Eyewitnesses to the event in South Africa say Shamrock knocked Bourke down with a right before injuring his leg during a scramble; Bourke was declared the winner. Really, Bourke didn’t beat Shamrock so much as the accumulated wear of a nearly 20-year fight career did. Look inside his gym bag and you’ll probably find duct tape.
Perversely, Shamrock’s low profile makes him the most high-profile example of a fighter who is hanging on long past the point of reason. There’s the 3-9 record of the past eight years, with only one of those wins -- against contemporary Kimo Leopoldo in 2004 -- having a shred of validity to it. In most of those losses, he was either TKOed or came close to it. Rumors of knee problems may be the reason why he’s barely worked a solid ground game in recent memory. It’s a brutal premise for an athletic career. Imagine Roy Jones hanging on with a crippled right hand.
There are fans who take a very liberal approach to aging fighters: as adults, they should “do whatever they want.” But there’s probably a line that exists even for those permissive types. What’s too much? If he loses 12 fights by TKO? What about 15? What’s the threshold for intervention?
Shamrock’s recent performances make it easy to forget his contributions to this sport. He performed in Japan’s first Pancrase event a full two months prior to the first UFC; he headlined five of the first ten UFC events; he was the first MMA athlete to gain popular recognition with a profile in People magazine and B-movie parts; he helped institute the template for a fight camp with his Lion’s Den; at a time when the UFC was floundering, he set a record buy rate for Zuffa with the grudge match against Tito Ortiz.
But we’re talking about highs during the Clinton administration. Now there’s only a morbid world tour in regional shows, with Shamrock being paraded out as some kind of living relic. But instead of shaking hands and signing autographs, he gets punched in the face. What’s going on?
There’s really no mystery to fighters reluctant to leave the sport. Shamrock could be financially hobbled, but it might not matter much if he weren’t: Chuck Liddell, a millionaire several times over, would take a fight tomorrow. You don’t enter sports if you’re not competitive, and that nature doesn’t leave when your body begins to slow down.
I will, again, urge commissions to consider the damage a fighter has taken in recent bouts and put it on a level with injuries or illness as a contributing factor in refusing them a license. This is not a “safe sport,” as some would have you believe, but one that taxes fit young athletes and grinds older ones. Shamrock would not be cleared to compete if he were blind in one eye, yet slowed reflexes and a lifetime of wear are excused. Something isn’t right.