by Mick Hammond – MMAWeekly.com
What do you do if you’re a former champion in one of the longest running MMA shows in Japan and have taken much of the last year off to concentrate on grappling tournaments? You enter yourself in one of the year’s biggest MMA tournaments in hopes of making a statement to the fight world that you’re back and you’re a force to be reckoned with.

That’s the situation Jake Shields finds himself in heading into the upcoming first round of the Rumble on the Rock tournament on January 20th in Hawaii. Shields, the last American fighter to hold a prestigious Shooto title, will be returning to bigtime MMA competition against Dave Menne in a showdown of the two of the best ground fighters in the world.

Recently during final preparations for this fight, Shields spoke to MMA Weekly to discuss his year, training with a UFC Champion, and his goals for 2006.

“It wasn’t a real busy year for me in MMA,” admitted Shields of his 2005. “I was mostly just doing Jiu-Jitsu and helping other guys get ready (to fight), but I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better over the last year. I spent a lot of time working on my striking and getting my ground together.”

Jake continued, “Overall I won a lot of big submission matches and the only the thing I lost was a really close match to (Pablo) Popovitch (in the semi-finals of Abu Dhabi). Other than that I won every Jiu-Jitsu tournament I did, the one MMA fight I did and everything else.”

Shields’ return to major MMA comes in a path of most resistance as he faces off against Dave Menne, a veteran of over 30 fights and the first Middleweight Champion in the UFC, but Shields doesn’t appear to let Menne’s credentials wane his confidence in the least.

“I’m expecting him to come in shape and ready for war,” said Jake. “But I’ve just been training too hard and I expect to knock him out or submit him. I’m feeling on right now, I’m peaking at the right time and I’m ready.”

Menne will be coming down from his normal 185lbs to make the tournament’s 175lb requirements, whereas Jake will be stepping up from the weight he has competed at for the majority of the last couple years in Shooto, 167lbs. According to Shields the possible size difference isn’t something that worries him, in fact he’s been bulking up lately in preparation for the match.

“I’ve been working with a strength trainer,” admitted Shields. “About a month before Abu Dhabi (in May) I started with him and my strength has been going way up. I’m feeling so much better at 175lbs than at 167lbs. I’m not worried about giving up size, I’m feeling strong at this weight.”

Over the last year fighters such as Takanori Gomi and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua have put on added muscle between fights have had a hard time compensating for the physical demands having more size puts on their frame compared than what they are accustomed to. Shields however sees no problem with his weight gain and has already compensated for it.

“I’m feeling fast and I’ve been working extra cardio,” explained Jake. “A lot of guys when they gain weight and their cardio goes down, it’s a common thing, so I’ve been doing a lot of extra sprints and all sorts of new cardio drills.”

As for strategy against Menne, Jake has been working a lot on the aspect of the fight game he’s not know for, his striking, and he’s been doing so with a current UFC Champion and a top striking coach in Southern California.

“I’ve worked on a lot of stand-up for Dave.” said Jake. “I know he’s a good wrestler, hard to take down and has decent stand-up so I expect a lot of the fight to take place there. Obviously the ground is probably still my strongest point, so I wouldn’t mind taking him down. I think I can finish him pretty fast on the ground if I can get him there, but I’ve definitely spent a lot of time working on my stand-up. I just got back from San Luis Opisbo where I was working with Chuck Liddell and John Hackleman on my power punching and stuff.”

Shields is known for having some of the best Jiu-Jitsu around, being a student of Cesar Gracie’s for many years. When asked if he had any opportunities to take Liddell down in training and show him a thing or two on the ground, Shields admitted it’s a lot harder than it sounds.

“I was trying [laughs], but we kind of separated stand-up and groundwork,” explained Shields. “We were sparring with takedowns but once we got in on a leg we kind of stopped. I got in on his leg a few times but definitely got stuffed a lot, he’s not an easy guy to get in on.”

While Jake has big goals for himself this year in MMA, his focus is squarely on his task at hand, even if there seems to be a coming explosion of prospects on the horizon. “I’m signed for the entire tournament, but I think I can do other things, I need to review my contract, but I’m getting other offers. It sounds like a bunch of things going on soon with everything going on in California. But right now I’m just worried about this one fight and take it from there.”

Jake further commented, “I want to win this tournament, that’s my main goal, my main focus. The second round is coming up a little over two months after, if I do take something in between it’ll just be a tune up or something easy. I want to win the tournament, and hopefully get a shot at BJ Penn in the UFC or Pride, whoever is tough over there.”

Over the past year, despite not having competed much in front of a major MMA crowd, Jake’s reputation as a great fighter has grown and he’s finally started to get the respect that many felt he’s deserved for quite some time. “I think it’s slowly coming in. A lot of guys are coming in to train with me and the word is definitely getting out in California. I think it hasn’t really gotten out in the US yet, but I think the tournament will definitely show everyone that I’m here.”

Shields concluded, “I want to say thanks to my sponsors, Bet Zeus, Tapout, NoGi, and Fairtex. I want to thank the fans for all their support. I think 2006 is going to be the year for me. I’m going out to the tournament and put it all on the line and hopefully take it. It’s definitely going to be a year to be watching me.”