||12-23-2012 02:51 PM
Still reeling from father’s death, UFC’s Jake Shields struggles to find his way
The first time Jake Shields heard that his father was dead, he heard it as if it was a matter that was already settled, which it wasn't. Not yet.
The more he thinks about it now, the more he's realizing that it still isn't, and might never be, and maybe that's the way it has to be when the most important person in your life vanishes before you even completely understood why he was so important to you, or how great a void he would leave behind.
It started at his home in the Sierra Nevada mountains, and really, it probably should have ended there, but sometimes the people who show up to help don't know when to stop helping, which is how it was with Jack Shields. When it happened, he was on the phone and the person on the other end heard an abrupt silence, the kind that usually means a cell phone has just cut out, except that Jack was on a landline and the call was still connected. The person on the other end didn't hear anything else. Jack was 67, had been diagnosed with congestive heart failure a year earlier, and when that catches up with you, according to Billie, his wife of 41 years, "Everything just drops out all at once."
Billie found him after she'd come up from the basement. Her granddaughter called to her, pointing at where Jack sat slumped over in his chair by the phone, asking her grandmother, "Is Pop-pops OK?"
"And I took one look at him, and I knew he was dead," Billie said.
She grabbed him and shook him. She yelled to try and get him to snap out of it. She called in the EMTs, and they hooked him up to the machines – "resurrected" him, as Jake, his youngest son, would describe it later – and whisked him away to the hospital. Still, when Jake got the call from his mother that day, as he was on his way to the gym to train for a UFC bout that was less than three weeks away, she didn't say his father was sick or in the hospital or clinging to life.
"She just said, 'Your dad's dead,'" Shields recalled.
Except that he wasn't, not technically. Hooked up to machines in the hospital, Jack could be kept alive almost indefinitely. But when the family gathered together, it didn't take them long to decide that he wouldn't have wanted this. Not Jack, the poet and musician, the man who, in the 1970s, had moved with his wife from San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury scene out to Ina May Gaskin's famed Tennessee commune – known simply as The Farm – where his three boys were all born, far from doctors and hospitals and medical interventions of any kind. This wasn't how he'd want to cling to life, they knew.
"So we pulled the plug and sat there and watched him die," Jake said.
And that's how he lost his father, his mentor, his manager, for the second time that day. Less than three weeks after that, Shields stepped in the cage for his first fight without the man who had made his entire career possible in dozens of different ways. He had no idea what he was in for.
The kids at the end of the dirt road
To understand what the loss of his father meant to not only Jake Shields the person, but also Jake Shields the fighter, you have to begin back here, in the house near the edge of the Jesus Maria Canyon in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Shields was born on The Farm in Tennessee, but his parents came back to California not long after he arrived on the scene, and this is where he grew up, miles from the nearest town – Mountain Ranch, Calif., population 1,500 – which wasn't much of a town to begin with. Most of the time it was just Jake and his two older brothers running around together in the wilderness, figuring things out for themselves.
The only problem was, aside from the time they spent with each other, the boys didn't have much interaction with other kids. Their mother homeschooled them until junior high, and it wasn't as if they were surrounded by neighborhood children. It was Jack's idea to get the boys started in wrestling, mostly as a way to socialize them. Jake was 9 years old when he started, his mother recalled, "and he just loved it."
The older he got, the more obsessive the youngest Shields boy got about the sport. He was intensely competitive, at times overly serious, and he didn't typically work well in group situations.
Even now, he said, as a 33-year-old man, "I get frustrated with other people if I don't think they're giving it their all. That's why I really liked the one-on-one competition of wrestling. In wrestling or fighting, it's only me." But that's not completely true. While he may have been by himself on the mats, it was his father who first put him there. It was his father who woke up early and made the long drives to take him to one distant wrestling tournament after another. Sometimes they'd be gone all day; other times it was all weekend. Even through the difficult teenage years, wrestling was the bond that held father and son close.
"It was like that through middle school and into high school," Shields said. "Other kids were out partying, and I'd be spending the weekend with my dad at wrestling tournaments."
When Shields went off to college – first at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo, and later at San Francisco State – his father logged hundreds of miles in the car just to make sure he was there to see his son wrestle. When Shields started to get more serious about a career in MMA, his father initially tried to keep his distance. If not for what happened in Japan, he might have succeeded.
The way Jack Shields explained it to me when I spoke to him for a story some six months before his death, his son had accepted a fight in the Shooto organizations against Hayato "Mach" Sakurai in December 2002. The promoters didn't expect this baby-faced kid from California to beat their former welterweight champ, whose only career losses at the time had come against Anderson Silva and Matt Hughes. After Shields won a decision, Shooto wasn't sure what to do with him. A few months went by, and he wasn't getting any offers for another fight. His father had managed some bands back in the 60s, even put together a local music festival or two, so Shields asked his dad for help.
Jack made a few calls and, sure enough, that May his son had a fight. At that point he asked his mostly retired father to take over full-time as his manager, but Jack wasn't sure it was the best thing for his son. Surely, he said, there must be someone in the city who knew this business better. He was all the way up in the mountains. What did he know about negotiating fight contracts and securing sponsors? Jake decided his father might be right, so he sought out other representation. About six months later, he sent his father a copy of a contract he'd been offered, just to get the old man's take on it. It was "terrible," according to Jack. He trashed the whole thing and wrote out a new one on the spot. This is how he became his son's manager.
"When he saw how the sport was, saw how I was having trouble finding sponsors or negotiating fights, he wanted to help," Shields said of his father. "He started helping me here and there, then slowly did it all. I know in sponsors I started making a lot more than some of the other guys I knew. I was the only fighter he managed, so he put all his focus on helping me."
He was also someone Shields knew he could trust. He didn't have to worry about where the money was going or how it was being sliced up. He just went to his parents' house and picked up his checks. When they disagreed over the direction of his career – which happened occasionally, according to Shields, though not often – "I knew his advice was what he really thought was best, not just something he was saying because he thought it would make him some money."
When his contract with Strikeforce expired after Shields had successfully defended his middleweight title against Dan Henderson, he made no secret of the fact that he wanted to move to the UFC. His father wished he'd played that one "a little closer to the vest," he said later, but once his son's mind was made up, he set himself to making it happen. A little over a year later, Shields was fighting Georges St-Pierre for the welterweight title in front of 55,000 people in Toronto at the highest-grossing UFC event on record.
Looking back, it might have been more than Shields was ready for at the time. According to his coach, Tareq Azim, along with the title fight came the "leeches."
"Suddenly, there's a lot of people who were never around who start showing up," Azim said. "I think some people saw that opportunity with such a huge pay-per-view event in Toronto, and they saw it maybe as an opportunity to market themselves through Jake. The guy is so humble, so kind, and he's so non-confrontational. He's so supportive of everyone else, and he doesn't want to tell people no sometimes. But it was a zoo at the time."
Once Shields was finally in the cage with the UFC welterweight champ, the pressure made him too passive and overly cautious, he said. He couldn't quite get comfortable in the fight, couldn't get going early on. The next thing he knew it was too late.
"It's the kind of thing you've been dreaming about for years, and then suddenly it's happening," Shields said. "There's all these people watching, it's my first UFC title fight, and it's definitely a shock. It becomes surreal."
He lost the fight via decision – his first loss in 16 fights and nearly seven years. His coaches urged him to look at it as a learning experience. Now he knew what it was like to be the main event of a huge UFC event. Now he knew how quickly five rounds could slip by. This could only make him better. He resolved to regroup and come back with a win that September in a main event bout against Jake Ellenberger at UFC Fight Night 25 in New Orleans. Training was going well, right up until that morning in late August when his phone rang while he was on his way to the gym. It was his mother, and there was no way he could have been prepared for what she was about to tell him.
Fighting through the tears
jake-shields-jack-shields.jpgIt's easy to look back now and say he shouldn't have gone through with the fight that September. That's the advantage of looking back at the past instead of living it as the present. Once you know how everything turns out, the answers seem obvious.
It didn't take long for Shields to make his decision. He was going to fight, he told his mother. His father would want him to. And if he didn't do it now, after all the work his dad had put into securing sponsors and handling his other duties as his son's manager, then all the effort of his father's final days would have been for nothing. He had to fight.
"When he first said that I was like, are you sure?" said his mother, Billie. "He said yes, because Jack had already done all the work. This is what he was doing. Literally, when Jack died he was on the phone with the last sponsor. It happened that quick, within a matter of moments."
Looking back now, Shields can't be sure whether returning to the gym right away was a strategy for avoiding his feelings or working through them. He'd spent so much of his life pouring blood and sweat onto mats. It had been a constant since he was 9 years old, so he returned to it now in search of clarity or distraction or both.
"All I knew to do was go back to the gym and keep training," he said. "At the time, I didn't realize the kind of stress that can put on your body. I think I was trying to pretend like nothing happened."
When he told his coach, Azim, that he intended to go through with the fight on Sept. 17, 2011 – less than three weeks after his father's sudden death – he got a reaction not so different from the one he'd heard at home.
"I didn't think it was a good idea at all," Azim said. "But I thought it might be a way to help Jake work through the situation, so I supported his decision. He's a grown man. He's been damn successful with all his other decisions, but I definitely thought he should have taken some time because I know how important his father was in his life. On top of Jack being Jake's manager, he was also his hero. He was a very special man."
You go back and look at Shields' old fights, and it's impossible to miss Jack, standing in his corner and posing next to him for grinning post-fight victory photos. Tall and skinny with the long gray hair of the committed, lifelong hippie, he's the one who looks like he doesn't belong in a gaudy T-shirt covered in sponsor logos. What you wouldn't guess is that he's also the one who negotiated the deal that paid his son to wear them, which is why he had no problem sporting one as well.
When trying to decide whether it was a good idea to press on without his father, and so soon after his death, the problem for Shields was that, in the past, this would have been something he discussed with his father. Jack had always been the one who helped him decide what was best for his career. Here was a perfect example of the kind of decision they would have made together.
"So then it's like, what do you do?" Shields said. "Who do you talk to? I think I tried to use fighting as a way to work through it, which looking back was probably the wrong thing to do. But in that situation, you don't know what's a good idea or a bad one. It's not like you've ever been there before."
He passed the next couple weeks immersed in training, trying to ignore the little physical signs that his body was under more stress than he realized. News of his father's sudden passing had spread throughout the MMA world, so it was as if everyone he encountered had pity in their eyes. That, according to his mother, takes more of an emotional toll than people realize.
"For me, I was home, and I had people staying with me, but I found that I didn't want to go out where I had to go see anyone who might come up to me and talk to me about it," she said. "It was two weeks before I even went to the store. Him being down in the city, he had people coming up to him constantly and giving him their condolences, which, you know, everyone's intentions are good, but it's a lot. When he went to fight it was like that all week, with everyone coming up and pulling those emotions forward."
Shields' family traveled to New Orleans with him for the fight with Ellenberger. They were there for support, his mother said, but, "Myself, I was in a daze the whole time."
Shields thought he'd been dealing with everything relatively well – or at least succeeding in putting off dealing with it – but once he arrived in New Orleans on the week of the fight, he said, "That's when it really hit me."
"I had just kind of showed up to the fight, no manager or anything," he said. "My dad was my manager and was in my corner for most of my fights, and I was just so used to him always being there. Then when I showed up to fight, and he wasn't there, it was just such a shock."
Is that why things went badly almost right away in the fight with Ellenberger? Is that why his takedown attempts were so easily shrugged off, leaving him lunging into a Thai clinch that all but begged for Ellenberger's knees to find his face? Is that how he ended up facedown on the canvas in the first minute of the first round? There's no way to know. Shields refuses to use it as an excuse. Ellenberger beat him, he said, and that's all there is to it. It was the most lopsided loss of his career, and at the worst possible time.
"The first couple months after, that was the hardest part," Shields said. "My dad had died, then I lost that fight. My back was giving me trouble, I think at least partly from the stress of all that. I just went through a couple months where – I'm not really a depressed person – but I was really, really depressed. I just didn't know what to do next."
Putting the pieces back together
For a while he moped, he wallowed in depression, he wondered if the world had ended. That's how it goes for a while, and then, gradually the fog begins to lift. When it did, Shields eventually confronted the task of searching for a new manager. No one could possibly give him what his father had, but someone had to negotiate his contracts and sign his sponsors. Someone had to do all those little things he didn't realize he'd relied on so much until no one was doing them.
At first he signed with Glenn Robinson's Authentic Sports Management, which felt like the right choice at the time, he said. But then Robinson sent him out to Florida to train with his team there, and nothing about Florida suited him. There were no shortage of excellent training partners, Shields said, but it felt like a state full of strip malls. It was so different from northern California, from where he'd grown up in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. He knew he wouldn't stay long.
After taking much of the rest of 2011 to regroup, Shields bounced back in February of 2012 with a unanimous-decision win over Yoshihiro Akiyama, and then in August he followed it up with another decision victory over Ed Herman in Denver at UFC 150. Just when it seemed like things were turning around, however, Shields announced that he'd tested positive for a banned substance in Denver. The commission in Colorado changed the result of the Herman bout to a no-contest, fined him $5,675, and suspended him for six months. According to Shields' current representatives at Paradigm Sports Management, the terms of a settlement with the Colorado commission include a nondisclosure agreement, which prohibits him from even disclosing which banned substance he tested positive for.
"I definitely want to talk about that," Shields said. "I mean, I wasn't shooting steroids in my ass or anything. I can tell you that. It was a mistake I made, a misunderstanding, and I think you can tell from the six-month suspension rather than a year that they realized it wasn't something I did on purpose."
If anything, Shields said, the mandatory time off may have been "a wakeup call." It forced him to reevaluate how he was training and whom he was surrounding himself with. It made him confront his own mistakes. It slowed down the constant pace of training camps followed by fights followed by more training camps and more fights. Maybe it even forced him to feel some things he'd been avoiding, and to come to terms with all that he'd lost once his was no longer around.
"I don't know how much even Jake realized it at first, but Jack's presence through all of that – from wrestling to fighting and everything else – that was something," his mother said. "All those little things that that gave Jake, those aren't there anymore."
The 16 months since his father's death have been a struggle to not only realize and accept that, but also to find new ways of living with it. Before it happened, the inevitability of his father's death was a concept. The old man was getting older. He'd had some health issues, but he had plenty of good years left. They all knew that and maybe even took it for granted, right up until it was no longer true.
"Even down the line it still hits you," Shields' mother said. "You get that feeling like you have to go cry for a minute."
Shields isn't exactly the type who cries easily, but when he talks about his father now, you can hear it in his voice, that gentle trembling that forces him to slow down and breathe. He didn't realize it would be like this once his father was gone, but how is anyone supposed to know? How can you explain to the people who are watching you on TV exactly what a man like that meant? Even if you could put it into words, there's no way to make them understand the weight of that loss. It's been more than a year and three fights since it happened, and Shields isn't even sure he understands it. He's still trying to get through it, which is hard enough.
"My dad put that motivation in me early, that if you want to be good at something and you want to be successful, you have to put the work in," he said. "Now I feel like I just have to keep going, like time's running out."