Monday, April 25, 2011 | 2:05 a.m.
Jake Shields has no illusions regarding the environment at Rogers Centre in Toronto this weekend when he challenges champion Georges St. Pierre for the welterweight title at UFC 129.
“Fifty-thousand people booing me,” Shields, the UFC’s No. 1 welterweight contender, described.
Shields is fighting in enemy territory unlike any UFC fighter has before. UFC 129 sold a record 55,000 tickets immediately. It’s expected that a vast majority of them landed in the hands of St. Pierre supporters.
St. Pierre, who is from Montreal, is beloved in his home country. He’s won the Rogers Sportsnet Canadian Athlete of the Year Award three straight times, beating out the likes of the NHL’s Sidney Crosby in the process.
The raucous ovation from a then-record 23,152 fans for his last fight in Canada, a UFC 124 unanimous decision victory over Josh Koscheck in Montreal, floored St. Pierre. He said he couldn’t imagine what it would be like with more than double the attendance Saturday.
“I’ve never experienced anything like this in my life,” St. Pierre said. “I think we’re both going to be in unknown territory.”
St. Pierre (21-2) was an obvious choice for the headliner of the UFC’s first stadium card. Shields (26-4) worked his way into the event by virtue of scoring a split decision victory over Martin Kampmann in a bout to determine the top 170-pound contender at UFC 121.
Canada has become a hotbed for MMA in the last few years, with multiple UFC events selling out within minutes of tickets going on sale. But UFC could never hold a card in Toronto, Canada’s most populated city, because the sport wasn’t legal in the province of Ontario until late last year.
As soon as that news came to fruition, UFC began planning the biggest event in its history with St. Pierre at the center. St. Pierre, who has won eight fights in a row and 13 of his last 14, admits the attention heading into this bout is more taxing than any he’s experienced in his career.
“If I would fight Jake in a basement where nobody is watching, maybe the pressure wouldn’t be that bad,” St. Pierre said. “Sometimes, it’s having people around and the entourage that makes it worse.”
Shields is counting on his own entourage for support. Two of his training partners at Cesar Gracie Jiu-Jitsu in San Francisco are fighting on the preliminary card, as Nate Diaz takes on Rory MacDonald and Daniel Roberts challenges Claude Patrick.
A handful of other people from his gym are also making the trek to the Great White North.
“I’m going to be surrounded by like 20 guys coming up with us,” Shields said. “So, it’s not going to feel like I’m in such hostile territory because I’m going to have my group with me.”
St. Pierre sounds more concerned about the outside factors surrounding the mega card than Shields. St. Pierre said it would be “heart-breaking” if he couldn’t pull off a victory.
St. Pierre, whom many consider the top pound-for-pound fighter in the world, isn’t talking like the massive 5-to-1 favorite he is in most sports books. Although he’s appeared in 10 championship fights against seven different opponents, St. Pierre says Shields presents the most daunting task yet.
“I strongly believe that if I would put Jake against any of the other contenders that I have fought before, Jake would win the fight,” St. Pierre said. “That’s why this fight, this bar is raised higher than it’s ever been before. I’m not lying about it.”
St. Pierre said he had watched Shields’ career closely and had picked him to win when no one else was multiple times, such as last year’s Strikeforce middleweight championship bout against Dan Henderson. Shields won that bout as a 4-to-1 underdog.
Shields has notched 15 straight victories, but he arguably hasn’t faced the same level of competition as St. Pierre with only one career fight in the UFC. At the least, Shields isn’t used to the level of media demand that comes with fighting in the octagon against someone like St. Pierre.
“I looked at my schedule up there and they have me getting up at 7 in the morning doing interviews, which is 4:00 my time,” Shields said. “So this seems kind of ridiculous to me.”
As a seven-year UFC veteran, St. Pierre said he knew what to expect during fight week and had learned how to manage his time.
Shields knows he's at a disadvantage in that regard, but he's not ready to pencil in fighting on St. Pierre's home turf as a drawback.
“It’s one of those things that it could possibly motivate me to fight harder,” Shields said. “It could screw GSP up, maybe the crowd going crazy might make him nervous. You really don’t know what the factors are going to be.”