I remember reading a Football Outsiders study about how to tell which teams were best equipped for playoff success based on their margin of victory over their opponents. As it turns out, the best indicator for playoff success was the ability to blow out bad opponents. The logic is very simple: if a team has trouble beating losing opponents, how is it going to succeed when it faces some of the best teams in the league?
I think the same principle applies to MMA. If a fighter has difficulty beating an inferior opponent, that serves as a red flag warning against success against tougher competition. I remember watching Yoshihiro Akiyama take on Katsuyori Shibata, who was 2-4 at the time. For me, Akiyama should have defeated Shibata in short order, but instead, he struggled a little bit, and needed 6:34 to submit his losing opponent. OK, I thought, maybe Akiyama just had a bad night. But then Akiyama took on 1-1 Masanori Tonooka, and again needed over six minutes to win the fight. Sure, Akiyama is winning by submission in these fights, but these are very low-level opponents. If Akiyama wants to be successful against tough competition, he needs to utterly smoke opponents like Shibata and Tonooka.
Sure enough, after making his way to the UFC, Akiyama is 1-3, and the win was a very close one over Alan Belcher. At the same time, the UFC hasn’t done him any favors with their matchmaking. After the win over Belcher, Akiyama was matched up against Chris Leben, who is an appropriate step up from Belcher, and Leben won by submission in what was a very exciting fight. So Akiyama should take a step down after the loss, right? Well, instead, Akiyama took another step up, and lost a decision to Michael Bisping, followed by another step up in competition to take on Vitor Belfort. After another loss, will Akiyama finally be matched against a proper opponent?
The answer is no.
If anything, with Akiyama’s drop to 170 pounds comes an even tougher opponent than Vitor Belfort. It’s a different kind of opponent – I don’t think Jake Shields will ever score a KO reminiscent of Belfort – but it’s a tougher opponent.
I’m not sure how people feel about Shields after his fast KO loss to Jake Ellenberger, but if they feel Shields is done as a top fighter, I would have to disagree. Ellenberger has about as much KO power as anybody in the welterweight division, and I’m not the kind of person to write somebody off after one or two losses. Jake Shields is still the same fighter who’s beaten Dan Henderson, Yushin Okami, Carlos Condit, Robbie Lawler, Paul Daley, and Mike Pyle. He won’t go down as the best welterweight of all time, but he might be one of the top five.
SILVA PREDICTION: JAKE SHIELDS (80.90) OVER YOSHIHIRO AKIYAMA (45.64)
I don’t know what the UFC is thinking with this one, unless they have something personal against Akiyama. Even if Jake Shields is unable to get him to the ground, and I think Shields will, Shields is probably the better striker. Either way, Shields is just a much higher-level fighter than Akiyama is, and I’ll be very surprised if he doesn’t win this fight.