Ken Shamrock reflects on his legacy
This is number sixty-seven in Jack Brown’s series of interviews with MMA fighters and personalities, and for this particular interview, we’re honored to feature UFC Hall-of-Famer, multiple time champion, and MMA legend, Ken Shamrock. Ken was next scheduled to fight fellow MMA veteran, Ian Freeman, on July 27th, at UCFC 6, in England. However, in this interview, conducted on July 2nd, Ken revealed that the fight was off. Ken discussed his career and explained why he had to pull out of this fight. Please enjoy the conversation below.
Jack Brown: What was your first experience with martial arts/combat sports, and how did it become more than just a hobby for you?
Ken Shamrock: I grew up in a group home. I became a ward of the court. So most of the time, it was more about defending myself and my survival. When I actually got interested in something that was somewhat controlled was when I was in college and I actually did a “Toughman” contest. It was probably the first legal fight, or sanctioned fight, that I ever participated in. I did three of those, and I won all three of them. I think that was kind of when I knew that I had something. It grew from that point on into pro wrestling, and then the pro wrestling over in Japan led into the Pancrase Organization, which didn’t start out as that, but that’s where I ended up at. I didn’t start until I was really late in life as far as any of the controlled fighting.
JB: Ten years ago, you and Royce Gracie became the first inductees into the UFC Hall of Fame, on the tenth anniversary of UFC 1. This upcoming November will mark the twentieth anniversary. Though your fighting career began before UFC 1, what do you recall about November 12th, 1993, the night the UFC was born, and how prepared do you feel you were at the time?
KS: I was a little more prepared than most just because of my background. But I thought for months leading up to it, from my experience, that it wasn’t really going to happen. I thought they were going to come to us and tell us, “This is how it is really going to work.” It’s hard to fathom, but back in those days, nothing like this would ever be sanctioned. You just had to go through so much to get something to happen. Bareknuckle, guys going in the ring with no rules and no time limits, just wasn’t going to happen. I was fighting in a controlled environment over in Japan, which was something like what we see now in the UFC. We wore pads, had open hand strikes to the head, but all the submissions on the ground were there. So, when I was approached about doing it and they said, “Bareknuckle, closed fist, you can kick the guy on the ground, and just anything goes,” my first thing was, “Yeah, okay,” kind of chuckling. “Yeah, sure. Let’s see where it goes,” but the whole time I was not believing that it was really going to happen.
I remember that three days prior to going to Denver, Colorado, to participate in this, I had defended my title that I had captured over in Japan. I was the first “gaijin,” foreigner, to capture that title. So I went over and defended my title, and I jumped on a plane with three other Japanese guys, who were going to work my corner in this thing, with the idea that we really weren’t going to do it, that something was going to come up and we were going to say that we didn’t want any part of this. But leading up to the fight everything stayed the same. There were no changes. It was no holds barred. There were no rules. There were no time limits. And I remember looking at this cage the very first time, thinking to myself, “This is right out of the movies. This is like gun-slinging.”
So for me, it was almost like a relief because I came from the streets. I grew up in that environment. To go bareknuckle one on one with somebody was a relief. Not having to worry about somebody jumping you, or getting stabbed or shot, to me it was like one on one, in the ring, no weapons, this is great! This is frigging great!
I remember that I was really excited after that very first fight when I saw Gerard Gordeau kick the Sumo in the face. That was the first fight and it really set the tone that, “Hey, you know what? This is the real deal.” I remember in the locker room, other people didn’t realize how real that this could get. Even though I came from that environment, and I knew how dangerous things could be, I thought that this always came with a weapon or getting jumped. One on one was just kind of like, “All right! Great!” So when I first saw that fight, and Gerard kicked this dude in the mouth and his teeth were flying into the front row, I think that set the tone for people to really truly believe what was happening. If it would have been me or Royce Gracie that would have led those fights off, people would have booed. People would have been like, “Boo! Go home,” because they didn’t understand the game of submissions. But I promise you that they understood the idea of somebody on their hands and knees getting kicked in the face.
JB: You fought in so many memorable matches in the UFC, Pancrase, Pride, and other organizations. You were a champion and a superstar. But when you think back, what are just a few of the fights that you are most proud of?
KS: I would have to say a lot of different ones because I think that, fortunately, I was put in a lot of different situations where I made a difference and that’ll never ever change. It’s something that will go down in history, and the more people that discover how things really were, and how the money rolled in, and who were the guys that really made things happen, I have complete confidence that my name is going to come up a half dozen times.
I believe that over in Japan, I was the guy that really rolled out Pancrase. I was the guy that really gave them a name. Here in the United States, they came over to the United States, and they became an organization that people recognized that elite fighters came from. And I was the champion of all the elite fighters that came from there.
Then when the UFC came out, I was in the very first feud, Royce Gracie and me. I was the very first one to stop Royce Gracie. And we look past that the numbers at that time, that would be generated when I fought, were just record-setting numbers.
When I went over to Japan, and I went into WWE, I set a tremendous amount of precedence there with the way things are done today. You don’t see one hold. You don’t see one person grabbing a wrestling hold. You see people doing submissions over and over, left and right, ankle locks, all these things that weren’t there before I came in there. And I changed the way people looked at wrestling. I made it edgy. I was very fortunate to be in there at those times and be able to have those opportunities to do that. Then when I went from pro wrestling over into the Pride organization, it ended up exposing Pride to the United States. Pride had already had a pretty good name, but I was able to go over there and get it bigger exposure, coming from the wrestling world.
I had an opportunity to go back into the UFC, and, at that time, Tito Ortiz was their champion. There were only about 30-40,000 buys. They were dying. Literally, I had Dana White begging me to come back. But he wouldn’t pay me. So I made a deal with Dana. I said, “If I bring in over 100,” which I knew I could do. “If I bring in over 100,000 buys, you pay me the difference of what those numbers are.” And we made that agreement, and I went and fought Tito Ortiz. We blew it up. I mean, literally, mainstream, “Best Damn Sports Show,” “Best Feud of the Year.” Everywhere people recognized UFC when I came back. So after that fight, Dana White came to me and said, “Well, we did 99,000.” I believed him. I just couldn’t believe that somebody would lie to somebody that just saved their ass. Come to find out, years later, he not only lied to me, he did more than that. But those are things that I have to deal with and as the years come will probably be more exposed as people dig and find out what really goes on. I’m completely comfortable with who I am, what I’ve done, and when the smoke clears, people will realize what I’m talking about. The UFC owes a lot of people.
With me coming back and being able to blow those numbers up, it gave them the opportunity to keep going in that direction. I think for my first fight we did 150-160,000 buys, something like that. Second one, we did 700,000. And then the next one, I believe that it was free on TV, and we did Major League Baseball playoff numbers. So I was there at a great time and I didn’t do it myself. There’s got to be components everywhere for people to be able to get the exposure and have the opportunities, but when I was given those opportunities, I made the most of it.
JB: In addition to being a great fighter, you have also coached many great fighters. Who are a few of the fighters that you believe that you impacted the most in their careers?
KS: I could go on and on. There are all kinds of people that I gave opportunities to. Some guys didn’t really make it, but they’ve gone on to be great trainers. Matt Hume, out in Seattle, you know I started over in Pancrase. Maurice Smith, who became a UFC champion, coming out of Muay Thai, I helped him get started in this business. My brother took over from there. Obviously, my brother, who, with my father, we nurtured him and took him out of prison and basically put him with me and trained him and had him get ready. Jerry Bohlander was the very first middleweight champion in the UFC but gets no recognition whatsoever for being the first middleweight champion. Guy Mezger, the second middleweight champion was out of the Lion’s Den, and out of Dallas, and in my opinion is somebody who should be recognized and be in the Hall of Fame. And of course third in that middleweight class was Frank Shamrock, who took the title the third time. And there was myself being the first heavyweight champion or whatever they want to call it.
There are so many guys that aren’t recognized that have had opportunities, guys like Pat Miletich, Mikey Burnett. If one judge had thought that he saw a punch go one way or the other, you would have had Mikey Burnett as the first lightweight champion. There were all kinds of opportunities that have just been thrust right in front of me. I was able to train Mark Coleman for a fight, being able to get him ready. I actually trained Maurice Smith for his fight against him when he beat Mark Coleman. Another one was Vernon White, who even though he didn’t start out quick, really had a lot of great fights under his belt and won a lot of good fights. There are a lot of guys out there, and those are just guys that I remember. Probably everybody in those beginning days I had something to do with getting them started.
JB: Part of what has helped you to be such a popular and magnetic draw in MMA and professional wrestling, is that you really know how to pick a fight. In fact, you’ve been so convincing over the years that it’s hard to know what fighters you really disliked. But, if you could please, who were some of your opponents in MMA that you never had to pretend to dislike?
KS: I think all of them. It goes back to how I grew up. There has got to be something about you that I dislike, and I will find it and I will pick at it and pick at it until it makes me so angry I just want to rip your head off. It’s just kind of the way that I was built. I can’t go out and really put a thrashing on someone that I like. So even though I might have been hanging around with a guy, like Oleg Taktarov, who I trained, it was hard. He took a fight against me and I asked him not to. But he did, and I said, “Well you know what’s going to happen.” And I couldn’t get up enough to go in there and really hurt him. Even though I beat the bloody pulp out of him, I couldn’t put him in a submission hold because I knew if I did I’d have to break his arm or break his leg because he wouldn’t tap. So I refused to put him in a submission hold and I just beat the crap out of him. Those are things that I think I had to stay away from. And when people are asked if they ever saw me train, 99% of the fighters never saw me train because I had a very small group of guys around me that I kept protected. I felt like I fought much better not knowing other people that I had to fight.
JB: Over the last seven years since you last fought in the UFC, you have been a part of several other organizations and MMA has continued to grow in popularity. What is your opinion of what the sport has become and where it is headed?
KS: I think that it’s the same as boxing and every other professional organization. It starts out pure. It starts out fun. And then it becomes a business. Marketing and big money come in and then you get the people that are out for that money. And then you get the people that come in there and they grab the guys and they train them and they take a little of the money. The guys love to fight so much that they look past what they should be making and what they’ve really earned or deserve to make. They look past that because all they care about is fighting. All they care about is what they love to do. The $100,000, or the half a million dollars, or even the 1.5 million dollars, they look at and think, “I’m getting paid what I love to do.” But then everyone else around them is making thirty million dollars or a hundred million dollars, although they’re the ones bringing people in the door. This world has been that way forever and it will always be that way. The guys that aren’t in the ring fighting and doing the work, they are just thinking about how to take that money from you. They’re the ones that are always going to make the money because that’s their job. That’s what they’re doing. Fighters fight, and to try to get the people around you to manage your money, and get you the most that you can get, a lot of times they fall short with that because a lot of times they’re looking at their dollar signs. They need to make money right away so they’ll take 1.5 million as opposed to nothing. When a guy looks at fighting in the main event and the organization is pulling in 120 million dollars, and the guy gets paid a half a million, it is a problem. But it’s not one that’s new.
JB: You are next scheduled to fight fellow MMA veteran, Ian Freeman, on July 27th, at UCFC 6, in England. This will be your first MMA fight in two and a half years. How did this matchup come about, what do you think about your opponent, and how will it be to have your nephew, Jeff Shamrock, fighting on the same card?
KS: Well that fight’s not happening. Unfortunately, like we just got done talking about promoters and things of that nature, that is exactly what happened. We put a contract together and we made a deal. They came back to me, probably after about four weeks, with the contract that we agreed upon and said that, “We don’t want to do that contract.” Ha-ha. I was just like, “Wait a minute. What did you say?” It’s like I’m from another world sometimes. It’s like, “You made a deal, but you don’t want it no more. You want to pay me less. Okay. That sounds great. Let’s just do it then.”
So that’s the stuff that I have to run into now that I’m kind of independent and doing my own thing. A lot of times I run into that, where people, what they do, which is what they’re doing on this, they put my name on the card. They try to sell tickets as much as they can. Then they’ll come back and say, “Well, listen, we can’t pay you this much,” and think that I’m going to go ahead and fight. Even if I don’t fight, they’ve already got those ticket sales and they’ll just blame it on me. They’ll say, “Shamrock is a no-show.”
Now I’ve got my work cut out for me to get that out there so that I can let people know that this was negotiated a long time ago, and these guys are in breach of contract, and they’re the ones not holding up their end of the bargain. So, like I said, now I have to do my due diligence to let my fans and other people realize that, hey, this is the kind of stuff that goes on. Most of the time I wouldn’t do that, but in this situation they keep selling tickets with me supposedly going to be there to fight. Then when I don’t show, they’re going to blame it on me.
JB: Wow. This hasn’t been officially announced though, right? I couldn’t find that. I specifically looked to make sure you were still on the card, and I couldn’t find anything saying that you weren’t.
KS: No. There’s no advertising it. They have twenty-five days of breach of contract as of today. So I was like, “What’s going on? You’ve announced that I’m still fighting. You know I’m not fighting. You’re still telling the people that I’m fighting. And you’re in breach of this contract.”
JB: Is your nephew, Jeff, still fighting on that same card?
KS: No. No. No. There’s no way that I’d send him. England, they don’t have a sanctioning body so that’s the reason why we’ve done this escrow, where they put the money into escrow. We know that when we get to England these contracts aren’t valid because there’s no sanctioning body. So these contracts are not legal. So that’s why we did it that way, and now they’re, which we didn’t think they would do because it’s stupid business, but they’re trying to pull that now.
JB: So what’s left for you in your fighting career? What is left for you to accomplish and what other fights interest you?
KS: I’ve accomplished everything. I think I’ve probably accomplished more than I ever thought I could. I’ve been in a lot of great fights. I’ve been in a lot of history changing events. It’s something that I think that the more that this sport grows, and the more that people dig into the history of it, the more famous I’m going to become. It’s just a blessing that I had those opportunities.
JB: What else do you enjoy outside of training and fighting, and who are the individuals who have supported you most in life?
KS: I love golf. I love playing golf, and I play in some charity organizations. That’s probably one of my favorite hobbies. I like to play cards. I enjoy that. But I tell you, the one thing that I’ve really started to move in the direction of, that will probably be my next career, maybe not career, but something I want to do with my life, is I want to work with troubled youth. I’m trying to build a home, over a million dollar home that will be able to house troubled youth. I want to be able to give them opportunities that I didn’t really have when I was a teenager. Once I got into my dad’s home, and he adopted me, he gave me those opportunities. I want to turn around and pass it on. That’s going to be something that you’ll see down the road in the next five to ten years. You’ll see that I’ll get more involved in it.
I would definitely say my family has supported me most. Oh, wow, I mean there were years and years of training and dieting, but I didn’t really have to diet that much, but just the years of training, going through injuries, missing birthdays. Boy, I tell you, my family has been so supportive, so strong, and that’s the thing that holds me together right now. When you look at athletes that are aging, a lot of them have ruined their marriages and their relationships with their children and their families and their parents. But family is what I have now. I’ve cherished that throughout my career. I made my mistakes when I was younger, but I tell you what, I wasn’t going to make those same mistakes again. My family is very strong and very supportive of everything I do now.
JB: Last question, Ken, and thank you so much for taking the time to do this. It has truly been an honor. What does it mean to you to be a fighter and how much do you enjoy it?
KS: That’s a good one too because I don’t think I know of any other way to be. I started off in this thing at a really late age, but I played football, I wrestled, and I was always very active. But I’ve never really held a real job. I went to college and I did all that. Then I went into the Marine Corps for a little bit. Then I got out. Then I had the opportunity to do some pro wrestling and that led to Japan. So, man, I’ve been pretty blessed in my life that I don’t know any other lifestyle other than being an athlete. So I’d have to say that it is probably the air I breathe.
The bad thing is that there are going to be a lot of people angry at me. There’s nothing I can do to make people happy. All they want to do is see me get in the ring and fight. So when I say that the fight is off, I’m the one calling the fight. When it comes to “money,” that’s a nasty word because people think we get paid enough as it is. You can’t get people to see that this is a business. That’s the reason I could stay in it so long and do the things I love to do, because I’ve always treated it as a business. I love it. I’m very fortunate to be able to do what I love to do for a job, but at the end of the day, this is a business and you have to make money. I’m going to live for another fifty years, and the money that I made in the first part of my life is not going to last me for another fifty years.
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