Ken Shamrock’s greatest hits
Many years before the term “mixed martial arts” was coined in the late ’90s, Ken Shamrock was one of the pioneers of what was first known by such terms as “shooting,” “shoot style pro wrestling,” “Hybrid Wrestling,” “Ultimate Fighting” and “No Holds Barred” fighting. A look at some of his most historic matches:
October 4, 1992, Tokyo Dome: At a pro wrestling event, a rare legitimate match was booked where Wayne Shamrock, as Ken was known in Japan, faced world kickboxing champion Don Nakaya Nielsen. Shamrock took Nielsen down immediately and submitted him with an ankle lock in 45 seconds. The success of this match made young pro wrestlers Shamrock, Masakatsu Funaki and Minoru Suzuki question what they had been told since breaking into predetermined wrestling: that nobody would ever pay to see real matches.
September 21, 1993, Tokyo: Shamrock, Funaki and Suzuki spearheaded a group of pro wrestlers and decided to abandon everything people had told them about real matches not being marketable. They formed a promotion called Pancrase, named by ’60s wrestling star Karl Gotch after the sport of Pankration in the ancient Olympics, which combined all different forms of fighting into one sport. Using pro wrestling rules – no closed first punching, breaks on the ropes, but fighting for real – Shamrock beat Funaki via choke in 6:15 in the main event of the first of what was billed as an all-shoot match pro wrestling show. The show drew an enthusiastic sellout crowd of 7,000 fans, who didn’t know what they would be seeing, but when it was over, both the fans and media heavily praised this new form of pro wrestling.
November 12, 1993, Denver: Around the same time as the formation of Pancrase, in the U.S., Brazilian jiu-jitsu instructor Rorion Gracie took a concept of fighting in a circular cage, inviting fighters from many different sports from karate, kickboxing, jiu-jitsu, sumo and boxing for what was supposed to be a one-time-only tournament, the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Shamrock, billed as the world shoot-fighting champion, was co-favorite with Rorion’s younger brother, 175-pound Royce Gracie. Shamrock took Gracie down and went for an ankle lock, but got reversed and choked in 57 seconds. Gracie won the tournament, and the event was successful enough on pay-per-view that a second was held, and it was even more successful.
December 16-17, 1994, Tokyo: Shamrock defeated, in succession, world kickboxing champion (and future UFC champion) Maurice Smith, Alex Cook, Funaki and Manabu Yamada in the toughest mixed styles tournament held until that point in history, to become the first King of Pancrase world champion before crowds of 11,000 fans both nights at Tokyo’s Sumo Hall.
April 7, 1995, Charlotte: The Shamrock-Gracie rematch at UFC 5 became the biggest match of MMA’s early days. A dull match that went 36 minutes, mostly with Shamrock on top in Gracie’s guard and staying there, was stopped and ruled a draw. Shamrock did connect with a hard punch at the 30-minute mark which left Gracie bloodied and physically looking like the loser. Gracie, the early king of UFC, quit at that point rather than come back for another rematch and didn’t return to UFC for 11 years. The match drew 260,000 buys on pay-per-view, the largest non-boxing sports event on pay-per-view up to that point in history.
July 14, 1995, Casper, Wyoming: Shamrock defeated multi-time national wrestling champion Dan Severn with a guillotine choke in 2:14 in a match to determine the first UFC Superfight champion. This championship is today known as the UFC heavyweight championship. The match drew 240,000 buys on pay-per-view.
May 17, 1996, Detroit: Severn defeated Shamrock via split decision to win the Superfight championship. The match, before a sellout of 10,000 fans at Cobo Arena, was among the worst in UFC history. The two mostly circled each other, daring the other to make a move, for most of the 30 minutes, which saw Severn have 90 seconds of advantage time to about 45 seconds for Shamrock when it hit the ground. Before the match, due to media stories saying the event was pure brutality and not sport, Canadian PPV companies refused to air the show. Canada had been responsible for about 20 percent of pay-per-view buys, starting a domino-like trend where one major U.S. cable company after another stopped airing the shows over the next 18 months. With the sports future in jeopardy, Shamrock left UFC to return to pro wrestling, this time as a star with the World Wrestling Federation.
February 24, 2002, Saitama Super Arena in Japan: The PRIDE Fighting Championships, by this point drawing record crowds in Japan, attempted to become a big player in the U.S. market by pitting Shamrock against former UFC star Don Frye. In what was the last great match of Shamrock’s career, he lost a split decision even though he got several leglocks on Frye, who refused to tap and had his knees and ankles ruined in the process. Frye was never the same fighter. However, even with the two big-name Americans and a national media tour, only about 20,000 homes bought the pay-per-view.
November 22, 2002, Las Vegas: UFC was struggling, with most pay-per-view events doing 30,000-45,000 buys. The Tito Ortiz vs. Shamrock grudge match for the UFC light heavyweight title, fueled by an appearance on the “Best Damn Sports Show” back in a time when MMA got zero coverage on television, sold out the MGM Grand Garden Arena with the company’s first ever million-dollar gate and did 150,000 buys on pay-per-view, the largest number in six years. Ortiz dominated the fight, pounding Shamrock’s face into hamburger meat before ref John McCarthy finally stopped it after three rounds.
April 9, 2005, Las Vegas: In the main event on the first live MMA show on U.S. television, Shamrock was knocked out by punches on the ground against rising star Rich Franklin in 2:42. By this point, the event got a mention in Sports Illustrated and the show did 2.6 million viewers, well more than enough to insure a long-lasting relationship between the promotion and broadcast partner Spike TV.
July 8, 2006, Las Vegas: In the most anticipated fight of the new era of UFC, coming off 13 weeks of buildup, trash talking and even a couple of pull-apart skirmishes on Spike, the second Shamrock vs. Ortiz fight sold out the Mandalay Bay Events Center, and three theaters were opened up for the overflow. It set what were then North American MMA records with 775,000 buys on pay-per-view and a $3.4 million gate. But Ortiz took Shamrock down and hit him with a series of elbows before ref Herb Dean stopped the match in 1:18. Watching the slow-mo, Shamrock did go limp from one elbow but revived for the next. Shamrock and the crowd were furious at the early stoppage, and Dana White immediately put together a rematch on television.
October 10, 2006, Sunrise, FL: “The Final Chapter,” a television special on Spike TV where Ortiz once again took down Shamrock and beat him in 2:23 with strikes on the ground, put UFC on the map as a major television sport. About 5.7 million viewers saw the match live, and in the male 18-34 demographic, it did an unheard-of 8.0 rating for the match itself, more than double what the Detroit Tigers vs. Oakland A’s American League Championship series game did head-to-head on FOX. After the match Shamrock announced his retirement, one which obviously didn’t last.