MMA pioneer Bob Shamrock remembered

Bob Shamrock, the adoptive father of mixed martial arts legends Ken and Frank Shamrock, two of the sport’s biggest stars in its embryonic period, passed away on Thursday at the age of 68 due to health problems brought on by diabetes.

Shamrock was the father figure for a wild group of younger fighters in the mid-90s, who called themselves the Lion’s Den, the forerunner today’s major camps. In MMA’s early days, the Lion’s Den, a group of guys who were always together at the early UFC and overseas events, stood out amid the strange assortment of characters that were prevalent at the time.

But Bob Shamrock should best be remembered as unique, outgoing, and overly friendly man with a huge heart who gave hope to hundreds of California teenagers over 30 years caught up in the dead end of the foster-care system, through his Shamrock Boys Home in Susanville, Calif.

Ken was brought to the home as a teenager in 1979, after a youth spent on the streets, in juvenile hall and foster care. Frank came aboard in 1987, going through a foster-care system that led him to his own life going nowhere.

“The type of boys he brought in, they would make me nervous,” noted HDNet Fights president Guy Mezger, who was a competition kickboxer before becoming a member of the original Lion’s Den team in 1994. “If they would make me nervous, most people should have been very nervous.”

Bob Shamrock and his and wife, Dee Dee, started taking in troubled youths in 1970. His caring for those less fortunate started young, as when he was a child, he’d go to the mission in Los Angeles, where he grew up, and serve meals to the homeless and play piano for them.

It started when he and his wife decided to take in one child. Then suddenly they found out about others and there were four. At times they raised as many as 18 children on a big ranch which had horses, a gym, a swimming pool along with basketball and tennis courts.

Ken Shamrock was brought to the ranch with two other boys by a probation officer. Bob Shamrock’s home was like a different world for him. Bob pushed him into sports like football, wrestling, weightlifting and bodybuilding. He was a high school star in football and wrestling. Three years after he arrived in his home, Bob Shamrock formally adopted Ken.

“The truth is, if it wasn’t for Bob, Ken would probably either be in prison or dead,” Mezger said. “Bob couldn’t have loved him more if he had pulled him out of the womb himself.”

“And Frank, he’s a handful now, so imagine what he was like as a teenager. Frank got into trouble and went to jail, and Bob was there visiting him every day he could.”

“And it wasn’t just Ken and Frank, Vernon (White, an early Lion’s Den fighter and another first generation MMA star), he was like a son of him. There were hundreds of kids he brought into his home and he turned a lot of their lives around. The ones who became successful owe it to Bob,” Mezger added.

“My mother was great, but my father beat me up and it wasn’t until I met him and he took me in that I for the first time in my life saw what a father should be,” said an emotional Jens Pulver, who moved to Lockeford, Calif., where Bob Shamrock was living, in 1999.

“I looked up to him. I got started in what I wanted to do in life because of him. So much of what I want to be, helping out kids with my own gym, is from what I learned from him.”

Pulver, who hated his name because it was the same as his father’s, even asked Bob at one point if he could take the Shamrock name since Bob was the first real father figure he felt he ever had.

“He told me, ‘You go out there and make the Pulver name mean something good,” said Pulver, who went on to become the first 155-pound champion in UFC history.

Pulver was part of the “Shamrock 2000” team, a short-lived camp Bob had put together while Ken moved away and left MMA for pro wrestling. Pulver noted that there was a little kid who would show up at the gym to hit the bags in those days named Nick Diaz with his younger brother Nate, both of whom later became MMA stars.

Pulver wanted to fight full-time, but they didn’t have the right training partners for him. Shamrock put him in contact with Monte Cox and sent him to Iowa, where Pat Miletich was starting a camp where he could train full-time.

“My whole life, through high school and college, was in his house,” he said. “I took everything I had when I moved to train with his team. Then, I left for Iowa, it’s still there.”

It was fighters who started with Shamrock that were the original champions in three of the UFC’s first four weight divisions. Ken was the original superfight champion in 1995, beating Dan Severn, which became the heavyweight championship. Frank was the first middleweight champion in 1997, beating Olympic gold medal winning wrestler Kevin Jackson, which is now the light heavyweight champion. Pulver beat Caol Uno to become the first bantamweight champion in 2001, which is now the lightweight champion. Mikey Burnett, another Lion’s Den member, lost a close split decision to Pat Miletich for the creation of the lightweight championship in 1999, which is today’s welterweight title.

The road to the Lion’s Den glory days started when Bob Shamrock, a huge pro wrestling fan, thought, since there was no such thing as mixed martial arts at the time, that Ken had the look, the toughness and athletic ability to be a pro wrestling star.

He paid for Ken to attend pro wrestling school in the late 1980s in Sacramento, and later moved with Ken to the Carolinas to help him start his career.

While wrestling there, Ken met up with Dean Simon, better known by his wrestling stage name of Dean Malenko, who ran a wrestling school with his father in Tampa which trained guys in legitimate submission maneuvers. Ken became a wrestling star in Japan and then joined a promotion called Pancrase, named after the ancient Greek Olympic sport of Pankration, which featured pro wrestlers in matches without predetermined endings.

Ken Shamrock and Royce Gracie were UFC’s two biggest stars during a period of major pay-per-view success through 1996. Frank, who Bob also adopted, along with Mezger. During the darkest days of UFC history, when its existence was hanging by a thread in 1998-99, Frank, as middleweight champion, was the company’s biggest star. Later, Frank was instrumental to the beginnings of the Strikeforce promotion.

Bob Shamrock could be stubborn at times, likely because he had to remain firm, or else he would have been taken advantage of by the kids he housed. There were times in their adult lives that Bob was estranged from both Ken and Frank. He and Ken made amends, and as a token of his gratitude, Ken bought Bob a 1968 Rolls Royce.

“I don’t want to say he was like Mother Teresa, but he was the closest thing,” Mezger said. “When people think of Bob Shamrock, they’ll talk about Ken and Frank, but he changes the lives of hundreds of kids, and that’s what he should be remembered for.”

Dave Meltzer covers mixed martial arts for Yahoo! Sports. Send Dave a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Jan 18, 2010