SAN JOSE, Calif. – A lot of people ask why San Jose, with the exception of Las Vegas, consistently draws the biggest mixed martial arts crowds in the United States.
The answer is a lot simpler than you'd think. In 1997, Frank Shamrock moved to the city south of San Francisco. For a few years, he was the biggest star in the UFC, but that was during the dark ages of the sport.
During that period, he established the American Kickboxing Academy as one of the sport's top gyms, and in 2004, he talked local kickboxing promoter Scott Coker to make the move to MMA.
While no longer affiliated with the gym and now running his own schools, Shamrock (24-10-2), the first UFC light heavyweight (then called middleweight) champion, announced on Saturday night at the HP Pavilion that he was retiring due to a variety of injuries at age 37.
"I'm old and beat up and I'd rather spend the time with my daughter, my son and my family than crippling myself in the gym," said Shamrock, whose spine problems had been so serious he couldn't play golf of late without intense pain and who probably hadn't been truly injury free for a fight in 11 years. "The sport has grown way past me. I do want to say that Scott Coker took a big chance with mixed martial arts and with me. I always showed up to fight no matter how hurt I was or how sick I was or how broken I was. I was down to do whatever was necessary."
Shamrock started in the Pancrase organization in Japan in 1994. It was the first organization that popularized the sport in that country. Starting out in the shadow of adopted brother Ken Shamrock, the top fighter in the company, Frank briefly held the Pancrase championship and had legendary battles with the likes of Bas Rutten, Yuki Kondo, Masakatsu Funaki and Allan Goes.
While it is basically erased from the UFC version of the history of the sport, Shamrock's run as champion from Dec. 21, 1997, through relinquishing the title on Sept. 24, 1999, was one of the most impressive runs in company history.
He won the championship by beating 1992 Olympic wrestling gold medalist Kevin Jackson in 14 seconds with an armbar. He followed with a 22-second win against Igor Zinoviev, at the time the other major champion in the sport, with one of the most devastating slams in UFC history. His final UFC appearance, against Tito Ortiz, still is considered the greatest match of the UFC's early days. Giving up 25 pounds in the cage, he survived three rounds of ground and pound with movement on the bottom that gassed out his far bigger and stronger opponent.
He only fought twice in the next six years, starting his third era in the sport. He was the biggest drawing card in Strikeforce's history, having headlined the company's three biggest crowds for his fights with Cesar Gracie, Cung Le and Nick Diaz. He also drew three of the six largest MMA ratings on Showtime for fights with Renzo Gracie, Phil Baroni and Diaz.
During the final stretch of his career, Shamrock arguably was the best fighter in North America when it came to promoting fights. His fight with Gracie, on March 10, 2006, in San Jose, still holds the paid attendance record for the sport in the U.S. with 17,465 fans.
"Mentally, after I fought Diaz [his final fight on April 11, 2009, at the HP Pavilion], my spine was really messed up," he said. "I attempted to go back into a training camp months later. My spine, my neck, my ribs, nothing was holding up. I was spending more time in therapy than I was training. That told me it was time to go home."
Shamrock came from an era in the '90s where nobody knew much about training methods, and it was all hit-or-miss. In those days, the fighters trained all-out daily and fought every month. It led to destruction of the joints and chronic physical problems at too young an age. Shamrock evolved and trained smarter years later, but the damage already was done.
"I took a lot of physical punishment to learn the art of fighting," said Shamrock, who shared the ring with his family, including his 2-year-old daughter, and got a standing ovation when finishing the announcement that surprised the crowd. "That was the most amazing journey I've ever been on."
Le avenges Smith loss
Shamrock's partner in building the San Jose market, former San Shou world champion Cung Le, had his own set of emotions in avenging his only career loss and becoming a father within days of each other.
Le (7-1) stopped Rocky-esque foe Scott Smith (18-7, 1 no contest) at 1:46 of the second round after knocking the wind out of Smith with a spin kick to the body and hard body and head punches on the ground.
In their Dec. 19 fight in the same building, Smith took two-plus rounds of a one-sided beating from Le, only to knock him out in Round 3.
Unlike the first fight, where Smith was unable to get past Le's assortment of kicks to get inside, he had a strategy here to rush in a fight tight, negating Le's best weapon, his feet.
But Le outboxed him, and in the second round, Le turned the fight into the same type of game the first two rounds of the first fight were.
"I knew I had to get in shape," he said after gassing out in the third round of the first fight and suffering from ring rust after 21 months off doing several movies. "I trained hard. I ate really clean. I cut out pizza and chocolate for seven weeks. I got a big box of chocolate chip cookies ready for me, and I'm going to eat every single one of them."
"He went out there and outboxed me," Smith said. "I wasn't expecting that at all. I was working hard for this fight, working real hard for my movement. I had a tough camp. I can't wait to keep working on my movement. Congratulations, Cung. I'd like to fight Cung any day of the week."
Le said it was too early to think about possibly entering a planned tournament for the Strikeforce middleweight title if Jake Shields vacates the title and signs with UFC.
Shields was at the show and said nothing was finalized, but UFC president Dana White has all but guaranteed he was going to sign Shields. Strikeforce has a few more weeks during which it can contractually match any outside offer.
Shields, currently serving a three-month suspension from the Tennessee State Athletic Commission stemming from a brawl at the most recent CBS show, said he expected to make a decision shortly.
"I just haven't had the chance to think past this fight or about any tournament," said Le, who had a boy, Robert, on Monday. "It's been a rough week. My wife was in labor for 14 hours and then needed an emergency C-section because the umbilical cord was wrapped around the baby's throat. It was really draining, and I was exhausted until Thursday. I got four of five hours of sleep yesterday."
'Cyborg' retains title
Cristiane "Cyborg" Santos (10-1) retained her Strikeforce middleweight championship, defeating an overmatched Jan "Cuddles" Finney (8-8) at 2:56 of the second round.
If nothing else, Finney was game, refusing to quit while taking a beating that resulted in cuts and bruises all over her face in a fight that went on so long it became difficult to watch.
Finney was saved by the bell at the end of the first round and fired back in the second, landing some good shots on Santos, but there was a reason Santos was as much as a 33-to-1 favorite going in.
"I felt the fight should have been stopped earlier, but I was going to push until the end eventually came," said Santos through an interpreter.
Coker said Santos likely would next defend her championship against Erin Toughill (10-2-1), an 11-year veteran who would at least not be giving up the kind of size and power Finney did.