UFC 9 is remembered for one infamous bout, the rematch between Ken Shamrock and Dan Severn. 30 minutes of dancing back and forth with zero action, what caused this fight to turn out the way it did?
If you ask an old school UFC fan what the worst match was in the pre-Zuffa days, they will not hesitate in saying "Severn VS Shamrock 2". While there were other stinkers, none were quite as notorious as this debacle of a rematch from UFC 6, when Ken and Dan first went head-to-head for the UFC Super-fight Championship, a fight that Ken won by guillotine in just over two minutes. Many stories have been told as to what caused that match to unfold the way it did, and today we examine as many sides of the story as we possibly can to get to the bottom of this.
In the very early days of the UFC, mainstream appeal and knowledge was non-existent. If a random person on the street happened to know what "Ultimate Fighting" even was, they would tell you it was a barbaric bloodsport where two men fight to the death with zero rules. Making things worse was the constant litigation that the company had to battle against, mainly thanks to the one-man crusade of Senator John McCain, who had taken a deep interest in squashing no-holds-barred combat into the ground.
Nearly successful in stopping UFC 8 in Puerto Rico, SEG managed to make the event happen by the skin of their teeth (with the help of a very good local lawyer). However, UFC 9 was another story, as the courts in Michigan (Severn's home state) had taken a strong stance against the UFC coming to their state."It was all an interesting thing," former UFC owner Bob Meyrowitz told me, "Whenever I talked to anybody in Detroit... whoever i spoke to on an individual basis agreed there really was nothing wrong and it shouldn't be a problem, and then we go into court and every court would be the same. An athletic commission only does one thing. It regulates boxing... and the reason is fighting is illegal, so in order for it to be legal it has to be sanctioned by somebody, and that is them. And all the athletic commissions were particularly nice about it except Detroit. Detroit was particularly nasty, and I think the judge simply did not understand what was going on."
The legal drama dragged on till 4:30 PM on the day of the event, May 17, 1996, when the courts had reached a decision to allow the UFC to hold their event in Detroit... with a few rule changes. The judge had decided that the fights could go on, but only if headbutts and closed fists were not used. Surprisingly, Meyrowitz agreed to this, but UFC referee "Big" John McCarthy, who was in court to help the judges understand the rules better, was completely flabbergasted.
In his autobiography, "Let's Get It On" , the legendary official asked Meyrowitz how he planned to hold a fighting event when the competitors were not allowed to punch:
"I didn't say there wasn't going to be any punching," Meyrowitz coolly answered. "I just said I'd make it illegal. When they punch, you're going to tell them, 'That's illegal.' And you're going to have to fine them eventually. When they have to pay that fine, only God knows."
In an interview I did with "The Beast", Severn recalled first hearing about this unusual rule change in the locker room before the fight. "Basically he said that when it came time for the match to take place, if you were to do closed fist strikes you will be warned. if you should continue to strike again, you will be warned. And my question was, 'How many times do you go before you get penalized?' And he said, 'Listen to me - you will be warned.' I go, 'Fine'."
Ken, who I also spoke with, vouched for Severn's statement. "The powers to be came in and said, 'If you threw punches you would be fined, but you would be fined at our leisure.' In other words, they were saying go ahead and throw the punches,we wont fine you but if we do it will be very minimal and at a later date." Shamrock had initially wanted to pull out of the fight earlier due to a broken nose, cracked rib, and a torn ACL. However, there was a lot riding on the company with this event, so the fight went on.
McCarthy recalled Ken's reaction to hearing those rule changes as one very different from the other fighters. Shamrock told "Big" John that even though the officials would be very lax when it came to those fines, he would not throw a closed fist as that would have set a bad example for the younger children in Bob Shamrock's boys home, as well as his own sons. "I have a very strong belief in following the rules and making sure you do what is expected of you," Shamrock stated, "So, I remember going into that fight and I did not throw one punch that whole fight because they had said that throwing punches would be illegal."
Throughout the entire night, McCarthy had the dubious task of reminding the combatants to not hit with a closed fist and giving out warnings like they were candy on Halloween. The warnings did little to deter the fighters, as the other six fights on the card were all won due to strikes. "I watched the first match," Severn said, "I saw headbutts, I saw closed fist punching... I was willing to be penalized if that was what was going to happen, and it did not happen."
When it came time for Ken to fight Dan, things did not go too well. "That fight was probably the most boring fight in the UFC history, it was horrible... my whole gameplan was to go ahead, get control of him, get on top and ground and pound on him." Without the ability to punch, much of Ken's plans had fallen apart. Coming from a Pancrase background, open-hand strikes were very familiar to Shamrock, so the champ opted to throw those instead of fists. Severn, wearing MMA gloves like the rest of the fighters on the card, decided to tempt fate and those meaningless warnings and threw proper punches.
The two fighters circled around the ring for the entire duration of the bout, exhausting their 24 minute time limit and their two three-minute overtimes. Neither man, known for their grappling skills, attempted much grappling other than Severn shooting for a leg 16 minutes into the fight and jockeying for position until Shamrock quickly got back to his feet. Severn went for another takedown a few minutes after his first shot, but Ken sprawled and was able to get full mount for a good four minutes or so, when Severn eventually rolled Ken over, but only momentarily as Ken was able to get back to his feet as the first round came to a close, leading into the overtime rounds. In the last 20 seconds of the final OT round, Shamrock went for a takedown of his own, but ended up clinched against the fence until the horn blew, signaling the end.
The only notable damage was a small cut under Shamrock's left eye that happened from a strike early in the first minutes of the match. The three-man commentary team was left puzzled at the lack of urgency from the fighters in the ring, left to discuss their own boredom and how a judge would have to score this inactivity. "These are two of the greatest fighters in the world and they are not fighting," remarked Don "The Dragon" Wilson as the match passed the 12-minute mark. Jeff Blatnick was more optimistic, "They've entertained us before, maybe something is in the works here." Sadly, nothing was, other than the empty soda cup that was tossed into the octagon moments after Blatnick said that.
With the match over, both fighters were left wondering who actually won that very close war of attrition. "I had more control on Severn," Ken said, "So basically what I tried to do was out-wrestle him and out-position him, and i did that. I think he landed about four or five punches in a fifteen second time period where he actually rolled me off the top of him and got top position for about 15, 20 seconds and then I end up getting out and I end up controlling him again on the ground for a little bit longer."
The commentators agreed that Shamrock was more active with his strikes, but Severn landed more strong punches. Despite the lack of action, the judges ended up awarding the split decision to Severn, crowning him the new UFC Super-fight champ. While Severn began campaigning for a rematch against Royce Gracie at UFC 10, Shamrock questioned the judges call. "I asked how he won that if there was nothing done there and I basically had more punches. 'Well, he landed more punches,' and I said, But the punches were illegal.' So they didn't recognize that, even though it was a sanctioned event and they said punches were illegal."
In spite of this miscommunication mess, Severn insists that the rules were not why the match occurred the way it did. "It had nothing to do with the striking element. If you look at a lot of Ken's matches prior to that, he was more of a counter-attacker. And I said, if I just sit back and do what he is doing and no one is engaging each other, it'll be a rather boring match the crowd is not going to like this. There was an actual point in time the crowd was booing... garbage was thrown into the ring itself... Big John McCarthy stops the match, gives us a verbal whatever, you guys came out here to fight... and by god, fight. he pushes ken back , he pushes me back to fight, and I basically said, 'John, take your shirt off and we will make it a triangular death match... I wasn't about to change my gameplan, not for the crowd, not for anyone else. I have a gameplan, I'll stick to my gameplan."
Of course, this fight will never end, as Ken agreed to disagree on those sentiments. "You watch the fight, anybody will tell you strategy had nothing to do with that. If you call running on the outside of the ring with a smaller opponent and you're basically world class wrestler, where you should be able to take the guy down when you want to take him down and you are running from him... I'm not sure where that plays in to being strategic."
As for those fines for using closed fists, Meyrowitz simply had this to say on the subject. "They were fined, but I don't remember if they paid the fine."