I come not to bury Ken Shamrock but rather to praise him.
Sure his MMA career has been pretty sad since, oh 2004, if not 2000. But I'm here to talk about the man's glory days.
There's a reason people are still tuning in to watch him fight long after he's ceased to be any good. Its because he was once not just good, but great.
He did as much to build modern MMA as any fighter.
And that's including Royce Gracie.
From 1993, when he headlined the first ever Pancrase event, to 1996, when he fought in the UFC's second Ultimate Ultimate tournament, Shamrock went 23-5-2.
For a generation of fans, Shamrock might as well have invented moves like the guillotine choke, the heel hook, the ankle lock and groundNpound.
I'll let Ken describe his two proudest moments:
MMAMemories.com: Of all your fights Ken, what would you say were the finest performances of your career when you were at your very best?
Ken Shamrock: "Well, there’s a couple of ‘em. I think memorable moments, ones that will always be remembered and ones you could never take away - those are probably my finest ones. And I would say the first time in Japan when they held the two-day tournament to crown the first King of Pankration tournament. And it was a two-day tournament and I fought guys from Brazil, Holland, Australia and Japan. And I won that. And they crowned me the first champion of that organization. And that’s something that will never go away. I will always be the first crowned foreign champion in that Pancrase organization over in Japan.
"The second one that probably ranks right up there with this one - in UFC where they held the super-fights belt, the very first single fight championship before they had tournaments and you never knew who was going to win it because you could come up hurt or you had an easier bracket, so they came up with the single fight - super-fight they called it. And I was the very first MMA heavyweight champion of the world in the United States. The very first one. No one will ever take that away."
Here's a good highlight video of Shamrock's UFC glory days, .
Much more fun, including more videos in the full entry.
As I've outlined before, MMA in Japan grew out of pro-wrestling. One man, Antonio Inoki, was obsessed with testing wrestling as a "real" fighting system and not only set up a bunch of freak show matches against boxers and judoka, he also mentored a whole generation of Japanese pro-wrestlers who wanted to go even further.
Ken Shamrock fell in with two of those guys, Masakatsu Funaki and Minoru Suzuki, and together the three of them left UWF and started Pancrase. Pancrase was an attempt to have "real" wrestling matches with no predetermined outcomes. It wasn't quite MMA but it was close enough that Sherdog counts the matches as MMA.
Highlights of the First Ever Pancrase event: Yes, We Are Hybrid Wrestlers Sept. 21, 1993. Shamrock vs Funaki is at 7:50 into the clip. Bas Rutten's fight is at 3:53.
In his first fight, Shamrock choked out Funaki.
Shamrock still considers that his toughest win:
MMAMemories.com: Who was the toughest man you ever faced?
Ken Shamrock: "I’d have to say Masakatsu Funaki because he was the one that trained me. I worked with him quite a bit over in Japan. And it seemed like whenever I fought him he was always like one-step ahead of me. I think we fought five times, I beat him three out of the five times. But he always kinda knew what I was doing. So it was very, very difficult to train for him because, obviously, he kinda taught me everything I knew pretty much. It was a tough time to get in there and fight him because there was nothing I was gonna show him that was new."
Only a few months later, Shamrock traveled to Denver and fought in the first UFC. Where he was the first fighter ever to win a fight by submission, beating Pat Smith by heel hook. He then went on to lose to Royce Gracie by gi-choke in the semi-finals. If you've never seen that fight, watch it now (video link). It's 1:43 of back and forth grappling that blew my mind back in the day and had me burning out the heads on my VCR rewinding it over and over again trying to understand what was happening.
For the next couple of years he went back and forth from the UFC to Pancrase. Losing a rematch to Funaki (video here). Beating Bas Rutten:
Fighting Royce Gracie to a draw (short clip here) at UFC V and basically running Gracie out of the UFC. Beating Dan Severn to take the UFC title (video here), drawing Oleg Taktakov in a fight that would have been a very lopsided decision if they'd had decisions back in the day (video of the over-time here).
He also beat Kimo Leopoldo in a fun little fight at UFC 8 (video here).
All of those early UFC fights are well worth a quick look and give you a good idea why even those of us who rooted against Shamrock respected his abilities and still wish we'd gotten to see him test himself against contemporaries like Rickson Gracie, Marco Ruas, Tank Abbott, Kiyoshi Tamura, Tsuyoshi Kohsaka, Conan Silveira, and Mario Sperry.
And yeah, I know he was involved in some of the dullest fights of all time (his rematchs with Royce and Severn) and that some of his matches in Pancrase were likely works (his loss to Suzuki in may 1995). But his accomplishments far outweighed those negatives.