he isn't spending any time training striking, it's that it clearly isn't something he is able to pick up at an advanced level and even after all these years his stand-up still looks remedial. This is further complicated by a lack of a truly dominating takedown game, as he often telegraphs his shots. In his UFC run, this inability to force opponents into his world has troubled Shields, who has succeeded in just 4 of 22 takedown attempts in the UFC.
Shields is the prohibitive favorite, and a near must-pick for the pick 'em game. While his fantasy line of -315 is prohibitive, in the pick 'em game this fight seems too well-suited to Shields strengths to not take the American fighter. As Shields showed against Henderson, he is more than capable of taking advantage of his tired foe to drag things to the mat. Once there, he should be able to grab hold of Akiyama's neck and tap his opponent late in the second round.