Authors Note: We've reached a point in MMA's history where the majority of events are starting to take place in the United States and Japan, and with the introduction of weight-classes, the growth of new promotions, and an increasing number of fighters means that there is a lot happening around generally the same time.
I've tried to keep this series mostly in chronological order, but now I'm going to try to cover all the major narratives taking place, even if that means going over the same time periods or events a few times in different articles.
In the current world of Mixed Martial Arts, many fighters and coaches are still striving to discover what training formula results in consistent success. The sport is so young, established methods of effective training are still being developed as the sport continues to evolve at a rapid rate.
In the end of the single digit UFC events, fighters who had trained in multiple disciples started having success. Don Frye used his wrestling, judo, and boxing experience to win six straight UFC fights and claim the UFC 8 Tournament Championship. But his success was short lived, as Mark Coleman, a pure wrestler at the time, dominated him at UFC 10 and became one of the more dominant champions in the UFC's young history, winning two UFC tournaments and becoming the first UFC Heavyweight champion by beating Dan Severn at UFC 12 in less that three minutes.
Mark Coleman's gym, Team Hammer House, became a destination for wrestlers looking to make the move to the UFC. In a UFC that was quickly becoming more about physical size and what chemicals a fighter was using due to a complete lack of testing, the physical style of Hammer House seemed ideal.
The old Gracie way of training had faded away in the face of this new assault of super-sized athletes. Rorion Gracie's academy had famously shunned strength and conditioning training in favor of purely working their technique. When Gold Gym had sponsored the UFC, they offered Rorion all their old weight machines for his school, which he politely declined. The Gold Gym representatives then asked if he preferred free weights to which Rorion responded, "No, we just fight". (From Campbell McLaren in sources)
While the Torrance academy slowly retreated from MMA, Carlson Gracie's school began to emerge into the UFC. Carlson had been one of the most successful Gracies in Vale Tudo competition and believed that athleticism was an important aspect of fighting. So his athletes fully embraced the new forms of training in MMA in the 90s, chemical and otherwise. Carlson fighters began to experience success in the UFC, especially his young phenom, Vitor Belfort.
A new class of fighter was entering the UFC as SEG leadership actively tried to recruit Olympic level athletes, targeting specifically wrestlers which resulted in Mark Coleman, Mark Kerr, Randy Couture and Dan Henderson all stepping into the Octagon during the teen events.
But when it came to consistency, or as close as one could get to that in the early UFC, there was only one place to turn: The Lion's Den.
Ken Shamrock started it after UFC 1 when he was having a difficult time finding training partners. But as Ken emerged as the preeminent American fighter, young hopefuls flocked to Shamrock. His connections both with SEG and the UFC, and in Japan meant that Shamrock could help a prospective fighter find his way into big time fights, and Ken's problem soon became weeding out the true fighters from the wannabes.
Ken Shamrock applying a leg lock to Pat Smith at UFC 1
So Ken devised a brutally harsh test of fighters that was not just physically exhausting, but mentally demanding. New guys were fair game, and they would receive vicious beatings in the pro fight team try outs. Ken reasoned that anyone who could withstand that already had the heart of a fighter and could be taught the skills of one.
The gym itself had the attitude Ken wanted to instill into his fighter. It was a warehouse with mats on the floor, a boxing ring, and a few weight machines, but no water fountains, no showers - no frills at all. And he worked his fighters very hard. MMA matches were so new at the time, many fighters had no idea what to expect and were shocked at the intensity once they were in a fight. Ken wanted to make sure his fighters were prepared, so he endeavored to make them as tough as possible.
Lion's Den fighters spent most of their time grappling or doing muscle building exercise, and Ken had them grapple in the old Japanese pro wrestling fashion, full force all the time. Many fighters out of that gym said there was no point in tapping to a choke because it was held until its victim went unconscious, and that many feared that they might die while training.
This brutal training, which Ken would compare to military boot-camp, did produce results though as the Lion's Den became a stable of early MMA stars. Guy Mezger won the UFC 13 Light Heavyweight tournament and won a King of Pancrase title in 1998. Mikey Burnett earned a UFC Welterweight title shot after outclassing Vale Tudo and Luta Livre legend Eugenio Tadeu at UFC 16. Pete Williams was an up and coming Heavyweight in 1996, Jerry Bohlander was the first UFC Lightweight Tournament Champion, and Ken's adopted brother Frank Shamrock was a fantastically gifted fighter still rising in the Japanese based Pancrase promotion. They were tight knit family that trained hard, fought hard, and partied hard together.
Jerry Bohlander on his way to the cage at UFC 12 with confident Lion's Den teammates.
So when a kickboxer named Maurice Smith was looking to turn around his MMA career, the place he naturally turned to was the Lion's Den. Striking based fighters had experienced very little success in early MMA. Bas Rutten had been the only striking-based fighter to win a major championship thus far, but that success came after he learned how to grapple, and all his biggest wins had come directly as a result of ground fighting offense.
Smith might have been looking to replicate that kind of success, and went to Ken Shamrock, whom he had met while they had done some pro wrestling work together in Japan, to exchange knowledge of striking for training in grappling. Smith's timing, which at first seemed to be poor, ended up being very fortunate as he arrived at the Lion's Den just as Ken was looking to make a move to professional wrestling. Ken learned some striking from Smith and then assigned his adopted brother Frank to see to Smith's grappling training. Things changed at the Lion's Den after Ken left for the WWE. Frank, along with Jerry Bohlander, were left in charge of operations while Ken was constantly on the road.
While Ken was undoubtedly a leader, he was not a fantastic teacher. He would demonstrate techniques only occasionally and would not go in great depth. It was up to the fighters to learn by doing and having techniques used on them during sparring. Ken almost always enforced discipline in the room by forcing anyone who had broken a rule to spar with with him, which always resulted in a one sided beating as Ken was unbeatable in his own room. But Ken would not give the student guidance afterwards on how to correct what they had done wrong.
Then there was the mental grind. Ken kept a constant level of fear and pressure in the gym, and it cracked many students. The intensity of the training was very high, and the fighters didn't get much of a break when they went to the communal fighter house, which was often just as rough. By all accounts, this house was The Ultimate Fighter without the threat of punishment for bad behavior, and that environment convinced many prospective fighters they didn't want to keep training there. New fighters were fair game in the house, and in an example of the wild behavior, a rule was put in place that new fighters couldn't be choked into unconsciousness more than three times in one day while in the house.
With Ken gone, Frank began to question these practices. Heading into 1996, Frank was on a three-fight losing streak and beginning to rethink his training. Almost by happenstance, two minds that were open to new ideas met when Frank and Smith came together.
Frank helped Smith learn the basics of grappling, with the goal being to survive on the ground and then use his superior striking skills. Smith would test out his new skills in a North American competitor to the UFC, Battecade Extreme Fighting, and in a Heavyweight title fight against Carlson Gracie fighter Conan Silveira. The promoters thought they had gotten a decently established fighter in Smith to toss to their new champion, who would clearly devour the kickboxer. Strikers did not defeat grapplers in this sport, it was known.
But Smith turned the tables on Silveira. He survived from the bottom position and actually reversed the Carlson Gracie black belt. In the second round, Smith landed a head kick that ended the fight. Ken had once told Smith that he wasn't a fighter, rather he was a specialized fighter, and Smith had embraced his strength and maximized it with some help from Frank. It was with that embracing that he became the first kickboxer to beat a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt in American MMA.
Smith later defended his Heavyweight title against Japanese pro wrestler Kazunari Murakami. Smith would be hurt by a punch very early in the fight, but his newly learned grappling instincts would take over and allow Smith to survive long enough to regain his wits and then win by resounding, walk-off knockout.
Maurice Smith vs Kazunari Murakami 1997
Extreme Fighting became a victim of the political movement against the growing spot of MMA in the United States. When the major cable networks turned their backs on the sport, Extreme Fighting went under for good. Many of the promotion's premier fighters crossed over to the UFC, including Smith, Pat Miletch, Kevin Jackson, and more. They UFC arranged for Smith to fight their Heavyweight Champion, the intimidating Mark Coleman, in order to unify the championships.
Coming into this fight nobody outside of Smith's own training camp thought he would be able to even compete with Coleman, but those close to him knew Smith had a secret weapon. Smith, unlike many MMA fighters of his day, split his time between fight training and conditioning training. Smith had overcome two grapplers already and was supremely confident coming into this match, which seemed almost comical at the time. He even went so far as to taunt Coleman, mocking his punching technique and saying Coleman hit like a girl. The idea was to bait Coleman into going hard after Smith in the opening of the fight.
The plan worked to perfection. Coleman was able to take Smith down early and spent much of the regulation time on top of Smith, raining down strikes. But Smith was able to survive, using the guard and the half guard to force Coleman to use a great deal of energy.
When the fight reached the overtime rounds Coleman's body began to fail him and he was barely able to lift his hands to defend himself. The old sports truism that fatigue makes cowards of us all was made real in front of stunned UFC fans. They watched their previously thought to be invincible champion unable to move away the fence as Smith lined up hard leg kicks. It is a credit to Coleman's mental toughness that he kept fighting and never quit in the fight, he tried to fight back but his body was just unable to respond.
Mark Coleman (left) tires to rise to meet Maurice Smith's (right) attack late in their Heavyweight Championship fight at UFC 14.
The UFC had just been turned on its head - a striker with just over a year of grappling training had defeated a long-time wrestler. Smith was far from a complete fighter, and this would be the peak of his MMA career, but he had demonstrated something very clearly to the MMA world: conditioning mattered. The majority of fighters in the UFC at this time were focused on becoming the biggest, strongest, and meanest fighters they could be. Similar to the training done in the Lion's Den, the goal was to become "tougher" than the other guy. Smith on the other hand took a thoughtful approach to the fight, expanded his skill set, and also endeavored to become the superior athlete.
The result was a shocking and masterful win for a kickboxer over a wrestler. It was a lesson that Frank Shamrock took to heart as he would completely re-examine how he was training. The conclusions he came to would allow him to leap ahead of any fighter in the sport.
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:
Johnthan Snowden's Total MMA: A fantastic resource of MMA history, I highly recommend it.
Kid Nate's MMA History: The Lion's Den Roars
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: