You can't find a more veteran active fighter than Ken Shamrock. It just doesn't exist. He was there at UFC 1, in the beginning, right alongside Royce Gracie. And unlike just about everyone else who took place in the UFC's first ever event, Shamrock entered the tournament with experience. He'd fought three times already, over in Pancrase, the upstart hybrid wrestling promotion from Japan. In the first three years of his MMA career he fought 30 times, becoming the two-time UFC Superfight Champion, and the King of Pancrase.
He fought for Pride, and for the UFC light heavyweight title, coached a season of TUF, and then kind of drifted away. Between 2008 and 2010, Shamrock fought five times, going 2-3 against less than stellar competition. And then, like most fighters he retired. It seemed like the logical move. He'd been fighting on and off for eighteen years, had been on something of a skid lately, and wasn't getting the kind of major event billing he had commanded throughout his MMA career. But, speaking to Bloody Elbow, Shamrock revealed that for him, walking away from MMA didn't really make the sense it should have:
"Yeah, it's... I'm living again, you know?" Shamrock said, of his return to competition. "I felt like I walked away it, you know, I'm not sure I did for all the reasons that I wanted to do it for. I think it was a little bit more what other people want me to do and kinda hearing the little voices in the different types of arenas. Whether it's promoters or different fighters all saying, 'Oh, you know, you should retire. You don't need to do it anymore, you got nothing to prove.' Just thinking about back then and when they were saying it, it was almost like they were challenging what I was thinking. But, that's not what I was thinking. I was doing it because I enjoyed it. And they just didn't want to do anything like that for me. I just didn't know it at the time.
"So, I went away from it and I just was unhappy. And so my wife told me, "Listen, if you're unhappy, go back and fight and do what you want to do and go out when you want to go out. As long as the fans still want to see you and you're able to draw crowds, make some money doing it. Why won't you do it." So I went back, and that's kinda how I'm living my life right now. I'm doing what I enjoy doing. I'm making money doing what I love doing. And I'll keep doing it as long as the fans will have me and I'm able to keep staying healthy and compete."
To put a finer point on it, Shamrock talked about the perception that fans can get looking at an athlete's career from the outside, and how he feels people have been trained to expect athletes to need to retire when they stop producing like they used to.
"The fans have been told the same thing," Shamrock said, when asked about attitudes toward fighters retiring. "They've been conditioned. In the world that we live in, guys are supposed to step away at a certain time. And because like, a Michael Jordan scores 40 points a game, but he doesn't score 60 or 65 or 70 anymore the want him to retire, because they're used to seeing him high flying, leading the team, being able to carry the team. So, now he's just another player that's going to assist another super star. People have a hard time with that role playing, with them actually taking a back seat to a star player, since he was a super star. I think the same thing goes for fighters and people who are looking at guys who are in the main event, being able to handle top notch no. 1 contenders and then having to step down from that and being able to just take fights that are fun and make sense, guys from their own time that are entertaining and that may not show the same kind of quickness and explosiveness, but yet the fights are still entertaining and it's still a fight.
"So, I think that people are conditioned to listen to what the world wants them to say and do and feel," he continued, "and the athletes are too. And I think you start to see a lot of athletes who step away from the sport and then all of a sudden they're very depressed, they drink, they do all these other things because they don't know what's wrong with them. They still want to be out there doing it. And if you put in the work, you're in the gym, putting in the work, you get yourself ready to go into a fight and go in and do it and fight somebody that makes sense, not someone that's a no. 1 ranked contender or anything stupid like that, but just guys that are fun, guys that are from your time, from your era, go in there and compete and the fans want to see it, then in it's entertainment. It's a fight, it's entertainment, so why not do it?
"Look at BJ Penn, look at BJ Penn coming back. I personally felt he stepped out way to soon. He needed a break, no question, because I don't believe his mind was there. But, if he wants to do it again, I don't wnat to hear people yelling at this guy, "Why are you coming back. He needs the money." This, that. People don't get it. It's not about the money, although it is nice to be able to make money doing something you love doing. But he's doing it because he has the itch and he's hungry again. So that's who he is. Leave it alone, man. We should be past that now. We should start looking at things and going... Listen, if we enjoy it and it's entertaining to us, don't listen to all these other people saying they don't belong in there. If you enjoy it, you enjoy it. Watch it."
That's not to say he thinks every fighter should just go on indefinitely, regardless of circumstance. For some fighters, retirement makes perfect sense.
"I also get some of the guys that really do give guys that want to compete and continue to keep doing it a bad name," Shamrock elaborated. "Because some guys just walk in there and they don't even train and they're in so bad a shape and they just look horrible. I think if you're going to be one of those guys, you want to fight, to continue to fight, then you need to put it on the line. You're not in there to try and drag a fight out, to try to go to a decision and say, 'Hey, I went to the distance!' You have to go out there and put it on the line and to be able to accept losing and winning fighting, not trying to survive."
Ken also talked about how the game has changed over the years. And while the sport has obviously changed a lot, even just over two decades, one of the things that he felt had changed the most was the feeling that MMA was once defined by really tough fighters.
"I do. And I've actually felt it in my matches," Shamrock said, speaking of the change in MMA that he would like to reverse. "I miss the part where they allowed tough guys to be tough guys. In other words, a guy that's able to take a punch and be able to continue to keep fighting and win a fight. After he's taken a beating in the first round, he comes back and wins the fight. We don't get to see those anymore, because we're so quick to step in and stop it. I got a prime example for you. The Kimbo Slice fight. He hit me with a hard shot, no question that shot was hard. He hit me in the forehead, no question that shot knocked me down. But, the question is, was I done? Was I finished? And we don't get to see that anymore. We don't get to see guys have to go and finish a fight. To me, that's what I miss about MMA. That's what I miss about old school, is that they don't make these guys have to go finish the fight."
"You see a guy sitting down and he's the alternate," he continued, talking about what defined the no-holds-barred days of mixed martial arts. "I did that a couple times in my career where you fight a guy, the guy you're supposed to fight breaks his hand, so you get an alternate come in fresh, didn't even fight. And you were in the main card and already had one fight this guy and you go, 'Wait a minute, what's his style?'
"You look at it too, and to me, that was the toughness of the fighters then. Now people worry about their one fight they have, how the trained for it, getting prepared for it, getting nervous for it. What we did, we didn't know who we were going to fight. When we did fight them, we could fight somebody else that dropped out, and now it's a completely different guy who's fresh, and nobody questioned it. Everybody just said, 'Hey man, let's ball. Let's do it.' To me, the mentality of the fighters then was... It was no question then about complaining about this or about that, man. People just went in and fought.
"And skill sets, you know... It's a different ballgame now. With just the types of fighters that are coming up now, they've had plenty of time to learn and craft their skills. But, when you talk about just toughness, mental toughness, forget about skill sets and abilities, just the mental toughness that most of those guys had that fought in those days, to me it was just night and day from what we have today."
And while Shamrock would like to see refs let fights go a little more, and to see guys "have to go and finish a fight," he's much less hesitant about the other improvements in fighter safety that have taken place over the years.
"I like the idea that we're definitely moving towards stopping fights," Shamrock said, when asked about the changes he has been happy to see. "There are some times you see a guy against the fence and he's pinned there and he's taking 20 shots unanswered and he's bleeding, you don't see him making any maneuver to really try and improve himself. I agree with that, I do, no question. We have to protect this sport we love. We can't allow guys to just take a beating and get killed. But, I really think that the problem we run into is that there's no consistency in the commission with the referees, with allowing the referees to have to go through certain standards of testing, everybody having to go by the same rules. What is a stoppage? How many shots does a guy have to take before we stop a fight? What's the necessity of stopping a fight? What's the necessity of stopping a fight if a guy is not trying to improve his position? In fact it's so questionable. What is punching behind the head? Is it behind the ears or is it when a guy turns his head, does it count? There's so many questions that we haven't ironed out yet. But I love the idea of making a conscious effort to try and make this sport safe. That, I do love. I do like that."
And it's not just an increased emphasis on safety that's changed. Shamrock has seen, first hand, the evolution of the MMA meta-game and the greater and more varied skill sets of the younger fighters that have come after him.
"Yeah, if you're talking about the atmosphere within the organizations in MMA, the world of MMA, it's a different breed," said Shamrock. "You're talking about guys that have actually been able to craft their skills from the age of 10 years old, the age of 15 years old, and then growing up doing this stuff. The skill set is just tremendous, the reaction times and the training and all stuff, it's so technical anymore. The reaction time to me is the amazing part. Watching guys react to counter punches and takedowns and submission setups to me is just tremendous. The knowledge and awareness of what we have out there is just... You see it in the fighters when they walk in the ring. That's what I look at and it's night and day from what we did. There's so much more out there for these guys to be able to read into, look up, and learn from. A lot of us had to learn on our own, on the fly while we were in the ring, or even before that we had to set up our own types of strategies to beat different types of fighters."
But, not all changes to the MMA world have come inside the cage. Perhaps one of the hardest hitting for for Shamrock was the end of the MMA fitness craze. It's something he credits with his own need to shift gears away from gym ownership.
"I wasn't really one that had the pie in the sky," said Shamrock. "I kind of relied on things that I had, which was my gym, I had the Lion's Den, I had franchises throughout the world, South Africa, England, different places. And when I actually stepped away, we were doing well. And then all of a sudden, the bottom just dropped out of the gym business. So, it was just like we were competing with fitness places charging $9.99 for signups. Whatever happened with the 'MMA training' and people getting involved in gyms and stuff like that, that went away. So there's really no gyms. Couture's and Tito's and you name all the other gyms out there that were going when I was first doing well and they started up and they were doing well, but then the bottom just dropped out of all of it. So, what I had relied on kinda just fell through. I had gyms and fighters and things like that and I was just like, 'You know what? I'm not gonna bust my butt trying to make ends meet with these gyms, and I'm only making $30-40,000 a month on these different types of gyms. And I'm putting in this much work trying to do all these things to keep these things afloat, keep making money.'
"And it just felt like, 'Why work for not a whole lot of money?' Especially with all the bills and things that I had going on with all the gyms and all the other business stuff I had going on. My overhead was pretty high. So, I had to cut corners and get rid of all of that stuff. I started focusing more on creating opportunities with my name. Instead of going out and singing autographs and getting paid money for it, I would go to business and I would look and say, 'Hey, I would be interested in working with this company, or being involved in this company.' And I would go to them and I would say, "Hey, listen..." Especially with the stock market. You look at the stock market and companies that are going public, trying to create new opportunities and marketing strategies, I would go to them and I'd go, 'Hey, I got an idea. I'm pretty popular, I've got opportunities in fighting and would be able to advertise quite a few things with my name. I'm a popular guy. I would just want equity ownership.' Instead of that one time pop where they pay you when you come in, I would want equity ownership of different businesses. So, nothing comes out of your pocket and we all make money.
Moving ahead to his upcoming fight with Royce Gracie, Shamrock was open about what didn't work in his MMA return against Kimbo last June. A combination of cage rust and low expectations for his opponent took him from an easy win to a TKO loss.
"I'm more comfortable, you know?" Shamrock said, of his preparation for his fight with Gracie. "I think, going in after being out of the ring for four or five years, even though when I went into this fight with Kimbo I really thought that this was a foregone conclusion, that the guy's got no skill, I'm going to walk right through him, it's not going to be much work... I didn't kill myself in training, I did enough to make sure I was in shape. I didn't put any pounding on my body, because I had definitely wanted to do another fight. I didn't know what or where, but I knew I wanted to fight again. So, I felt I would just ease into it, Kimbo would be a great a warmup fight. Lots of popularity, get good exposure, and I could just walk right through him.
"And everything went to plan. Now, the problem was, because I had been out of the ring for so long, I was just going through practices and I would catch guys with chokes and I would let them go, I would catch a guy with an armbar then I would let him go. And then when I got in a fight, the same thing happened. I caught him, he tapped. But the problem is, when he tapped it was one of those little baby taps. I eased up on him and he put his chin down, and from there everybody knows what happened from there. I gave him an opportunity to catch me with a punch and then game over."
As for Royce, he's not taking him lightly, even if he's not quite the imposing figure that Kimbo Slice cut.
"Whether he's less powerful or any of that stuff, what's happening here is that he's a different fighter. Now I had a guy that was big and powerful, which I usually do pretty well against guys like that. And then I got a guy who is in good shape and conditioning, but he's technical. So, it's just a different fight, but equally as dangerous."
"I just want to make sure I put this out there," Shamrock continued, "this is just not another fight. This fight means everything to me. Even if Royce says it's just another fight, but he's not telling the truth. This fight means everything to both of us, because what it does is, it tells the end of the story of both our legacies. And I promise you, he doesn't want to be on the losing end of the story, and neither do I."
But, win or lose next time, the future for Shamrock is wide open. He's signing his contracts with Bellator one fight at a time, dependent on the promotion finding him the right opponents.
"I really take each fight one at a time. I do one fight contracts, I don't do long term contracts. I want to make sure I focus on the fight. And then, depending on what happens, I look down and say, 'Okay, what else looks interesting.' Because, today it's not about chasing the title or being ranked in the world, it's about taking fights that the fans really want. So, that's why I keep myself open, for those fights."
Ken Shamrock and Royce Gracie fight for the third time in the main event of Bellator 149, on Friday, February 19th.
You can find Shamrock on Twitter @ShamrockKen