Frank Shamrock: From Failure to Greatest Ever in Two Years

By Lev Pisarsky Jul 20, 2020


Incredible as it is to imagine, Frank Shamrock is either an unknown or unappreciated fighter for many newer MMA fans, simultaneously overlooked and underrated. No doubt much of that has to do with the mutual hatred between Shamrock and Ultimate Fighting Championship President Dana White and White’s refusal to highlight the accomplishments of a fighter who preceded his own time with the company.

For my money, Frank is one of the 10 greatest mixed martial artists ever, the greatest fighter of the 1990s and perhaps the most revolutionary, important pioneer in the sport's history. And yet, just two years before he would finish carving out an imposing mark on the sport, Shamrock was a failure.

Jan. 17, 1997 was the date of Superbrawl 3, a major early MMA event. In much the same way that UFC 1 also served as an infomercial for Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, Superbrawl 3 doubled equally well as one for the Lion's Den, the pioneering MMA team founded by Frank’s adoptive older brother Ken Shamrock. Gushing praise for the Lion’s Den permeated the event, including a long interview with Ken himself, who wasn't even competing that night. That wasn't enough, though; when Lion's Den product Pete Williams won the heavyweight tournament, the interviewer spent more time talking to Ken than Pete himself. Ken of course lapped it up and felt it was his due. Just one of the thousand reasons why he was a poor coach.

The main event of Superbrawl was Frank taking on John Lober. At that point, despite sharing a surname with Ken, Frank was not considered one of the most talented guys at the Lion's Den. Not only was Guy Mezger considered better than him, but so was Jerry Bohlander, a name unfamiliar to most MMA fans today. Frank had some success in Pancrase, winning the interim championship, but failing to become King of Pancrase in two attempts against Bas Rutten, and had left the promotion having lost three of his last four fights, not only to champions Rutten and Yuki Kondo, but to a relative journeyman in Kiuma Kunioku.

People merely looking at Lober's record will see that it stands an ugly 5-9-4 and might conclude he was likely a poor fighter. This is incorrect. For the time, he was a decent guy with solid Brazilian jiu-jitsu skills, ground-and-pound and unbelievable toughness. He was even a pioneer of sorts; his debut fight against Eric Heberstreit at IFC 1 in early 1996 was the first instance I've ever seen of a fighter on the bottom kicking off the cage to reverse position. We take it for granted now, but it was an incredible, original tactic at the time.

Shamrock at that point had average but not particularly good wrestling, largely consisting of a blast double-leg, and some submission skills that relied very heavily on the Pancrase ruleset. His striking was very weak to non-existent.

The fight against Lober started encouragingly enough. Shamrock was taking Lober down at will and easily advancing to dominant positions, but partly based on his days in Pancrase, rather than inflict ground-and-pound, which was heavily limited and discouraged in the organization, Frank went for various low-percentage kneebars and heel hooks that allowed the wily, tough Lober to sweep him. Such submission attempts were far more likely to succeed in Pancrase, where fighters were bare-fisted and wore long leather boots, a combination that facilitated leglocks, than in Superbrawl or most other MMA organizations, where fighters wore gloves and were usually barefoot.

And then, Frank exhibited what was a hallmark of Lion's Den fighters. Halfway through the 30-minute fight, he ran out of gas. At that point, Lober took over, beating Frank with ground-and-pound and even landing strikes standing. Don't let the split decision fool you, as it was a result of the heavy bias the Lion's Den enjoyed during the event. Lober clearly and convincingly beat Shamrock that night.

At that point Shamrock had lost four of his last five fights. Later in 1997, he rightly mentioned his concern about the Lion's Den training methods. In his 2012 memoir, “Uncaged: My Life as a Champion MMA Fighter,” he recounts his brother’s response: "You don't have what it takes, you're not going to be a world champion and I want you to run my gyms for the rest of your life.” That the younger Shamrock didn’t have what it took to be a champion was a sentiment shared by most who followed the sport. Even their adoptive father, Bob Shamrock, took Ken's side in the argument.

Rather than accepting that, Frank broke away and started his own MMA team, initially consisting of him and Maurice Smith and later adding Tsuyoshi Kosaka, called The Alliance. Javier Mendez, future head of American Kickboxing Academy, was also instrumental in developing Frank's skills, especially in the striking realm. In my view, it was the first good MMA team in history.

As part of The Alliance, Shamrock would completely revitalize his game. His striking went from barely existent to excellent for the era. In fact, his stand-up was by far the best of any mixed martial artist who hadn't come from a striking background. His ground and submission games vastly improved too, adapting to the rulesets outside of Pancrase, with better top control, more technical and clean submissions, and powerful, effective striking on the ground, not only from the top but from the bottom. And his cardio, which had betrayed him against Lober? Conditioning became a major strength and hallmark of Shamrock’s, getting into deep waters with opponents after exhausting, drawn-out battles and managing to drown them. Perhaps no one in the sport had better cardio than Frank at his peak.

After a victory over future teammate Kohsaka under Rings rules and a win over Wes Gassawy, Frank would have a fight that would be a turning point for his career. At Vale Tudo Japan 1997, he faced modern-day samurai Enson Inoue, a man every bit as tough as Lober but far more talented, with an excellent submission game and better wrestling. The 207-pound Inoue was also significantly larger, outweighing Shamrock by 13 pounds. The stakes included a title shot in the UFC middleweight division—defined at the time as under 200 pounds—to be contested at UFC Japan the next month.

What resulted was a furious, intense battle that seemed less like a fight for sport or entertainment and more for each combatant's very life. Shamrock would call it the hardest of his entire career. Only 10 months after his loss to Lober, Shamrock already showed a far better, more sophisticated top game, executing skillful ground-and-pound throughout Round 1 instead of losing position with unlikely sub attempts. Early in Round 2, he faced serious adversity, finding himself mounted. Nine minutes into the fight and in a bad spot, it was a familiar situation, one to which he had previously succumbed numerous times during his career.

He did not succumb that night, however, or ever again. Shamrock would stay mounted, absorbing hard ground-and-pound, for five long, agonizing minutes, but when Inoue got too high, Shamrock was ready, scrambling up. What followed was a wild, intense striking exchange. Shamrock was already a noticeably better striker than before, but still far from what he would become, and absorbed many blows to the head from Inoue.

Fifteen minutes in and with both men feeling the effects of the grueling battle, Shamrock's conditioning won out. Having already shown good, technical knee strikes in the clinch early in Round 2, he battered Inoue with knees to the body and head. After a nice punch combination followed by a knee rendered Inoue unconscious—the only way the endlessly courageous man would stop fighting—younger brother and fellow fighter Egan Inoue ran into the ring and shoved Shamrock from behind, giving him the sensational victory.

As difficult as the Inoue fight was, Shamrock would go on to win the UFC middleweight title and defend it in his next two fights, in a grand total of 38 seconds. Against Olympic wrestling gold medalist and hall-of-famer Kevin Jackson, to this day possibly the greatest pure wrestler to ever attempt MMA, Shamrock won the belt with an armbar from his back in 16 seconds. Jackson, of course, had no clue how to defend, pulling back and straightening his arm, the worst reaction one could have. Still, it was a very slick, technical display of submission skill by Shamrock. In his first title defense, against previously undefeated Igor Zinoviev—another woefully forgotten early MMA great and one of the first strikers to have solid grappling skills—Shamrock picked him up and slammed him unconscious in 22 seconds.

Shamrock had at that point completely altered the perception of his career and become one of the biggest MMA stars in the world, all in three fights. People weren't sure whether he could hold onto the title, but his next title defense didn't seem like a serious challenge: a fresh-faced 22-year-old (though Shamrock himself was only 25) by the name of Jeremy Horn.

To everyone's surprise, Horn hung tough with him. Shamrock showcased better striking than ever, with cleaner, faster punches and kicks, but he also began to show a decline in his wrestling that would only get worse over the years. It was likely due to a series of hip and ankle injuries he had suffered in his Pancrase days and which he was starting to feel more and more—interestingly, the same injuries that afflicted Ken and robbed the elder Shamrock of his own once considerable wrestling abilities over time.

Thus, while Shamrock would beat Horn in the striking, Horn had repeated success taking Shamrock down. Shamrock was better than ever from his back, showcasing a shockingly powerful striking game and going for submissions, but Horn was tough and with his BJJ background, survived for a long time. Finally, Frank's superior conditioning once again won out, tapping Horn with a kneebar over 16 minutes into the fight.

His next fight was a rematch against Lober, who had undefeated going into their first meeting a year and nine months earlier, but had yet to win a fight since. That was mostly a function of Lober taking fights in Pancrase, whose ruleset was a bad outlet for his skills.

Shamrock’s one-sided domination of Lober over seven-plus minutes was the most refined example of his striking yet, striking so good that it would earn compliments in the modern-day UFC, never mind back then. He showed off a great mix of punches, kicks and knees, used combinations and had a keen sense of distance; all qualities that were years ahead of his time. Yet one must again note that Shamrock’s wrestling was not what it used to be. Where he had taken Lober down at will in their first fight, in the rematch the few takedowns were all attained by Lober. While Lober had little success with them, and Frank showed a better scrambling game than ever, it was notable.

At this point, already having established a significant legacy in MMA, Shamrock fought Japanese grappling legend Kiyoshi Tamura to a draw under Rings rules. He returned to the UFC less than a year later for the biggest fight of his career, facing Tito Ortiz at UFC 22 on Sept. 24, 1999.

On paper, it seemed like a horrible, almost unwinnable match for Shamrock. Remember how I mentioned Lion’s Den teammates Mezger and Bohlander were considered better than Shamrock just two years before? Both were also bigger than Shamrock and both had been absolutely obliterated and smashed to pieces by Ortiz in his two previous fights. Not only was Ortiz a tremendously large, strong, and excellent wrestler with fantastic ground-and-pound, but he had a keen grounding in submissions, immune to the attempts of either Lion's Den product. Shamrock had much better striking, but how could he possibly keep the fight standing? Never mind that Ortiz visibly dwarfed him, outweighing him by a good 20 pounds on fight night.

What followed was an absolutely masterful performance, to this day one of the greatest fights I've seen. Though he was taken down at will, Shamrock was able to out-strike Ortiz from his back. That was a very tall order, given Ortiz's brutal punches and elbows inside the guard, but he managed it. Incredibly, despite being much lighter and spending much of the fight on his back, Shamrock also demonstrated better cardio. When an opportunity materialized nearly 20 minutes into the fight, he pounced, throwing a barrage of hammerfists and punches to Tito's dome that forced the referee to stop the contest.

To be completely fair, that upset would be impossible under modern-day rules. Shamrock depended on being able to throw strikes to the back of Ortiz's head, which would soon become banned under the Unified Rules, but that's not the main point. Despite a litany of disadvantages and many difficult situations, Shamrock had once again shown the heart and will of a champion to overcome and finish a tremendous opponent, just like he had against Inoue and Horn.

At that point, Shamrock was 5-0 in the UFC and all of those victories had come in championship fights. He had showcased skills and abilities that were years ahead of his time and had changed how fighters approach striking in the guard, whether from the top or the bottom. He was truly a legend, and to me and many others, the best, most complete, and proven mixed martial arts fighter to that point in the sport's history. Yet just two years prior, he had been widely considered a failure, someone whose own brother and coach claimed didn't have what it took and was better off running his gyms. Thankfully for him—as well as the entire sport and its fans—he didn't listen.

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