Few fighters have had as strange a career trajectory as Royce Gracie. The face of MMA success from 1993 to 1995, he vanished from the sport for 5 years, only to reemerge in Pride, where he was met with a dramatically changed sporting landscape. For the next seven years he competed inconsistently, fighting on average just once a year and losing or drawing as often as he won.
In 2007, following a win over Kazushi Sakuraba at the same K-1 Dynamite!! event that brought the MMA world Brock Lesnar for the first time, Royce Gracie fought what appeared to be his last MMA bout. Controversy surrounding a failed drug test (and the fact that he was now hitting his 40s) seemed like they had chased him out of MMA for good. At least, it seemed that way right up until Bellator announced that they had brought Royce out of retirement for a 3rd fight with Ken Shamrock. An openweight bout, just like the old days of UFC superfights. So, the obvious question is, after 8 years out of the game, why now?
"Because I only have an offer right now," Royce replied when I asked him what was driving his return to the sport. "Because I didn't get any offers before. I was like, 'You know what? Fine, forget it. I'll step out. Nobody's interested.' And then Scott Coker and Bellator approached and they were like, 'Hey, you wanna do it?' I played a little hard to get, but I'm like, 'Yeah, okay.'
"It started when Ken Shamrock asked to fight me. It was during the Bellator shows that we did together that Ken asked. But, Scott Coker booked him to fight Kimbo Slice. He said, 'Nah, man. C'mon, you can't fight Royce, man. We'll give you Kimbo first.' He had a perfect strategy, a perfect game plan, it's just that Kimbo is a beast, man. Got away, one punch... oof. Split his head open. And it didn't go Ken's way. But, after that, he says seriously to Scott Coker that he wants to fight me."
I asked Royce how he felt about being the "younger man in the cage" at 48. And while he didn't feel like there was much to be made of his age in comparison to Shamrock's he did say he feels there's a lot more than just a couple years dividing them.
"I got more than a couple years [on Ken Shamrock], man." Royce said of his advantages over his opponent. "I don't drink, I don't smoke, healthy life. So, I think I got more than a couple years."
It's in part, because of that belief, that he's kept himself healthy over his years in and out of MMA that he thinks he's a better fighter than he's ever been, and that Ken Shamrock probably isn't.
"What's changed!?" Royce exclaimed. "What's changed is that the Royce today would have beat the Royce 20 years ago. Ken Shamrock today, I don't think he would beat the Ken Shamrock 20 years ago. 20 years ago Royce had talent. Today, Royce has talent and experience."
As for whether this means we'll be seeing more Royce Gracie fights after his bout with Ken Shamrock is complete? It may just be too soon to say:
"When you're a fighter, man, you're a fighter," Royce reflected, when asked if this was a one off fight. "It's really hard to let it go. You gotta know how to stop, how to walk away. But it's so hard, man. The offer comes up, you go 'Lets'... But it's not just a fighter, but in any kind of profession, it's so hard to let it go, when you have... Unless you're doing it for the money, you're doing it because it's a job. If you're doing it for the passion, it's so hard to walk away, not just as a fighter, but anything. Wouldn't you love to see Mike Tyson fight one more time today? I would love to see that. "
Royce Gracie is set to fight Ken Shamrock for the third time at Bellator 149 on February 19th in Houston, Texas. You can follow Royce on Twitter @realroyce.