Author's Note: This article was originally to be part of the Revenge of the Striker article that immediately preceded it in the series. The size of the two articles required them to be separated, and there is some recap, but it is recommended to read the previous article for a fuller understanding of the full progression of events.
The story of Frank Shamrock's rise to the status of MMA legend is one that cannot be told without understanding context. His route to the top of a sport was a difficult one, and he very well could have faltered at any point, but the people around him, either by aiding or by opposing him, driving him to accomplish more.
It impossible to tell the story of Frank without mentioning Bob Shamrock, one of the most important non-fighter figures in MMA history. Bob ran a home for troubled boys in Southern California. Without Bob's guidance, it is unclear where Frank Shamrock may have ended up.
Born Frank Alisio Juarez III, as young man Frank was a mess of contradictions. A natural athlete blessed with an amazing body, Frank was a bookish child, taking solace in the company of characters that didn't fit in with their fellows. A childhood spent being beaten and abused left Frank with a distaste for violence, but growing up in and out of Juvenile Detention gave him a talent for it. Frank was sent to Bob's care, but in his late teens was sent to prison. He emerged in his early twenties, determined to get his life back on track. Bob looked at Frank, who had grown large and strong lifting weights in prison, and told Frank with his body he either needed to become an athlete or a stripper.
Bob introduced Frank to another critical person in this story: Ken Shamrock. Another troubled boy taken in by Bob, Ken had trained in Shootfighting in Japan under the founders of the Japanese promotion Pancrase. Ken became the first King of Pancrase in 1994. He also had great success in the UFC before retiring from fighting to focus on pro wrestling, a far more lucrative business venture.
Ken Shamrock during his time on the road for the World Wrestling Federation (WWF)
When Frank came to him, Ken was still competing and ran the Lion's Den, one of the most successful and toughest gyms in the entire sport. Ken ran his school in the hard old Japanese pro wrestling style. First, simply to be admitted, the prospective fighter needed to pass a test designed to break applicants. Frank was subjected to grueling workout that included hard running, hundreds of push ups and squats, and when he was thoroughly exhausted, a hard spar with the head of the gym. Frank has since said he thought Ken was going to kill him in that first spar.
Frank survived the brutal tryout and was welcomed into the Lion's Den family, which played as hard as it worked and included some of the top fighters in both the U.S. and Japan. In the room training with Frank were early stars such as Guy Mezger, a UFC and Pancrase champion; Jerry Bolhander, also a UFC champion; Vernon White, a champion of King of the Cage; and many other veterans of the fight game.
There was not a great deal of instruction. Fighters learned techniques by either watching other fighters use them or by being on the receiving end of the those techniques. That style of teaching did not work well for Frank, who had a far more deliberate and scientific approach to fighting than Ken. Frank would often sit off the side and sketch the holds Ken would apply to help him remember the finer details.
Frank's skills grew quickly and in 1994, at the First King of Pancrase tournament, Frank made his professional fighting debut against another man who would help shape his future, Bas Rutten. At the time, Rutten was a 5-1 veteran of Pancrase who relied on his striking to win matches, and Frank was able to out grapple him for a win. It was a surprising upset that taught Frank his first lesson about MMA - yes he really could compete on this level.
Rutten learned from his losses as well, and realized he needed to learn how to grapple. Rutten devoted himself to grappling and became one of the first fighters, along with Erik Paulson, to create a multifaceted skill set, becoming a true Mixed Martial Artist. Rutten would ride his new skill set to an amazing 22 fight undefeated streak to close out his career and become Pancrase and UFC champion.
He and Frank rematched twice during that time, and Frank took lessons from both these losses. The first time Rutten bested Frank, he took as a sign that his focus had slipped away from training. Frank rededicated himself and won six straight matches only to be beaten my Rutten again in May of 1996.
This loss shook Frank as it was obvious his striking was not nearly at the level it needed to be to compete with Rutten. Frank began to examine not just how hard he was training, but how he trained. Frank went 3-1 in the next year, and he became convinced that he needed to change something.
Ken had always compared his workouts to military boot camp - suffer more in training so you know you can withstand whatever an opponent can throw at you in a fight. The problem was that real boot camps are only a matter of weeks long, not a perpetual state for military personnel. The grind wore on Lion's Den fighters, and as a result many of the fighters out of that gym left the sport very early, despite winning championships.
Ken was now on the road, and the day-to-day running of the gym had been left to Frank and Jerry Bohlander, a UFC contender. The second half of 1996 was difficult for Frank as he went 1-3, including a close loss to John Lober in Frank's first foray outside of Pancrase into full-contact MMA rules, with closed fist strikes and striking on the ground. Those experiences shook Frank, and he began to tinker with his training methods. Ken was furious. Things were to be done his way or not at all.
It as at this time another key player entered as Maurice Smith came to the Lion's Den. Initially a kickboxer, Smith wished to expand his skill set to include grappling, and he had known Ken from their days together as Japanese pro wrestlers. Ken, on the road for professional wrestling and unable to work with Smith, assigned Frank to teach the kickboxer to grapple. In exchange, Smith taught Shamrock striking, and two open and analytical minds were brought together at the right time to make a huge impact on the sport of MMA.
Smith learned the basics of grappling, but unlike Rutten (who learned how to submit on the floor), Smith simply learned how to survive and get the fight back to the feet where his kickboxing experience became a huge advantage. Frank began learning the basics of kickboxing but immediately noticed that after just a few rounds of sparring, he was often exhausted, while Smith was still fresh.
Frank was shocked, he never thought of himself as having endurance problems or not being in peak condition, but it was impossible to ignore how easily Smith was out pacing him. Frank began to work out with Smith and immediately noticed what he had been missing: cardiovascular conditioning. The Lion's Den training regime included weightlifting, some technique practice, small amounts of striking, but the primary workout was the hard wrestling and sparring.
Frank Shamrock (right) with Maurice Smith (left) together after Smith winning the UFC Heavyweight title at UFC 14
This kind of training was very common in the MMA world, but Smith demonstrated its flaws to Frank, and then the entire MMA world with his UFC 14 win over Mark Coleman. Frank became a firm convert and changed his entire training regimen. He included a great deal of cardiovascular training, running stairs being one of Smith's favorite workouts, but also did away with the huge amounts of hard wrestling sparring. Instead, Shamrock drilled specific aspects and skills, and focused on making himself as athletically dynamic in all phases of the fight as possible.
In 1997, the UFC was set to come to Japan, in part to avoid the immense legal pressure in the United States. The UFC was co-promoting with Kingdom, a pro wrestling promotion. According to Bob Meyrowitz, there was an attempt to strong arm him into agreeing to all of the UFC's events in Japan be run through Kingdom. While this never came to pass, a certain amount of Kingdom fighters were to be included on this card.
Kingdom demanded that several of their fighters including Yoji Anjo, Kazushi Sakuraba, and Enson Inoue compete on this card. A famously tough fighter, Inoue was a Japanese-American born in Hawaii, who earned a BJJ black belt under John Lewis, a big figure in the early U.S. MMA scene. Inoue was fresh off winning the Shooto Light Heavyweight title and was helping train the Kingdom fighters in grappling and MMA.
The UFC and SEG leadership pushed for Frank Shamrock, and the disagreement was settled when it was announced Shamrock and Inoue would fight at Vale Tudo Japan event just a few weeks before the UFC 15.5 event in Japan. It was agreed between Kingdom and the UFC that the winner of that fight would be offered a fight against Kevin Jackson for the first UFC Middleweight title.
So it was that Frank Shamrock and Enson Inoue met on November 29, 1997 with a UFC title shot on the line, for what would end up being an all-time great fight. It was an excellent test of Shamrock's new style that was designed to wear down highly skilled opponents.
Vale Tudo 97 - F. Shamrock vs E. Inoue
Shamrock would take down a very aggressive Inoue and spent the first round on top, trying to wear on Inoue's body and legs. The second round started and both fighters were very aggressive and went right into the clinch trading knees. Shamrock went for a trip takedown, and Inoue bounced off the ropes and reversed the takedown, landing in mount on top of Shamrock.
At this point the mount was seen as a death sentence to the bottom fighter, but Shamrock survived several minutes in the position and was able to escape. Frank quickly got to his feet, and the two began to widely trade strikes. Frank was able to start landing knees in the clinch, which eventually dropped Inoue. Frank threw a few extra strikes after the referee stopped the fight, which prompted Enson's brother to run across the ring and attack Frank. The mess was sorted out, and Shamrock was declared the winner.
Frank was slotted to face Kevin Jackson, a gold medalist Olympic Freestyle wrestler who was 3-0 in MMA and fresh off a UFC Middleweight tournament win. This news was not well received in the Lion's Den as Frank's training partner and roommate Jerry Bohlander, who had won the UFC Lightweight (<200 lbs) tournament at UFC 12 had expected to receive the title shot.
Tensions were compounded when Frank insisted handling the fight agreement himself, rather than let Ken and Bob Shamrock act as his managers, which included a 15% cut of earnings and was part of the Lion's Den arrangement with their fighters. Frank was taking his career, training, and life into his own hands.
Frank formed The Alliance gym, where he acted as his own training, a situation that has been the downfall of many athletes, but proved to be what was required to push Frank into greatness. Javier Mendez and Maurice Smith would be Frank's strikes coaches and sparring partners. Tsuyoshi Kohsaka, a Japanese Judoka and professional wrestler, schooled Frank in his "TK Guard", which was a form of the butterfly guard. Frank had surrounded himself with fantastic trainers, but they were peers, not a master to which Frank owed subservience. Frank was in a situation were he felt he could train the way he needed to succeed and as a result he brimmed with confidence.
In the lead up to the fight, Frank was very clear he was going to catch Jackson in a submission very quickly, and when they met in December of 1997, Shamrock made lighting quick work of Jackson with an armbar. Just three years after his pro debut, Frank became a champion for the first time.
Shamrock vs Jackson from Frank Shamrock on Vimeo.
The SEG, particularly Bob Meyrowitz, saw a star in Shamrock, and now that he was champion, there was finally a huge fighter they could build around.
For Frank's next fight new UFC John Perretti set up a title unification bout against the Middleweight Champion of the his old Extreme Fighting promotion, Igor Zinoviev. A combat sambo fighter with a 4-0-2 record in MMA, Zinoviev was a dangerous fighter with both strong striking and grappling. He had out-grappled and stopped BJJ black belt Mario Sperry during his run with Extreme Fighting.
When faced with Shamrock at UFC 16, Zinoviev was aggressive, charging forward with strikes. Shamrock met the aggression with a level change into a takedown, shifting seamlessly from striking to grappling. Shamrock had made note that the floor of the Octagon at this time was a much harder surface than many other fighting surfaces he had encountered, so Shamrock elevated Zinoviev and slammed him, resulting in one of the most brutal knockouts in MMA history. Zinoviev suffered a broken collar bone and had his fighting career ended by the slam, but Shamrock's career was launched as the knockout made him the breakout start of the UFC.
Frank's timing could not have been worse as 1998 was the very heart of the UFC "dark ages," when no cable broadcaster would carry or support UFC pay-per-views. Shamrock's height would take place during some of the least-watched UFC events in the history of the promotion.
One ploy the UFC tried during these times as money got progressively tighter was to hold extra fights at live events, tape them, and air them at different times, getting two broadcasts out of one event. Meyrowitz wanted to keep pushing Frank wanted to a title fight on the UFC 17 card to be shown later. So Frank was contacted on short notice and presented with a list of fighters. Without the time to get into top shape, Frank picked Jeremy Horn, a Jiu Jitsu fighter with a 9-2-3 record in MMA.
Horn proved to be more of a threat than Shamrock might have realized, as the larger Horn held Frank down for much of it, taking dominant positions at will. As the fight progressed into the Overtime periods that the UFC still used, Meyrowitz was furious. Frank was clearly losing the fight based on the positional grappling, but Horn had done nothing but held Frank down, barely throwing a punch, and Meyrowitz did not want to lose one of his stars in such a tepid fashion.
But then with only minutes left in the fight Frank created a scramble on the ground and snatched up a kneebar that forced Horn to tap, getting one of the rare early submission wins over a Jiu Jitsu fighter. Shamrock got up and wiped his brow in an exaggerated fashion to express his relief to the crowd and retained his title.
Also, that night on UFC 17 was the final tournament the UFC would hold in the United States, a middleweight tournament with the winner to face Shamrock. While the UFC would host a four-man tournament in Japan, this was the last real field of top fighters the promotion would have fight in a single night and featured the debut of future UFC champion Carlos Newton, who won his first fight in extremely impressive fashion, and future great Dan Henderson.
Henderson would defeat first the heavily favored Allan Goes of Team Carlson Gracie and then Newton in grueling, hard fought decisions. After Henderson won, Joe Rogan in the post fight interview asked Henderson about facing Shamrock and mentioned a grappling match between the two. Before joining the UFC, John Peretti had organized a submission-only, no-gi grappling event named "Contenders" which featured a quick Frank Shamrock kneebar win over Dan Henderson. Rogan asked if Dan wanted another shot at Frank, to which Dan replied that his focus was on his wrestling and on the Olympics more than MMA.
Dan Henderson after being presented with his "Medal of Honor" for winning the UFC 17 Middleweight Tournament by Bob Meyrowitz
This was the beginning of real trouble getting top flight fighters to face Shamrock as the campaign to have the UFC banned was continuing to weaken the UFC fiscally. In an effort to escape the political pressure, the UFC traveled to Brazil for the first time in October of 1998 and would host the UFC Brazil, or UFC 17.5, card, which was a card full of future MMA stars.
Capping off the UFC 17.5 card was a showdown between Frank Shamrock and the last man to defeat him, John Lober, a Jeet Kune Do fighter. Lober was infamously tough, respected and feared by his fellow fighters, and was skilled both in grappling and striking. This fight was one of Shamrock's true showcases, as he clearly demonstrated what the new age of MMA fighter would look like.
Frank danced on the outside using an array of hard and fast kicks he had not shown in previous fights, changed levels constantly, feinted takedowns, used the cage in clinch grappling, threw effective knees while tied up, scored several sweeps on the ground, and when on top, dropped heavy leather down on the face and body of Lober. Overwhelmed and bleeding from a large cut, Lober tapped out to strikes at 7:40 of the first round.
With this win, Frank became the longest-running champion in UFC history, and the question became if the UFC could find him a challenge. The natural choice was Vitor Belfort, who had just defeated hot Brazilian prospect Wanderlei Silva on the same UFC: Brazil card with a barrage of strikes. But in a turn of events that would become all too common for the UFC, Belfort left the promotion taking a larger payday in the rising Japanese promotion of Pride FC. The UFC brought in Bas Rutten and toyed with the idea of having Frank vs Bas IV in the Octagon, but Rutten plugged into a Heavyweight tournament.
Frank was content to wait as the UFC sorted things out, and in the year after UFC 17.5, a clear contender emerged.
A young fighter out of Huntington Beach named Tito Ortiz was making a name for himself with his strong grappling and, like Frank, bringing ahead of his time tactics into the cage. Ortiz's inline elbow strikes from inside the guard and use of cage walking were making him a force to be reckoned with, and his success had come at the expense of the Lion's Den. Ortiz had defeated first Jerry Bohlander and then Guy Mezger. After beating Mezger, Ortiz and Ken Shamrock got into a heated exchange. The UFC made the fight between Frank and Ortiz both to match up two of their best fighters and to cash in on the name value of "Ortiz vs Shamrock".
So it was at UFC 22 on September 24, 1999, that Frank Shamrock, an MMA great at the pinnacle of his skills, and Ortiz, a prospect on the verge of a Hall of Fame career, met in the Octagon. Shamrock came in looking to attack Ortiz on the feet, throwing kicks at range, punches in close, and knees in the clinch against the cage. Ortiz was able to take Shamrock down in each of the first four rounds, but he struggled with Shamrock's excellent defensive guard work.
Shamrock didn't spend a great deal of energy trying to stop Tito's takedowns. Instead he wished to test the endurance of the challenger. The UFC had recently broken up their fights into five minute rounds, and title fights consisted of five rounds. Frank felt his conditioning program put him in the best position to win these series of five-minute sprints.
Late in the fourth round, Frank detected that the exhausted Ortiz, who was in Frank's guard, was seeking a respite. Frank struck, hitting an elevator sweep from guard, and when Ortiz scrambled to his feet, Frank unleashed a torrent of punches. Ortiz, desperate to escape, shot for a takedown. Shamrock locked up a front headlock choke. When he went to finish, Ortiz weakly rolled to escape.
Ortiz clung to a single leg, and from there Shamrock unleashed elbows and hammer fists that seemed to channel all the frustration and anger of an abused and lost childhood. Exhausted and beaten, Ortiz tapped the canvas.
The post-fight was a celebration of Frank's dominance. Both Jeff Blatnick and Bob Meyrowitz praised him as the best fighter they had ever seen, and Ortiz, known at the time for donning biting and snarky t-shirts post fight, instead wore on paying homage to Frank. But what happened next shocked everyone.
Frank Shamrock raising the UFC Middleweight Championship belt after defeating Tito Ortiz at UFC 22
Frank had been taking stock of the MMA business, and it was crystal clear that the UFC was failing at this point. But it was not a result of the sport not being compelling or in-demand. In fact the UFC's numbers on satellite PPV were still quite good considering the limited audience, but with the cable companies black listing the sport there was no future. Shamrock was the most successful fighter in the sport in 1999, but that didn't amount to very much, so he retired. Right there, in the cage, with the UFC belt around his waist, he declared he was done fighting.
Blatnick was in shock at the announcement, but to Frank it made perfect sense. He was not going to continue to wear down his body only to be a broken shell of himself when the pendulum swung back the other way. It was also increasingly clear the UFC was not going to be able to pay Frank at the levels they had agreed to in their original contract. So Frank was done fighting until he was offered what he felt was appropriate compensation. Retirement was a way both to increase his value when he "returned" and to end his UFC contract, making him available to sign new, more lucrative deals.
Frank would fight once more in the 2000 K-1 World Grand Prix event against Elvis Sinsoic, and then remain retired until the beginning of the North American MMA boom, and would also go on to become a key player in promotions in the mid-2000s, as a fighter, executive, and TV persona.
But Frank would never again fight in the UFC. And together with Maurice Smith, he had shaken the UFC and MMA world to its core. They had redefined what it meant to train and compete in this sport. They had clearly demonstrated that skills, while vital, where only part of the complex equation for MMA success. Dynamic athletic ability and endurance were key aspects to applying those skills, and after 1999, if an MMA fighter was not training both his skills and his athletic abilities, the sport had passed them by. The next generation of fighters took this lesson to heart, and the success of Frank Shamrock gave birth to a new era of modern Mixed Martial Artists who were both highly trained fighters and complete athletes.
Aside from watching the events, all which are available for purchase on DVD, I used the following resources to help write this article. I highly recommend them to MMA fans:
I drew from the following books
Jack Encarnacao's Sunday Sit-Down interviews on the Sherdog Rewind Podcast are excellent and a must listen for MMA fans. Here are the interviews I drew from:
I also drew from the Sunday Look Back series on the Sherdog Rewind:
Also recently Spike TV ran a documentary about Frank Shamrock