Photo via Tracy Lee of Combat Lifestyle
Despite a lack of notoriety, former UFC champion Frank Shamrock has been an incredibly influential force in MMA. From elite fighter to spokesperson to co-promoter. Even now as a Strikeforce commentator it was Shamrock's incredible fighting career that made his success possible.
Frank Shamrock is probably the least heralded elite fighter to ever step into the Octagon. In his prime, Frank was arguably the pound-for-pound best in the sport, but he had the misfortune to reign when MMA was at its lowest level of visibility - the infamous Dark Ages. Even after the UFC boom, Frank's achievements are hidden because of his poor relationship with UFC president Dana White.
With the help of Zombie Prophet and Frank's autobiography Uncaged, I'm going to take a look at what made Frank Shamrock a legend of the sport. First, Frank is an anomaly because he didn't have a background in any martial art. He wasn't an NCAA wrestler or an elite kickboxer like his long-time trainer Maurice Smith. He was a street kid that struggled with the law throughout his childhood.
After spending 3.5 years in prison, Frank was sent to the Lion's Den to train with his adopted brother Ken Shamrock. The Lion's Den was one of the very first MMA gyms in the history of the sport, and it was also renowned for its brutal training regimen. Instead of teaching techniques and fighting styles, Ken would essentially beat the crap out of his students until they learned. Frank spent 8 months enduring beatings in the Lion's Den before heading to Japan for more training.
After his trial by fire at the Lion's Den and training in Japan, Frank got thrown into the deep end in his first professional fight. His opponent Bas Rutten had already established himself in the Pancrase organization. By the time he fought Frank, the Dutch kickboxer had a respectable record of 6-2 with his only losses coming to elite fighters in Masakatsu Funaki and Ken Shamrock.
Frank clearly understood that he was supposed to be another clip on Rutten's highlight reel:
A little while before the fight they told me I was going to go up against a Dutch guy named Bas Rutten. This was insane. Bas Rutten was one of the top fighters in the world at that time. He was a veteran, six or seven years older than me. He was also a lot bigger than me - six foot one and about 205 pounds to my slimmed-down five foot ten and 185 pounds. I had basically no chance of beating him. Bas was favored to win the whole tournament. It was my first fight! I was just the appetizer portion. I was sure I was going to get killed.
But after 10 minutes, not only did Shamrock survive, he won the decision.
Frank Shamrock vs. Bas Rutten - Pancrase: King of Pancrase Tournament Opening Round
Frank credits this victory for putting him "on the map." He came into the tournament either completely unknown or known as Ken's little brother. Now he had a high profile win under his belt. But the night wasn't over. The fight against Bas was only the first round of the tournament; he had to fight again against Manabu Yamada to continue. His success wouldn't continue though and he lost his second fight when Yamada caught him in an ankle lock.
Frank Shamrock vs. Manabu Yamada - Pancrase: King of Pancrase Tournament Opening Round
The defeat didn't upset Frank, however. He was still riding high on his big win over Bas:
It didn't matter to me that I didn't win my second match. I was on the map. I had fought my first fight, and I had won. I became an instant superstar in Japan
Frank rebounded from his first loss with his first ever finish. After six minutes, he grabbed a rear naked choke to tap out Katsuomi Inagaki. Two months later he was set to return to the ring and once again, he wasn't going to get an easy fight. Masakatsu Funaki wasn't just another fighter for Pancrase, he was one of the founders of the promotion. On top of that, Funaki was also one of Frank's trainers when he went to Japan.
Frank Shamrock vs. Masakatsu Funaki I - Pancrase: Eyes of the Beast 2
Again, Shamrock took the loss in stride. He knew who he was up against:
Funaki was the big cheese in our dojo. He was like the Ken Shamrock of Japan - an older guy, very tough, very respected. He was the guy who had trained ken. He was a co-founder of Pancrase. He was the first man who gave me some idea of the spiritual aspect of martial arts. So it was expected that he beat me.
Following his loss to Funaki, Shamrock went 3-1-1 in his next 5 fights. In all three of his wins, he used the catch wrestling he'd learned from Ken at the Lion's Den and from Japan to finish with rear naked chokes. He displayed his aggressive submission-hunting style perfectly against Takaku Fuke. Throughout the fight, Frank pressured Fuke from mount and back mount, always attacking and looking for chokes or joint submissions.
Frank Shamrock vs. Takaku Fuke - Pancrase: Eyes of the Beast 5
Frank Shamrock vs. Takafumi Ito - Pancrase 1995 Anniversary Show
In his 10th fight for Pancrase, Frank was once again matched up against Masakatsu Funaki. He was able to submit the veteran catch wrestler, but even he smelled something fishy:
I got him in the same hold he had beaten me with, a toehold, about ten minutes into the fight. I got a win by submission. There was no way, though, that I beat him. I couldn't have comprehended that at the time. I was fighting my ass off. I was fighting for my life. But I didn't really know much about fighting. I did not understand that someone else's skill level could be so high that they could let me win without me knowing it. Later, when my skill level was as high as that, I knew something fishy happened.
Frank Shamrock vs. Masakatsu Funaki II - Pancrase: Eyes of the Best 6
Coming out of a professional wrestling background, it's no surprise that some of the fights were 'fixed' or 'thrown' by the aging veterans. Funaki and co-founder Minoru Suzuki understood the importance of building new stars to keep the promotion successful. Regardless of whether or not Funaki "put over" Frank in their second fight, the win was a sign that he was coming into his own as a fighter.
Tomorrow, Part 2 will continue with the end of Shamrock's Pancrase career and how an important loss changed how he viewed the fight game.