Stories from the Road: Ken Shamrock

By Joseph Santoliquito Jun 12, 2016

They eyed up each other backstage, as macho-row guys tend to do when they are all vying for the same thing. The glares were a good way to suppress the spinning anxiety within. The reality was no one knew what to expect or what they were getting into. They were tough-dude lab rats about to be put out on live display for the curious crowd at the McNichols Sports Arena in Denver on Nov. 12, 1993.

There was one, however, who never wavered. He sauntered around with a confident air knowing he would be there in the end, even though what was ahead was a rather dark delta to cross. That was because nothing ever really intimidated Ken Shamrock. It stemmed from seeing and doing almost everything there was available in the combat-sports world. So when Shamrock gathered with seven other fighters at UFC 1-- with Royce Gracie, boxer Art Jimmerson, sumo wrestler Teila Tuli, taekwondo black belt Patrick Smith and kickboxers Gerard Gordeau, Zane Frazier and Kevin Rosier -- he felt pretty good about taking home the $50,000 in first-place prize money.

Instead, what Shamrock got was a piece of history; and in a sense, he was the one who started it.

One cold call by marketing maven Art Davie began a chain reaction, spurred by a thought that came from the pages of a magazine and plenty of moxie. It changed everything about fighting and the perception of mixed martial arts in this country and around the world. In 1993, Shamrock was still in the prime of his career. His entry legitimized UFC 1 and in turn MMA. Shamrock had no qualms about stepping into the murky concept of no rules, no weight classes, in a single-elimination tournament where the matches could end only by submission, knockout, the corner throwing in the towel or a referee stoppage due to a severe injury. He found out about UFC 1 while he was living in Lodi, California. One of his students told him about a flier advertising the event. Shamrock was risking a lot, especially the brand he built for himself as the first Pancrase champion by choking out Japanese legend Masakatsu Funaki. Shamrock thought he was in for easy money at UFC 1, that the $50,000 was his.

“In the earlier days, with the skill sets and the styles, it was a true mixed martial arts and of different styles,” said Shamrock, who today does motivational speaking and lends his name to a few business ventures. “That’s what I saw throughout the whole Pancrase organization. We fought guys who were true muay Thai kickboxers. They had good elbows and good knees. It was a good mix of the world’s talents that we were able to compete against in Pancrase. Things changed through time. You had UFC 1, which I was a part of. Some sports fans understood what it was but not really the extent of what mixed martial arts was.

“No one saw anything like we were about to do, other than what they saw in a [Jean-Claude] Van Damme movie or a Bruce Lee movie, where kicking and throwing and those things were used,” he added. “In reality, you had heel hooks, leg locks, armbars and chokes; those were things that were dangerous, and no one understood that.”

Shamrock founded possibly the most dominant hit squad in the early history of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Called the Lion’s Den, it was comprised of himself, younger brother Frank Shamrock, Jerry Bohlander, Mikey Burnett, Guy Mezger, Tra Telligman, Vernon White and Pete Williams. Through Shamrock and pioneers like him, they built a platform where MMA was able to grow. It still grows today, thanks to the roots the UFC hall of famer planted over 20 years ago -- and some craziness in and out of the cage that he managed to survive.

“I think history is important, and if something doesn’t have a history, there’s nothing for people to grasp,” Shamrock said. “I’m happy with my place in MMA, and I put it on these guys today to know and learn the history. We’re the ones that made the sacrifices early on, though we never considered it a sacrifice, because we loved it. We see where MMA is today. The training is better. The submissions are specific. I love the growth of the sport. I hate to see guys fighting that aren’t going to have money in 30 years. They won’t have the kind of money they need to retire on. They’re putting their whole life into it and they’re not going to be able to make enough money when they’re done to walk away happy. These guys should have made enough money to retire.

“You have to love what you do to become good,” he added. “These guys today I believe do love what they do. These guys have to go in realizing that their bodies are their money makers. If I’m fighting in the main event and that pulls in over a million viewers at $49.99, where’s my one percent on that? Forget about the door, which is over a million. Forget the merchandizing they’re selling and pay-per-view rates coming in. You’re talking $30 million, somewhere in there. These guys aren’t even making one percent of that. You look at it like a business and pretty soon you start realizing, wait a minute, you’re getting screwed over here. Why? Because you want to fight and make $500,000 or $300,000 in a main event. There’s a problem now, because it’s not a business anymore. Now you’re being treated like a slave.”

When Teeth Start Flying

The Shamrock-Gracie rivalry was the first UFC blood feud in history, its foundation beginning with “The Beginning.” Shamrock can remember the frenetic backstage scene, with the fighters popping pads and getting psyched, their hormones kicking up. Everyone thought it was going to be their night. Though when the first UFC fight began -- it featured 6-foot-5, 216-pound kickboxer Gordeau against 6-foot-2, 415-pound sumo wrestler Tuli -- everyone stopped what they were doing to watch.

Again, no one knew what to expect. Some believed it would be comprised of mock fights, like pro wrestling without the storylines, or something overboard like “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome,” without the futuristic muscle cars, bungee cords and large hammers.

Shamrock knew what to expect. He was one of the first Americans to fight in Japan. This was real pro wrestling. Gordeau wheeled around and kicked Tuli. It was done in less than 30 seconds.

“The first fight happens, Gordeau kicks [Tuli] and his teeth go flying,” Shamrock said. “The crowd went quiet, and the guys in the back went quiet, too. I remember someone saying, ‘His teeth just went flying into the stands.’ And I remember someone else saying, ‘I didn’t sign up for this.’ I was sitting with this grin on my face and thinking to myself, ‘This is great!’ No-holds barred. It was what I expected. One of the guys kept questioning why he got involved with it. I don’t remember who it was, but I do remember asking him, ‘What part of no-holds barred don’t you understand?’

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“No one believed that [flying teeth] was going to happen, though that’s exactly what did happen,” he continued. “Guys were getting their asses kicked. The boxer had one glove on, and the kickboxers didn’t understand the ground. No one really knew what this was going to look like but Royce Gracie and myself. That was the thing about that whole event. No one knew what to expect, not the fighters, not the fans, not the guys who put it together. That very first fight set the tone for what we are today.

“If we had anything less than that, I think we would have lost the crowd,” Shamrock added. “People would have crapped all over the event. If it would have been Royce Gracie first, people would have booed it. If it started with Royce Gracie and Jimmerson with the glove, they would have crapped all over it. People didn’t have an understanding of what it was until Gordeau and Tuli showed them. That showed that we’re the real deal. If that fight wasn’t the first one on the card, I’m not sure what we would have today.”

Afterward, Gracie bested Shamrock in the semifinals and then followed that up by beating Gordeau to become the UFC 1 champion.

“For me, the whole experience was an education,” Shamrock said. “I got an education about some of the politics that went on. My understanding was it was no-holds barred, anything goes. Yet they didn’t allow me to wear my shoes. I made a grave mistake in underestimating Royce, though. I didn’t think he was going to do much. I thought I would crush the guy. I already had experience fighting in Japan. I thought the things Royce did were pretty simple. I also didn’t understand the gi, obviously. I didn’t study enough about the gi. I underestimated the fact that [Royce’s] brother put on the show. I underestimated the power of having control of putting rules in, taking rules out, matching up fighters in one bracket so they would get tired when they faced guys in the other bracket. For me, initially, I didn’t care what they did. I thought that I would win the tournament anyway.

“Afterward, that got my mind starting to turn that it wasn’t a fair deal,” he continued. “I felt that [the UFC 1 organizers] were molding the event for somebody, and then I found out it was for Royce. For me, I felt betrayed and they did all the things that they could do to make it into Royce’s favor. They took my shoes away, and I fought without them. Anyone who is a fighter knows what it’s like trying to fight on a slippery surface. They handed out the belt and the new sheriff in town, all of that garbage. It was a great ceremony for them. I saw everything that happened, and it’s then that I took on this revenge attitude and I wasn’t going to let this go. I was going to go after [Gracie] and beat them at their own game. That’s what started that first rivalry. I felt betrayed.

“There’s still resentment there after all of these years,” Shamrock added. “Look at the last time we fought [in Bellator]; he kneed me in the nuts. He was looking right at me when he did it, too. That hasn’t changed. Now we have forces around them where no one wants to admit that they’re wrong. We have commissions, and people like that don’t want to overturn something that was pretty blatant, but they’re afraid to say anything because they missed it.”

Facing Death

In the spring of 2001, Shamrock had to cancel a fight against Ukrainian Igor Vovchanchyn, because he blew out his knee two weeks prior to the bout. Instead, one of Shamrock’s Lion’s Den fighters, Tra Telligman, stepped in to take his place. It was at Pride 13 “Collision Course,” and it was scheduled for March 25, 2001 at the Saitama Super Arena, in Saitama, Japan.

Shamrock is happy he got out of there alive.

“I won’t forget that trip,” Shamrock said. “After I blew my knee out, they said they needed a replacement and I told them I could get someone from my camp. Tra took it on two weeks’ notice. I wanted to work Tra’s corner, but the flight was something I’ll never forget. We went through a hurricane, and this massive weather storm that dropped us about 1,000 feet in a freefall. All the baggage came flying out of the overhead compartments. People were crying. You really thought this was the end. I really thought it was the end.

“We took a detour to this airport up in Alaska,” he continued. “I forget the name of the airport, but we had to make this emergency landing somewhere off the Alaskan coast. There were no lights. There was nothing there. There was nothing you can see. We had oranges for breakfast and got back on the same freaking flight, which had fire and smoke and everything else you can imagine flying out of it. It flew out the next day, and imagine the thought process we all had. They put us back on the same plane, going to the same place. Talk about being afraid on takeoff. Once we get in the air, we land in Japan and the fight has already started.

“I’m wearing the same clothes I had on two days ago,” Shamrock added. “We barely made the fight, and I show up with my hair all sticking up like I’m a cartoon character, as they’re introducing Tra.”

Telligman beat Vovchanchyn by decision.

Here, There and Everywhere

MMA fans still tend to forget that the sport has not been in the mainstream for very long. Fights during the nascent stage could be held anywhere from a high school parking lot to a dingy, smoky, decrepit arena. Other times, the fight could be scheduled one place and be moved to a completely different venue -- in another state. It happened to Shamrock.

Shamrock was supposed to fight Brian Johnston at Ultimate Ultimate 1996 on December 7, 1996 in North Carolina. The problem: North Carolina banned anything associated with MMA.

“They had to take everything down, pack it up, and we went to Birmingham, Alabama, the next day,” Shamrock said. “You had the fighters, the cornermen and the crew to build the cage, all of the equipment. They literally rolled the ring up into the plane. They put the fight on the next day [at the Alabama State Fair Arena] and gave the tickets away for free.

“That’s about as close as I ever came to asking the question: What are we really doing [in the MMA world]? The main concern was that the fighters had to stay focused, with that kind of a move and that kind of a change,” he added. “In the back on my mind, I was thinking, ‘How in the world are they going to pull this thing off?’ They moved the ring and everything, cornermen, judges, equipment, everything we had jammed on this plane. It was actually an amazing accomplishment.”

Shamrock choked out Johnson at 5:48 of the first round.

The Rolling Fat Man

Shamrock has been in the cage with the best in the world and has seen many strange things, but what may trump them all came fairly recently. At something called USA MMA “Return of the Champions” on October 16, 2010 at the Cajundome in Lafayette, Louisiana, Shamrock fought human bowling ball Johnathan Ivey. Shamrock won a decision, but it was what happened during the fight that he still laughs about.

“I remember [Ivey] as kind of a heavy guy; he does this somersault and this twist and this twirl, and he almost knocked himself out,” Shamrock said. “We were standing up, punching and kicking. We separated for a few moments. Then he got up and spun and did this somersault and rolled across the ring. I never saw anything like it.

“I was like, ‘What are you doing?’ I had no answer for this guy when he was crawling around all over the mat like that,” he added. “I mean, what do you do when someone does that? This was around 2010, and it was odd. I say it was odd because today we’re so advanced when it comes to technique and skill, far different from the days when I started. This guy kept rolling and rolling. I thought, ‘Did this guy lose his mind?’ I beat him and knocked down a few times, but that move definitely caught me off-guard. It had no bearing on the fight, other than maybe he didn’t want to take any more punches.”

Not Taking Anything From Me

Each time Shamrock fought, venom filled his veins. He says to this day there is not one fighter he particularly “hated.” He was an equal-opportunity hater. Shamrock is old-school and believes anyone with the courage to face him had to have courage to begin with.

“I had a similar experience with everyone I ever fought. I hated them. I really did,” Shamrock said. “The minute the fight was done, I moved on, but I did come in with the mentality that I disliked everybody that I faced. I wanted to make sure that they remembered me when I was done. I’ve had guys in my career that I really wanted to mess up. One was Tito Ortiz, but as I got older, I got better and grew up a little bit.

“Anybody who stepped into the ring with me was trying to take away an opportunity on how I made a living and being able to have success in life because of where I came from,” he continued. “I came from foster homes and had no order. I grew up on the street pretty much, and fighting professionally gave me an opportunity to be somebody, so I would go into these fights with complete anger and hate. I really came into every fight like that, but the minute a fight was done, I made sure there was no animosity afterward with the person I fought.

“After many, many years I think Tito and I put that aside,” Shamrock added. “We’re not best buddies, but we’re good. We’re OK. I’m different than the other guys. I don’t hang around many people. I’m with my wife and my family. That’s what I’m built around. I don’t have a best fighter friend in the sport.”

Shamrock said the Ortiz feud was born out of the way “The Huntington Beach Bad Boy” treated Guy Mezger after beating him at UFC 19 and Jerry Bohlander after winning on cuts at UFC 18. Ortiz wore a shirt with the words emblazoned across the front that said, “Gay Mezger is my bitch.”

“That bothered me, and that’s where that started,” Shamrock said. “They were grooming Tito to be the next face and they took that fight away from Guy, in my opinion. Yeah, I was sticking up for Guy. No one deserved to be treated that way. Tito put the shirt on, and I told him to show some respect for the organization. Then he flipped me off, and that’s when I entered the ring and it’s where it started.

“There was no apology, and we did what we did,” he added. “Tito and I helped build UFC, and there is no reason we should be pissed off at each other. We crossed paths and let bygones be bygones. We did that. Today, I think Tito is a very sincere and emotional guy. Deep down, I think he’s a really good guy. When we were fighting, we had a job to do and that was to sell the fight. It didn’t allow us to be decent to each other. After all of that was over, we all have painful situations to overcome and deal with. Tito, to his credit, has done that.”

Toughest Fight, Greatest Victory

Funaki and Shamrock have a long history. Funaki taught Shamrock and is considered family. The two fought four times. Shamrock won three of them.

“I absolutely shut everything down when I went to Japan,” Shamrock said. “I would go there for six months and train and be away from the family. I lived there for four weeks, go home for a week and came back to Japan for three more weeks. I knew the Pancrase tournaments would be tough, and I wanted to win. Funaki won the first time we fought. It was my second fight, and we went 36 minutes. It was brutal. He won that, but I beat him from that time on.”

Shamrock submitted Funaki with an arm-triangle choke Funaki taught him at Pancrase “Yes, We Are Hybrid Wrestlers 1” on Sept. 21, 1993 in Urayasu, Japan.

“After that, Funaki told me, ‘Great fight, great job. This is what every trainer wants his students to do,’” Shamrock said. “It’s the same thing I tell my guys, ‘My floor, your ceiling.’ You want your students to be better than you, but beating Dan Severn by [guillotine choke] submission [at UFC 6 on July 14, 1995] was my greatest victory. That, I felt, made me the best, not just the best in Japan or the United States, but I felt like I was the best in the world.”

Shamrock remembers the pre-fight interviews leading up to the Severn fight.

“Dan is not the best interview,” he said. “It’s hard to get Dan. All of the media were talking to me and I was answering questions, and I remember Dan getting up and walking out of the room. To me, that was totally disrespectful what he did. I looked at Dan, and as he was walking out, I remember saying, ‘I was just going to beat you. Now, I’m going to hurt you!’ There was a woman in there and she started screaming, and I said, ‘You know what? You can count on it.’ I ripped his head off. I choked him out in about a minute and 10 seconds (actually it came at 2:14 of the first round). I didn’t see how Dan could beat me. He tried to shoot on me. He couldn’t take me down. He tried to shoot [on] me a second time, and I caught him in a guillotine. I nearly ripped his head off, and he tapped.

“I do have to say I don’t think the older guys get the respect that they deserve,” Shamrock added. “That’s because the UFC is in two parts. You have the [Bob] Meyrowitz time, which were the beginning days, and now you have the [Frank and Lorenzo] Fertittas in the second half. The second half doesn’t want anybody to know there was a first half. There’s nothing focused on the early years, because they don’t want people to recognize that they didn’t start it.”
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