Is Ken Shamrock the Babe Ruth of MMA?
He may have never won a UFC event when it was in its tournament format, and it can not be said that he was the dominant figure Royce Gracie was in the sport. But there has probably never been a more popular or enduring performer in the history of mixed martial arts than Ken Shamrock, who has literally spanned every phase of the sport’s development.
Shamrock wasn’t his given name; it was Kenneth Kilpatrick, and he grew up in Georgia under somewhat less than ideal circumstances. Young Ken was a rambunctious youth; he was constantly in trouble, and after several unsuccessful attempts to straighten him out, he was shipped off to California, where he became a ward of the Shamrock Ranch, a boys group home run by a gentleman with an uncanny ability to turn lives around by the name of Bob Shamrock.
It was there that Ken showed an affinity for boxing and wrestling, in addition to other sports. But as an aggressive type, and as he showed in scuffles that took place at the ranch, where Bob had boys settle differences by putting he gloves on, Ken was a fighter – regardless of what the discipline was going to be.
It was clear he was headed in that direction, but not many casual fans are aware that an early wrestling accident almost derailed everything. Ken got his neck broken, and had to have a metal plate inserted at the base of his skull. All the doctors wrote him off as far as future competition was concerned, but the youngster, who was adopted by Bob and assumed his surname, would have none of it.
As he was finding himself, Ken Shamrock found himself in Toughman contests, and working as a bouncer in a nightclub, until one night he went a little too far and almost killed one drunk and disorderly patron. That was enough bar work for him. Afterward he enrolled in wrestling school and began the slow climb up the ladder.
His point of entry was South Atlantic Professional Wrestling, a small circuit in the Southeast. Ken did not earn a lot of money there, but there was experience to be gained and contacts to be made. One of those contacts told him about an outfit in Japan that might offer a much better opportunity. And so Ken Shamrock was off to the Universal Wrestling Federation (UWF).
UWF action was something that would be rather unfamiliar to American wrestling fans. It had a lot of the characteristics of shoot fighting, in that many of the moves, strikes and holds that were made during the matches were real. But the outcomes were predetermined, meaning that eventually the competitors had to get around to the scripted ending to crown the winner.
Shamrock enjoyed this, and became a popular and formidable competitor in the year he was with the UWF, but the idea of continuing in a “worked” event, even one that contained as much realism as the UWF, lost its appeal because it did not being him all the satisfaction in the world. he figured it was time to make a move.
It was then that Ken Shamrock took the first step toward what would eventually lead him to worldwide fame in the UFC.
THE “KING OF PANCRASE”
Ken Shamrock wanted to really get his competitive juices flowing, and that wasn’t happening in the Universal Wrestling Federation. In fact, he was so starved for competition that he even did some more Toughman contests in the U.S.
There was another form of fight promotion that was taking shape in Japan, however, and it seemed perfectly suited to Shamrock’s interests and his abilities. The action that was taking place in the UWF was “worked” in the respect that the winners were determined ahead of time, but if they weren’t, it would very much resemble what we see in the mixed martial arts world today. An organziation decided to complete the evolution from the UWF-style combat and take it over to the “real” world (actually, the founders were from the rival Fujiwara Gumi wrestling organziation)
It was called “Pancrase,” which even SOUNDS painful. Its name was derived from “pankration,” a competition introduced in the Greek Olympics (648 B.C.) that reportedly combined aspects of boxing and wrestling. It had no weight classea and no time limits, and a fighter won when he either knocked out or brought about a submission.
In Pancrase it was somewhat similar, with some modern variations: there were no weight classes, fighters could escape situations by grabbing the ropes (which wound up improving a lot of people’s “games”), and the fights would be contested in very free-form fashion. Fighters could use essentially whatever was at their disposal; punches were allowed under certain parameters, kicks were permitted, and there was room for ground fighting. All of that was right up Shamrock’s alley.
Best of all for Shamrock, the fights were not worked. he was recruited intot he organization, and it wasn’t long before he knew he had found his calling. Because of the varied talents the contestants had to possess, and the ground fighting aspects, conditioning was going to be crucial, and that is where Shamrock got a big edge. he has always been known for his chiseled physique, and his training methods have sent many a workout partner out the door in pain, tears or both.
It was not easy; in fact, it was grueling. But right off the bat, Shamrock showed dominance in the new promotion, being crowned th “King of Pancrase” in the first competition of its type. Pancrase became a big-time hit in Japan, and Shamrock was a big hit right along with it, becoming one of the most popular athletes in sports-mad Japan. He graced magazine covers, he starred on TV shows. He was hugely in demand, with seemingly limitless possibilities.
This is not to say there weren’t other worlds he did not seek to conquer. One day while reading Black Belt magazine, Shamrock read an advertisement for something called the Ultimate Fighting Championship. From what he was reading it seemed like something very similar to what he had already been competing in. Since he thought he was perfect for it, and the first prize was $50,000, he figured, why not? Shamrock applied, and, with the promoters searching high and low for fighters the first time around, he was accepted.
While Shamrock figured there was nothing to lose, he had, by the same token, been around the block before. The presence of fly-by-night promoters was not uncommon; Shamrock had no idea of the stability of the event and had suspicions that the organizers might tell him he had to lose to someone intentionally (which would have resulted in his immediate withdrawal). So he decided to keep a commitment to fight in a Pancrase event in Japan just three days before the first UFC event. As a result, he was terribly jet-lagged when he arrived in Denver.
Considering that, what he did in UFC I had to be classified a Herculean effort. But it was just the beginning.
SHAMROCK, THE BEAST AND THE LION’S DEN
Ken Shamrock had gone 35 minutes in close quarters with the legendary Royce Gracie and had come away “even steven.” Although the action in the bout was not well-received by the fans, it nonetheless served to link him forever with Gracie in mixed martial arts history. Gracie may have been the Ty Cobb of MMA, while Shamrock was the Babe Ruth. On the heels of his standoff with Gracie, Shamrock returned in UFC VI, scheduled for the unlikely locale of Casper, Wyoming, to compete in another “superfight,” this time against the wrestler who had emerged victorious in UFC V, Dan “The Beast” Severn.
Severn did not bring any fancy titles or credentials to the UFC. He did not even have a background in martial arts. In fact, he had applied for the first UFC competition and was not accepted. But he had a world of amateur wrestling experience, and was learning his trade on the pro circuit. The UFC people, including Art Davie, had seen him in a pro wrestling match that resemebled a shoot fight, and was duly impressed. Severn had used his wrestling skills to great advantage to steamroll his way through UFC opposition. Now it was a different level he was facing – Shamrock.
There was animosity between the two, and Shamrock, truth be known, did not really think Severn was in the same class he was, because he did not really think his opponent’s reprtoire was nearly as well-rounded. That probably turned out to be the case.
Severn was tough, but his downfall came during an exchange where he had Shamrock backed against the fence of the octagon. Severn made the decision that he was going to go low and take Shamrock down by his legs. Right then Shamrock grabbed him around the neck and applied a choke hold that quickly ended things. The Shamrock legend had gained more momentum.
Shamrock would come back in UFC VII in yet another superfight, this time against Russia’s Oleg Taktarov, the winner of UFC VI. Shamrock had a little trouble obtaining this assignment, as he had to get out of a commitment to Pancrase (where he was still competing) to do so. This time the result, like that against Royce Gracie, was a 35-minute draw.
Taktarov was a fighter of tremendous will; a former training partner of Shamrock’s at the unique camp he had set up in Susanville, California which he called the “Lion’s Den.”
For those who have some familiarity with boxing, perhaps the best way to describe the Lion’s Den was that it was roughly comparable to the atmosphere around the Kronk Gym in Detroit, which is to say that when one walked through the door, it was all-out war, every day. Ken took students into the program who were deadly serious about training and competing, and generally prepared them for Pancrase action in Japan. Obviously some of them found their way into the UFC. If you wanted to join Ken Shamrock’s team, you had to, as a warm-up, do 500 sit-ups, 250 push-ups, 500 squats and 500 leg lifts. Then you had to get on the mat with the man himself. And that just qualified a fighter to be trained. The best went off to Pancrase.