MMA History XXI: The Amazing UFC Championship Run of Frank Shamrock

Since Frank Shamrock officially retired from fighting on Saturday, I thought I'd go ahead an revive my long slumbering MMA History series with a special all Frank Shamrock installment. It's oddly fitting that Frank's retirement was utterly overshadowed by the defeat of Fedor Emelianenko's first ever defeat on the same night because Frank's career, storied as it has been has been constantly in the shadows.

As I wrote a year ago:

Its easy for newer fans to sleep on just how great Frank Shamrock was at his peak. There are several reasons for this:

  1. He fought at the beginning of the dark ages of the UFC. They were still on PPV but just barely. So many fewer people saw Frank's glory days than saw the Royce Gracie/Ken Shamrock era or even the Don Frye/Mark Coleman period.
  2. His biggest fights have never been released on DVD in the states (track down the Australian versions on EBay).
  3. He walked away from the sport at his physical peak (age 28) and barely fought for the next ten years. He almost signed with PRIDE but never stepped in the ring there.
  4. Many casual fans confuse him with his adopted brother Ken Shamrock.
  5. Most of his biggest wins were over fighters who either never lived up to their potential (Olympic gold medalist Kevin Jackson), retired after losing to Frank (Igor Zinoviev) or went on to suffer long declines that make them seem less impressive in retrospect (Enson Inoue, John Lober).
  6. Finally, his feud with Zuffa has caused them to write him out of the official history of the UFC. Don't hold your breath waiting for Frank to be inducted in the UFC Hall of Fame although no fighter deserves it more.

Dave Meltzer writes:

Shamrock started in the Pancrase organization in Japan in 1994. It was the first organization that popularized the sport in that country. Starting out in the shadow of adopted brother Ken Shamrock, the top fighter in the company, Frank briefly held the Pancrase championship and had legendary battles with the likes of Bas Rutten (video), Yuki Kondo, Masakatsu Funaki and Allan Goes.

While it is basically erased from the UFC version of the history of the sport, Shamrock's run as champion from Dec. 21, 1997, through relinquishing the title on Sept. 24, 1999, was one of the most impressive runs in company history.

He won the championship by beating 1992 Olympic wrestling gold medalist Kevin Jackson in 14 seconds with an armbar. He followed with a 22-second win against Igor Zinoviev, at the time the other major champion in the sport, with one of the most devastating slams in UFC history. His final UFC appearance, against Tito Ortiz, still is considered the greatest match of the UFC's early days (video). Giving up 25 pounds in the cage, he survived three rounds of ground and pound with movement on the bottom that gassed out his far bigger and stronger opponent.

From my second ever post on Bloody Elbow (if you click through you can read me bashing Frank pretty hard for his 2007 era antics):

He was the first great fighter to be more than one-dimensional -- equally dangerous on his feet or on the ground. And more importantly he fought smart. Where his adopted brother Ken would come in to a fight with a one-move game plan and be stymied if something went wrong -- like Dan Severn refusing to go for the takedown -- Frank adapted.

His range and his brains exposed the weaknesses of even the best athletes in the game at the time. Shooto champ Enson Inoue was known for his dominating BJJ game, but Frank used the "TK guard" to survive being mounted by Inoue for nearly an entire round before baiting Enson into a fight ending brawl. Gold medal Olympian Kevin Jackson didn't know submissions and Frank armbarred him in 16 seconds. The fierce Russian Igor Zinoviev had really bad takedown defense and 22 seconds later Frank had slammed him out cold. Jeremy Horn surprised Frank and dominated through the regular period (video), only to fall for a sneaky kneebar in the overtime round -- Frank's pancrase background came in handy there!

Then he had his revenge match, John Lober had out-muscled and out-meaned Frank in their SuperBrawl match-up (video) and he was talking major trash before their UFC Brazil rematch. Frank just flat whipped his ass. Threw him around the ring, beat him standing and on the ground and in the end threw Lober's threat to "beat him down until he won't want to get up and take anymore" back in his face.

Frank's glory years reached a fitting climax when he used his superior conditioning and ring generalship to wear out Tito. Tito had thrived on beating smaller opponents by getting the take down and then punishing them when they tried to fight to their feet. Frank refused to play that game. Frank conceded the takedown, went to guard and when Tito tired in the late rounds, Frank exploded to his feet and put the hurt on.

It's impossible to convey how thrilling it was to follow Frank Shamrock in his glory days. Not only did he put together one of the most impressive championship runs in UFC history, he did it by dramatically beating a string of opponents in different ways. There were thrilling upsets (Kevin Jackson, Tito Ortiz), revenge matches (John Lober), come from behind pull it out of nowhere submissions (Jeremy Horn), blink and you'll miss it quick matches (Jackson, Igor Zinoviev) and an epic beatdown (John Lober).

Rooting for Frank Shamrock during that period was the most thrilling sports fan experience of my life, matched only by watching the 1976 Oakland Raiders championship season as a seven year old following his first football season. Thanks for the memories Frank, maybe someday the UFC will realize that honoring your accomplishments adds to their glory as well.

I should also mention Frank's innovative team The Alliance. After beginning his MMA career with brother Ken Shamrock's Lion's Den, Frank left and joined up with Maurice Smith and Tsuyoshi Kohsaka to form The Alliance. Here's Frank talking to Cageside Seats about the first multi-discipline fighting camp in MMA and a little bonus about his falling out with Dana White:

You formed the Alliance with Mo Smith and TK, was that a major game changer?

100% The truth is Ken had limited knowledge about training and athletics and most of it came from wrestling and football. I was never taught how to do cardiovascular training until I met Maurice Smith. He was like you gotta get your heart rate up to a certain level and build your cardiovascular system. I was like "whoah! that's amazing stuff." The truth is that we were all fighters but there was limited information available. As athletes in our sport we were not very developed. A lot of people think I was on the cutting edge of mixed martial arts and yes I was but I was also on the cutting edge of developing as an athlete as well as training the techniques. Maurice brought the striking and the cardio and the inside fighting and TK brought the active ground game, a different kind of ground fighting that was position based but also submission based. The three of us were just like this weird melting pot where everyone else was fighting to keep their style intact, we were making a new one and also creating a new level of athlete which was me for some time.

How much of it was Maurice Smith changing everyone's preconceptions about MMA when he won the UFC title?
I think a lot of it was that and I also think a lot of it was, you know, we kept showing up as a team. Not only Maurice winning the Extreme title and winning the UFC title. He literally beat everybody up. He was a kickboxer then we kind of replicated that a few years later with me. We kind of cemented the idea that everything works, nothing works for long, you just keep improving your body and your machine.

What led to Dana White hating you so much that you've been erased from UFC history?
For me it was just business. The business was very young and dangerous business for both parties. They invested a lot of money and didn't really know the product. They invested heavily in this market and came up short for the first few years. My brand was well established and I was taking it out of the sport and I was working on making it a household name. When we met it was very bad time for the two of us to get in bed together. I already had a plan. I was going to be the Bruce Lee of MMA. I wanted to bring athleticism and honor into the sport. That was my mission and that's where I was going. Their mission was to have me fight for them. And I couldn't get them to see my bigger vision and to see the long term plan. At the time Dana was not a very accomplished businessman and he took it personal. I took it personal that he took it personal. I'm very vocal about what I like and what I don't like. I don't think a giant monopoly controlling all the talent and everything in the whole sport is good for business. I helped build Strikeforce because I see the future and there's plenty of fighting to go around and plenty of talent.

Some HL videos, animated gifs and more on Frank's biggest ever win in the full entry and talk about a couple of other fights from the period that mattered.

Strikeforce_fedor_vs_werdum_medium

HL Reel of Frank Shamrock's greatest hits from his UFC championship era:

Here's Dave Meltzer's write up of Frank's greatest win, his defeat of Tito Ortiz at UFC 22 (video here):

Shamrock weighed in at 198 pounds fully clothed, and after getting off the scale, pulled a thick book out of his pocket, so he was really about 195 pounds. Ortiz weighed in at 199.9 pounds, the maximum allowed at the time in the weight class. By the early afternoon of the fight, he was 217, and he was between 220 and 222 when he stepped into the cage.

With five inches and about 25-27 pounds weight difference, the two men looked to be two weight classes apart.

The first two rounds saw Ortiz easily take Shamrock down. Shamrock's movement on the ground was such that he was able to avoid most of Ortiz's ground-and-pound. During the second round, Shamrock was busier from the bottom punching Ortiz's ears, and Ortiz was having trouble getting clean blows in.

The third round was the turning point. Shamrock scored with several low kicks but Ortiz took him down once again. Shamrock again threw more blows from the bottom, but couldn't get off his back against his much stronger foe. Ortiz delivered a hard knee to the head when knees on the ground were still legal, opening up a big cut over Shamrock's left eye.

Ortiz then stuck his fingers into the cut to attempt to spread it, again, at a time when such a maneuver was still legal since it had never been done in UFC so nobody thought to ban it (it was banned after this fight).

Shamrock was bleeding heavily, but Ortiz was huffing and puffing at the end of the round.

As the second show under the 10-point must system for scoring, Shamrock had lost all three rounds, although it was just as clear to the crowd the fight had turned around and Shamrock was likely to win.

In the fourth round, Shamrock's low kicks resulted in Ortiz's knee being bright red with welts. Ortiz still used his reach and hurt Shamrock with jabs, but Shamrock's low kick were doing more damage. Ortiz got the takedown, but was tiring and Shamrock reversed him, unleashed a barrage of punches, and Ortiz went for another takedown. Shamrock caught him in a guillotine and started squeezing, dropped the hold, then started dropping elbows and punches, and Ortiz tapped at 4:45 of Round 4.

Here's an unusual one -- Frank went to Japan between his rematch against John Lober and his defeat of Tito Ortiz and fought RINGS star Kiyoshi Tamura to a draw. RINGS had a different rule set, it was closer to Pancrase than anything else -- no punches to the head standing, but kicks were allowed and no striking on the ground. At the time I didn't consider it MMA, but Sherdog counts it:

And here's Frank slamming Igor Zinoviev into retirement at UFC 16. From my UFC 16 post:

Coming in to this event, no one expected Frank to take out Igor Zinoviev quickly. Igor had been the first to beat a top BJJ black belt in a major event in the states (Mario Sperry). Igor had DESTROYED Enson Inoue -- a fighter who had just given Frank the fight of his life. And Igor had gone to a hard fought draw against John Lober -- whose win over Frank had yet to be avenged.

And yet Frank saw something the commenters didn't. Igor Z. had a terrible habit of responding to a shoot by grabbing a headlock and curling around his opponent's body. Frank had clearly been watching for that because his slam was the perfect way to solve the otherwise very difficult Igor Zinoviev problem.

On the same UFC 17 card that Frank barely got past Jeremy Horn, Carlos Newton and Dan Henderson met in the "Middleweight Tournament" finals. It was a four fight tourney at 200lbs. Newton, who would go on to fight at welterweight for most of his carreer was far smaller than Henderson. Nevertheless it was a hugely anticipated match up as both men were very highly regarded at the time. Watch it here. Even though Newton lost, he came away with his reputation very much intact as many believed he should have won the decision.

Also at UFC 17 was Chuck Liddell in his debut MMA fight against Noe Hernandez (HL video). His second fight was against the much smaller Brazilian Jose "Pele" Landi-Jons. Pele, the first star from the Chute Boxe camp that produced Wanderlei Silva, Mauricio "Shogun" Rua and Anderson Silva, gives the much larger Liddell a good fight.


Other entries in this series:

XXII: Catch Wrestling and Kazushi Sakuraba's Early PRIDE Run
XXI: The Amazing UFC Championship Run of Frank Shamrock

XX: Kazushi Sakuraba and Frank Shamrock Emerge at Ultimate Japan
XIX: The Humbled PRIDE of Nobuhiko Takada
XVIII: The Losses of Luta Livre
XVII: The Lion's Den Roars
XVI: Rico Chiapparelli and the RAW Team
XV: Pancrase, RINGS, and Shooto 1996
XIV: Boom and Bust in Brazil
XIII: Coleman Gets His Kicks
XII: End of the UFC Glory Days
XI: Carlson Gracie's Mighty Camp
X: The Reign of the Wrestlers
IX: Strikers Attack
VIII: From Russia With Leglocks
VII: A New Phase in the UFC
VI: A Dutch Detour
V: The Reign of Royce
IV: Rickson Brings Jiu Jitsu Back to Japan
III: Proto MMA Evolves Out of Worked Pro Wrestling in Japan
II: The Ur-Brazilian MMA Feud: BJJ vs Luta Livre and the Style They Never Saw Coming
I: UFC 1 Pancrase meets BJJ

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