Royce Gracie and Ken Shamrock first fought on Nov. 12, 1993, at McNichols Arena in Denver, Colo.
If that night seems familiar, it should be: it was the night of UFC 1. Gracie met Shamrock in his second fight of the night, and quickly submitted the "World’s Most Dangerous Man" in 57 seconds, en route to the winning the inaugural tournament.
The two destined rivals would meet again in 1995 at UFC 5 in the company’s very first ‘superfight.’ The match ended in a controversial draw after the initial 30-minute time limit was reached, and a six-minute overtime resolved nothing.
Now, more than two decades later, as Gracie prepares to meet Shamrock for a third time in the main event of Friday’s Bellator 149, the same things that bothered him all those years ago still ring true.
“I always thought he was arrogant,” Gracie recalled. “He thought he was king of the world – everyone should move out of the way when he walks by.
“Even back then he thought he was superior than everybody. It’s like, come on, man. That’s not martial arts. I’m a martial artist. I respect and I like respect. He doesn’t respect anybody. He just walks around, talking trash. That’s not the martial artist I chose to be.”
There are few, if any, more important fighters in the history of mixed martial arts than Royce Gracie.
He is the winner of UFC’s 1, 2 and 4 – all one-night tournaments, with minimal rules, where Gracie fought up to three times in a night. He once fought Japanese legend Kazushi Sakuraba for an incredible 90 minutes and the fight was only stopped when Gracie could no longer continue due to a broken femur. He was also one of the first two entrants into the UFC’s Hall of Fame (along with none other than Ken Shamrock).
Countless world champions list the Brazilian submission fighter as their biggest influence. For the better part of two decades, Royce Gracie has become synonymous with the sport of MMA, and vice versa.
Fans last saw Gracie on June 2, 2007, in a controversial victory over Sakuraba. After the event Gracie tested for elevated levels of testosterone – a result he still contests. And whether he admits it or not, perhaps this fight against Shamrock is an opportunity to set things straight.
The main event of Bellator 149 on Friday will only be Gracie’s 20th career fight. Normally a fighter spends his entire professional existence scratching and clawing to earn a legacy like Gracie.
Gracie, however, has been the main attraction from the moment he burst onto the scene as a scrawny Brazilian competing against the world’s toughest fighters, and he still in the main attraction now, in a fight that could be his last – a true rarity in the fickle sport of mixed martial arts.
Belts aren’t at stake Friday, but honor and legacy certainly are.
Shamrock will be 52 when he steps in the cage, and Gracie isn't too far behind at 49. If there’s a score to settle, now is the time.
These days Gracie isn’t training for Shamrock like he did in the '90s. He’s older now, wiser. He doesn’t take much hard sparring.
Gracie compares himself to a veteran soldier preparing for combat: “All my equipment is still perfect. My joints are good. My ability is good. My timing is good. I’m on target. I’m still on the same weight I was 20 years ago. I just haven’t been to war yet.”
Gracie's philosophy is that fighters needs to space out their training. Taking a fight every couple of months “doesn’t do anybody any good,” in his opinion. Luckily for him, he rose to prominence so early in his career that he spent got to pick his opponents as he saw fit toward the end.
Now heading into his fight with Shamrock as a bonafide legend, there is a prevailing thought in the MMA world that somehow this trilogy fight could damage their legacy. After all, this is a far cry from ’93 and ’95, and what fans may see – aesthetically speaking – may not live up to expectations.
“If I worried about that I wouldn’t walk to the cage,” he said when asked about tarnishing his legacy with Shamrock. “From the beginning, was I worried about if I lost, would it put down the family name? No. I didn’t even think about it. It’s me that is going to lose if I lose, not all Gracie jiu-jitsu. We’ve already proven that Gracie Jiu-jitsu is the best.”
As revered and respected as Gracie is, there are critics saying he should stay retired. Even more extreme are those calling this Shamrock trilogy fight a blatant cash grab. To those detractors, the man who once put his entire family and sport on his back, has his own ‘hot take’:
“For anyone that critiques, not just a fighter – what do you call them Monday Morning Quarterbacks – for those, I say: go do what we do for a living instead of sitting at home, eating popcorn and drinking soda and criticizing us.
“Not just in MMA, not just my fight, but any athlete that’s out there; from downhill skiing, to swimming, to football, to basketball. People are like, ‘Oh, he’s old. He can’t shoot anymore, he can’t dunk, he can’t pass the ball, he can’t run – well, go do what he does. Simple. Come do what I do, come fight my fights.”