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(Props to Dreamfighters.)

Bobby Lashley doesn’t regret walking away from a lucrative professional wrestling career to enter the fight game; it’s what he really wanted to do all along.

The former professional wrestler, born Franklin Roberto Lashley, enlisted in the U.S. Army after winning the last of three NAIA National Championships at Missouri Valley College. “I was fortunate enough to go straight into the [Army’s] wrestling program,” Lashley said, and the grappler spent nearly 4 years stationed in Colorado Springs, Colo, home of the Olympic Training Center. Part of the Army’s World Class Athlete program, Lashley’s routine consisted mostly of formations, roll call, and freestyle wrestling. While in the service, Lashley won a silver medal at the Conseil International du Sport Militaire Military World Games.

Discharged in 2004, Lashley dabbled in MMA training before he was approached with a World Wrestling Entertainment developmental contract. Carrying nearly 100 pounds more chiseled muscle than he did as a collegiate wrestler, Lashley performed in regional shows and wrestled in WWE dark (i.e., un-televised) matches before becoming a “face,” or good-guy champion for the subsidiary promotion Extreme Championship Wrestling.

The company had built Lashley into a main-event performer by the time he was released in early February 2008. The wrestler is unable to discuss the exact circumstances of his departure from the WWE, but he said when he was released from his contract he “still had that wrestling drive” to train and compete. Having recovered from injuries suffered in WWE shows, he was in top physical condition, so the decision to revisit MMA was a simple one.

The wrestler signed a two-fight contract with Kentucky-based upstart promotion American Fight League at the end of May 2008 and began training in earnest. Lashley said he wanted to earn credibility in MMA by working his way up to the top shows, and AFL CEO William “BJ” Santiago, “had the plan that made the most sense to me.”

Lashley’s own plan included signing on with First Round Management and joining American Top Team. Though he has made a home in Denver with his girlfriend, former WWE wrestler Kristal Marshall, and their infant son, Myles, Lashley initially used the ATT location in Fort Lauderdale as his primary camp. The top-level instruction, positive environment, and track record all factored into his decision. The fact that large men like Marcus “Conan” Silveira and Antonio Silva are there for him to work with was a bonus.

Lashley’s first professional fight took place at Mixed Fighting Alliance’s inaugural event on December 13, 2008, at Miami’s American Airlines Arena. The fighter wasted no time in snatching Joshua Franklin’s left leg and smashing him to the mat. Lashley backed off and attempted to throw strikes, but Franklin scrambled to his feet, eating several punches from Lashley in the process. Moments later, the referee halted the action, and the cage-side doctor stopped the fight due to a nasty laceration on Franklin’s forehead.

Lashley followed that up with a lackluster decision win over veteran Jason Guida at Roy Jones’ “March Badness” event before signing with Calgary, Canada’s Maximum Fighting Championship promotion. Lashley flattened and choked his opponent inside of a minute, escaping unscathed for his next test, against Bob Sapp on June 27 in Biloxi, Miss.

Earlier this month, Lashley announced that he would be training closer to home at T’s KO Fight Club, home of Shane Carwin, Nate Marquardt, and Duane Ludwig, and a sister gym to Greg Jackson’s Submission Fighting facility in Albuquerque, NM. If there were doubts that Lashley was serious about MMA, three wins in his first three fights should have put them to rest.

Update: FIGHT! was notified that Lashley is no longer with First Round and is represented by Shambala Sports and Entertainment.

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(Swick wrecks Jonathan Goulet. Photo by Paul Thatcher)
(Swick wrecks Jonathan Goulet. Photo by Paul Thatcher)

Mike Swick is quick – maybe too quick.

“If you get five fights in the UFC and five of them didn’t go past the first round—that’s not good. That’s not a good thing,” said Dave Camarillo. Noted judo and jiu jitsu practitioner Camarillo serves as Swick’s grappling coach at American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, Calif. “It might be good for fans, and for sponsors and the hype, but when we’re at the labratory, we’re putting the chemicals together, we’re making the recipe for victory, the experience is a huge driving factor in that,” Camarillo said.

The fighter demolished his first four UFC opponents in only ten seconds more than a regulation three-round fight. But then “Quick” Swick slowed down. His fifth and sixth fights went decisions, the latter a loss to oft-injured middleweight contender Yushin Okami. Swick was injured and dropped to welterweight where he picked up decision wins over Josh Burkman and Marcus Davis.

It may not make fans happy, but Camarillo is pleased as punch. “We want three rounds. We want five rounds,” the trainer said. “[Jon] Fitch is tested. He had a tough, five five-minute round fight with [Georges St-Pierre]. Those were crucial. And when he had his loss, he learned a lot, Swick did. We’re just gonna continue to build.”

And Swick is building, recently achieving the rank of purple belt in Camarillo’s Guerilla Jiu-Jitsu system. The judo and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt described Swick’s ground game as “night and day what it used to be.”

The largest evolution of Swick’s game, though, is confidence. With teammates and fellow welterweights Josh Koscheck and Jon Fitch already coming up short against current champion Georges St-Pierre, Swick has motivation to keep fighting for every breath.

“He’s gunning for that belt without a doubt—with every fight, with every ounce of energy that he puts into that cage,” said Camarillo, joking that the third time is a charm for his team against St-Pierre.

But first there’s the matter of Ben Saunders, a large, undefeated welterweight from American Top Team. Saunders impressed fans at “UFC Fight for the Troops” by turning Brandon Wolff’s face into a church kneeler on the same night that “Quick” disposed of Jonathan Goulet in just 33 seconds.

Camarillo doesn’t expect similar brevity when the two face off. “I think its gonna be a three-round fight. I think its gonna be a three-round war,” he said.

How do you think Swick will fare against Saunders?

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(Junior Dos Santos celebrates his win over Cro Cop.)

Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira discussed his protege, Junior Dos Santos, with FIGHT! photographer Paul Thatcher after Dos Santos’ win at UFC 103.

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In an era of MMA monikers such as ‘The Iceman,’ ‘The Predator’ and ‘The Massacre,’ the unassuming nickname ‘The Big Frog’ may not garner much attention, but don’t let the name fool you. WEC’s Jeff “The Big Frog” Curran has more hop in his step than the average guy and he’s got more irons in the fire than a Texas cattle rancher on branding day. Look to the frog to jump from Featherweight to Bantamweight in the WEC in 2009.

The name “The Big Frog” came about, oddly enough, about 10 years ago during warm-ups at Pedro Sauer’s school (Jeff is a first-degree black belt under Sauer) where two Brazilians kept calling him “big frog” in Portuguese. When Curran asked why, he was told he looked like the amphibian while doing frog-like warm-up exercises and he had a tattoo of a tree frog on his back. Even though the two occurrences were never linked, the name stuck.

Master of All Trades, Jack of None
Jeff Curran can best be described as a modern-day Renaissance man who has mastered many areas and is constantly reinventing himself. For starters, he owns and operates a multi-million dollar training facility and small MMA promotion, manages a few fighters and teaches Jiu-Jitsu and Muay Thai classes at his gym when he’s not training for professional MMA and boxing matches.

No stranger to the gym business, he’s been involved for 11 years, having moved locations seven times, and growing in size with each move. He is currently the president and head instructor of Curran Martial Arts Academy, a 24,000 square foot training facility in Crystal Falls, Illinois, near where he grew up.

“A lot of gyms are like little training centers inside of fitness centers and I’m kind of the opposite; I’ve got a fitness center inside of a martial arts gym,” says Curran. The facility offers a plethora of activities, including Jiu-Jitsu, Muay Thai boxing, fitness classes, yoga and many programs for children.

Growing Smaller MMA Promotions
When he’s not teaching classes or training for a fight himself, Curran helps up-and-coming fighters—like his cousin Pat Curran, Nate Mohr and Bart Palaszewski—and others train for fights through X-treme Fighting Organization, a small fight company he co-promotes with his manager Monte Cox and Dan Lardy, one of his partners at the gym. Mohr fights for UFC, and Palaszewski recently won his WEC debut with a KO over Alex Karalexis, which also earned Fight of the Night Honors.

“We wanted to…promote fighters from our area instead of the Iowa-Quad Cities area, where Extreme Challenge was born,” explains Curran. “This was my way of having to showcase my fighters and other local fighters and giving them a fair shot and a chance to get in front of the local fans because there’s nothing big going on in Chicago…I don’t really trust most of the promoters in Chicago or in the Midwest in general that I’m not connected with because they’ve done me wrong or done friends of mine wrong. There’s just no reason to go give somebody else our fighters when they can just fight for us.”

Add to the mix of daily happenings, Curran is a devoted husband and father. He and wife Sarah have a young son, Ty, and are expecting another son soon. He calls his wife, “a trooper” for being so supportive and tolerant of his busy lifestyle.

Early Influences
So how did such a busy person get involved in MMA? Curran says it all started back in 1992. The following year, he watched Royce Gracie at UFC 1 and was hooked. “Up until that point I was just learning Jiu-Jitsu as a martial art and…basically I didn’t know what I was involved in. As soon as I saw Royce Gracie fight, it sparked the interest and I started seeking it out and that was pretty much at the point that I realized that some day I want to fight, it’s just never something that was supposed to happen on this level.”

Three Gracies in particular served as role models with their philosophies of mixed martial arts. Curran says Royce, Rickson and Renzo Gracie “are three people who have always seemed to have more of a philosophy behind their training and not just trying to be the tough guy…I always looked up to them, but…the new up-and-comers that I’m training with every day…those are more the guys I look up to; they’re dealing with things on a different level than we had to deal with.”

The philosophies that Curran puts first include, “the philosophy of just being technical and making sure that technique comes before power…and making sure you treat the sport of MMA like a martial art and the respect issue that goes on.”

“I think a lot of the new fighters don’t have that [respect] because in the sport of MMA it’s kind of the norm to be the tough guy, you know, and have an attitude and that’s what’s making fighting famous, but I think that we still need to keep that martial arts respect issue.”

Learning Opportunities: Faber and Brown
Respecting Curran’s tenacity for multi-tasking is easy. In addition to his many business duties, Curran, at just 31, has had over 40 MMA bouts, with an overall 30-10-1 record. Before falling to his two most recent opponents—Mike Brown and Urijah Faber—he won 15 of his 16 matches just prior to the meeting up with Faber.

During the Faber match at WEC 31, Curran had an impressive first round, but lost to submission in the second round. Jeff explains, “In [the Faber fight], I’m to blame because I had 100 percent control of him and all I needed to do was be a little more aggressive and start dropping some shots on his face…and he would have exposed his neck most likely.”

“I got really content and comfortable and I just felt unthreatened and once the tables were turned and he picked up the aggression a little bit to come out of it…I was still fine, but when we went into the second round and I ended up getting cut, that was kind of the turning point.”

“Once I got cut and I was on my back and had blood in my eyes…I started doing things more on feel. I heard that time was almost up and I made a move to try to get back to my feet and pressure him a little bit to finish a round and I got caught in that choke and I don’t know, I just wish it would’ve gone a little differently than it did.”

Six months after the disappointing loss to Faber, Curran’s decision loss to Mike Brown (who defeated Urijah Faber for the WEC Featherweight title at WEC 36), was an easier pill to swallow. “[In the Mike Brown fight] I did what I felt I needed to do, but…I wish I had reacted differently but you can’t really change that…if I would have just pressured him a little more on my feet, a lot of things I wish I could’ve done differently, but it’s over with and that’s why it doesn’t really kill me too much.”

Making the Grade at Bantamweight
Like most everything in Jeff Curran’s life, he just keeps moving forward. After the two losses, it was announced that he would be moving down a weight class to the Bantamweight division.

Explains Curran, “There’s a couple guys entering the 145 division right now that are huge threats…one of them in particular I have a win against—Wagnney Fabiano—and I know that more than anything he wants to fight me again. I would love to fight him again, but my feeling tells me that he’s going to probably end up either a top contender right away or the champ soon, and just knowing his skill level after fighting him, there’s a good chance that he’s the title holder.

“I think I’ve got a good chance of getting world title at 135 a lot faster than I would [if I were to] work my way back through the 145 division, because they’ve got some other guys who deserve a shot. So this is my kind of ‘hook around the back’ approach to getting in that seat where I’m possibly a world champ at Bantamweight discussing possibly moving back to the division of Featherweight and having the current champion be one of two guys that I’m their only loss against and they want to redeem themselves against me and that makes for a pretty good way back into that division.”

Pro-Boxing as Training for MMA
In preparation for the Bantamweight division, Curran dropped weight and fought in a professional boxing match at 135 pounds, defeating Miguel Angel Figueroa by TKO in the third round. With the win, Curran’s professional boxing record advances to 2-2-1. Curran says professional boxing serves as a training outlet to hone his standup skills. “It was more just to test myself at that weight, to see how my energy level was, to see if I would actually make the weight because [I haven’t cut to that weight] since I was a freshman in high school…I had to get in there and see how my power would affect 135-pound guy.”

No Smack Talk on Miguel
How that power might affect another Miguel (WEC Bantamweight Champion) Torres that is—remains yet to be seen. Torres has accused Curran of “talking smack” and wanting an easy title shot against him at 135.

Curran is happy to clear up the accusations. “I have no hate or disrespect for Miguel,” says Curran. “It’s actually just the opposite—I like him and always consider him a friend.” As far as getting an easy shot, Curran has no such delusions of grandeur. He knows he’s working his way back up the ladder. His philosophy is simple: “I want to fight the best in the world and I believe Miguel has one of the best, if not the best, record out of all world champions, WEC and UFC alike.”

Now that he’s been tested a bit at 135, look for “The Big Frog” to make a splash at Bantamweight in the WEC in 2009. Whether it’s looking at the Faber and Brown fights as valuable learning experiences or growing as a businessman, fighter and family man, Jeff Curran is constantly reinventing himself—and continuing his quest to be top frog.

www.jeffcurran.tv

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Our fearless leader Donovan Craig appears as a panelist on “FOX Fight Game with Mike Straka.” I could tell to skip ahead to the 6:40 mark when Donovan appears but then you’d miss the good stuff with GSP, Greg Jackson, and Firas Zahabi before the panel discussion.

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(Lawler lands against Smith. Photo by Paul Thatcher.)
(Lawler lands against Smith. Photo by Paul Thatcher.)

By FIGHT! contributor Josh Nason

Just a few months ago, fans got a dream fight in Georges St-Pierre vs. B.J. Penn. The clash featured two champions from two weight classes; men who can inflict damage in a variety of ways and are damn good at doing so. In the end, the larger man – GSP – was victorious in a near-dominant performance. On June 6, MMA will get another mixed-weight class vs. weight superfight involving two former EliteXC champions when Jake Shields and Robbie Lawler headline Strikeforce’s first major Showtime card.

“Lawler’s a guy I’ve liked watching fight for a while. I wanted to fight him in EliteXC because they didn’t have anyone for me at the 170s. He held the belt and I held a belt, so I wanted to capture both of them,” Shields said. “Unfortunately, it’s not going to be a title fight for either one of us, but it’s still going to be a main event, a superfight and one that I’m really excited for.”

The 27-year-old Lawler (16-4-0-1) was EliteXC’s last middleweight champion, winning the title from Murilo “Ninja” Rua via third-round TKO in September 2007. Lawler has fought twice since then, both times against Scott Smith – the last ending in a TKO victory. Of his 16 wins, the hard-charging Lawler has won 13 by kayo and for he comes into this fight unbeaten in his last six – a streak dating well over two years. But if he expects to cut through his smaller opponent easily he doesn’t admit it.

“I think he’s a really good opponent. He fights at a high level, especially at 170,” Lawler said. “He’s got good takedowns and really good positioning on top. His submissions are really good. It’s going to be a tough fight.”

On paper Shields (22-4-1), EliteXC’s last welterweight champion, is Lawler’s polar opposite. The Brazilian jiu jitsu black belt has won five out of his last six fights by submission and hasn’t dropped a fight since 2004. Lawler has been submitted only twice in his career, while Shields has lost via TKO only once, coming in just his third professional fight.

“It’s pretty obvious it’ll be the submission guy versus the stand-up guy. I’ll want to try to put him on his back and submit him, but I’ve been working a lot on my stand-up. He’s a hard guy to take down, so I have to be comfortable banging with him on my feet as well,” Shields said, adding that a big difference between Lawler and other strikers he has fought is size and his left-handed stance.
Like Penn, Shields is moving up from his ideal weight class but if Shields has his way, the outcome will be different. “It’s going to go a lot different. The small guy is going to go in there and tap out the bigger guy,” Shields said.

Strikeforce: Lawler vs. Shields will be televised live on Showtime at 10 p.m. ET/PT (delayed on the West Coast).

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Frank ShamrockSAN JOSE, Calif.—In the early afternoon, spring breezes are gone and all that’s left is the beaming sun suggesting the summer to come. San Jose is California’s oldest city—one of its four largest—and Frank Shamrock’s home of fighting, friends, and family. Four of his last five fights have been here (and he’s only had seven fights since the millennium). For the first time in his career, Frank “The Legend” Shamrock was stopped in consecutive fights.

It’s a gym, not city hall. The massive columns and wide stone staircase say otherwise. It’s difficult to subdue the overwhelming feeling brought about by the San Jose Athletic Club’s presence. Inside, the décor is equally regal. Following stairs to the top floor, Shamrock’s gym makes itself known through lion statues and a wall-sized “Shamrock vs. Baroni” poster. There aren’t many photos of Frank Shamrock and no Shamrock himself. He’s in his office on the opposite end of the building. It feels more like a doctor’s space than a fighter’s and it’s different from his old office—no championship belts are on his desk.

He doesn’t want to waste the beautiful day. Conversation in the sun is the way to go. Like a long tracking shot from Goodfellas, Shamrock walks through every backroom in the building—treadmills, lockers, and half-painted corridors—on the way to sitting poolside. High walls privatize the pool area.

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Shamrock’s training was over. He was relaxed about the possibilities of staying active—a swim in the lap pool later in the afternoon on his agenda. The inaugural Stirkeforce middleweight champion was content just to be near the water, out under the sun and making the most of his time before he got to the real fun—the fight.

Two weeks later, the fun—the fight—took the form of a two round trouncing at the hands of Cesar Gracie black belt Nick Diaz. Shamrock was beaten soundly on April 11 in front of his home crowd. Referee “Big” John McCarthy put an end to the contest in front of 15,211 fans.

In the Mind of a Legend

Ken Shamrock beat up Frank Shamrock. Athleticism and strength were Ken’s best attributes, according to Frank. Ken “killed everybody.” So the brother versus brother bout never materializing—thanks in large part to a positive steroids test for Ken—was a heartbreaker for Frank Shamrock, who wants his older days telling tales worth hearing. He estimates he has about nine-years left in his career. That is before the Diaz fight. Now, who knows?

It had been 11 years since Frank Shamrock lost. In 1997, John Lober “put a beating” on him and took the fight via split decision. Then in March 2008, Cung Le left Frank Shamrock writhing in pain on the mat in front of a rabid San Jose crowd, which was equal parts Le and Shamrock fans.

Shamrock rival Josh Thomson revealed to Sherdog.com that the performance softened his stance toward Shamrock for the moment: “I told him this after the Cung Le fight. Even though he lost, I walked up to him while he was laying on the canvas and I said, ‘No matter what I say about you, no matter what anybody else says, it’s always a pleasure to watch you fight.’”

That type of magnetism surrounded the clash with Diaz—an expected unapologetic brawl. The hype was heightened by the fact that it had been over a year since Shamrock entered the cage. Unlike the bout with Le, Shamrock didn’t appear competitive against Diaz. For the first time in his career, he was stopped in back-to-back bouts.

“The sad part is I know how to fight. I’ve been that good that I could screw around,” he said of losing the Strikeforce middleweight title to Le. “But the sport has caught up to me for one. Age has caught up to me. For the benefit of my family and my body I don’t think I can do that anymore.”

He suffered a broken arm against Le. With his arm in a sling, his daughter Nicolette was born. As a father for the second time, Shamrock both reflected on and relished life.

“I think its time to get serious about fighting,” said Shamrock prior to the Diaz fight.
“I have a platform to entertain—I’m a commentator. I’m the guy they call to do everything because, you know, I got the talent and I know what I’m doing and I have the credibility. So I don’t need to dance around the ring and make faces and screw around anymore.”

Making faces and in-ring gestures elevated Shamrock from a fighter to a showman. He clapped for Le, congratulating him for landing a hit. He kept count of their power shots by raising fingers. He smiled. It seemed like a typical day for Shamrock until his arm snapped and he couldn’t answer the bell for the fourth round.

“I wasn’t hospitalized ‘cause I got my ass kicked. I was hospitalized ‘cause I broke my arm,” asserted Shamrock. “I’ve been hospitalized ‘cause I got my ass kicked that’s a whole ‘nother story where you’re physically beaten down to the point—those are the fights that take years off your life.”

Shamrock recalls being the best in the world. He cemented his place in the sport by becoming the inaugural UFC middleweight champion. After posting a 5-0 undefeated record in the UFC, he left on top with at least three legendary performances to his name. The accolades in the form of championships don’t matter to the former King of Pancrase because “it didn’t pay me anymore or any less.” Being the best mattered when he started, he clarifies, but the view from the throne led him to believe championships are an American idea—more abstract than tangible, relying on the meaning society places on them rather than their actual value.

With his body breaking down, Shamrock rationalized the ego and the titles are relics in his life not worth the pursuit. He just wants to be the best he can be and whether or not that’s the best in the world isn’t up to him nor does it matter. “Who makes these rankings?” He asked, not caring to know the answer. Being top five or ten in the world—he’s not worried. He just wants to do what he loves—fight. His legacy is a floater he doesn’t think anyone can ever pin down—not even Frank Shamrock himself.

Laughing at the absurdity of being the best, he points to being bested by Le as evidence.

“I’ve got more championship belts than Cung Le has fights and I just thought that was just hilarious.”

Despite his carefree attitude, he still worries.

“I worry about getting hurt. I worry about hurting somebody else. I worry about a good promotion and a good event. I worry about the impact of the event on the sport. My days of ego, and you know, chasing women and belts, that’s done for me.”

The way Shamrock feels about mixed martial arts seems to parallel his life. He still must fear for his own wellbeing, but most of his energy is exerted giving and protecting something he cradled in its infancy—whether it’s the sport or his daughter.

Shamrock helped launch Strikeforce in front of a record-setting 17,465 fans in 2006. Of course, it was San Jose that came out in droves for the event. He drew them again against Diaz across from the Stockton, California native. The energy in the arena and the new audience on Showtime made the event a solid launching point for Strikeforce.

“Even our fight, I didn’t particularly like it, but the crowd liked it,” said Shamrock, who considers the Strikeforce-Showtime partnership to be a rebirth of MMA of sorts.

“I think MMA…the future of MMA is not pay-per-view. That’s the old MMA,” he said. “I think the future of MMA is primetime television. It’s the American Idol dream. That’s the future of MMA because that’s what our culture is condition to. That’s what they want to see and they don’t want to pay for it.

“I don’t pay for it. They shouldn’t have to pay for it. They should be able to see the guys they like and it shouldn’t cost them anything. Let the advertisers pay for it. Let the sponsors pay for it.”

It’s certainly a vision that deviates from what MMA is today—the UFC had the most profitable pay-per-view year in history in 2008. But Shamrock affirmed martial arts are to be shared. The change in the air is stiff.

Lessons Learned

Young fighters fight every week or every month. They do it to gain experience, pick up a paycheck, and ideally advance their rank in the sport—part practicality, part youthful vigor. A legitimate mixed martial arts pioneer, Shamrock’s decade-plus experience endows him with a casual attire-approach to the happenings of the sport.

“I guess I better start training, right?” was his reaction when Strikeforce offered him a main event bout against Diaz.

“It wasn’t really my idea,” explained Shamrock, who refers to his fight schedule as a master plan. “I think Showtime and Strikeforce wanted to put on a really entertaining fight. Nick brings it you know. I don’t think he’s ever been knocked out, has he?”

He hasn’t. And Shamrock wasn’t the man to change it like he thought he would.
At 25-years-old, he’s competed in only six less fights than Shamrock, eleven-years his elder. Shamrock admitted he was surprised by Diaz’ fight prowess. It’s something Shamrock critics have pointed to for years: the sport is passing him by.

“I always have trouble, but I don’t know,” Shamrock said, explaining his height disadvantage has always forced him to fight in short, explosive bursts standing and on the mat. Diaz happened to nullify that offense: “I’ve never really had a jiu-jitsu guy submit me or give me a hard time on the ground. Renzo [Gracie] just held me like he loved me.”

Shamrock’s typical swagger is gone when talking about Nick Diaz. He left the fight with stitches in his head and what he estimates are cracked ribs and “weird muscle spasms that feel like tears.” That’s in addition to a torn oblique muscle he suffered before the fight.

Shamrock versus Diaz was a classic representation of the old and the new—a possible changing of the guard.

Despite fighting at 185-pounds and Diaz coming up in weight from 160-pounds, Diaz was heavier than Shamrock, who has never really cut weight and eats to get bigger for fights. The evident size difference prompted Shamrock to consider a move to 170-pounds before the fight. He’s still thinking about it.

“I’m definitely smaller than everyone else,” said Shamrock. “It seems logical, but I’m not so logical.”

Shamrock is more interested in more than fighting these days. He wants his contests to tell stories. The way professional wrestling bouts are mini-dramas—Shamrock wants that unscripted and real. Truthful. Controversial and expletive-laced is no contrived character—it’s Nick Diaz. And that’s the exact storyline Shamrock banked on.

Shamrock—a pioneer—would attempt to clean up mixed martial arts by taking out a young, bad boy he considers “bad for the sport.” Yet the young gun prevailed, leaving Shamrock in a haze of gun smoke.

“It hurt to move,” he said. “I got tired real fast.” Shamrock has spoken with Strikeforce founder and CEO Scott Coker since the fight. He hasn’t planned far ahead, and they still have deliberating to do, but he plans to be back. Who to fight next is just as important as figuring out what went wrong.

“It didn’t turn on like it normally does for me,” added Shamrock. “I didn’t really have the fire this time.”

Shamrock wanted to avenge his 2008 loss to Cung Le in another dramatic tale. But Le wasn’t available. Now with Le, who vocalized interest in a rematch with Shamrock if he won, off in Hollywood and Shamrock down a rung, the rematch seems unlikely in the near future. Despite Le looming before the Diaz fight, Shamrock never saw the UFC veteran as a steppingstone.

“I think about the task at hand,” he said. “What’s in front of me, and does it make good business sense? Is it gonna be a good show? Is it gonna help what we’re doing? If not, I ain’t doing it.

“The last criteria is do I like the guy or not? Because if I don’t like him, frankly, I probably won’t fight him.”

Shamrock, who asserts his whole career has been built on honesty, likes Nick Diaz underneath all the middle-finger salutes thrown around by the Stockton native. He sees a bit of himself in Diaz: people love or hate both because of their honesty both inside and outside of the cage.

Despite his appreciation for Nick Diaz’s divisive personality, Shamrock believes it’s problematic in a sport fighting for acceptance.

“When you’re selling widgets, do you buy it from the homeless guy or do you buy it from the guy in the suit? We’re still selling widgets man,” says the former undefeated UFC middleweight champion. “We’re still trying to convince the world that we’re not a bunch of idiots fighting in a cage. And unfortunately, he’s an idiot fighting in a cage. And that’s what I’m working to change.

“That’s been my whole gig is that we’re not a bunch of idiots. And unfortunately, like him or hate him, he’s selling that widget in a hoodie on a street corner in downtown Stockton. He looks like a criminal. My grandma goes, ‘Well he’s a criminal!’ Nah, he’s a good kid. He just doesn’t know how to express himself.”

Expression is what fighting is about for Shamrock. A fight gives a character arc to a participant. It’s why Shamrock views it as storytelling. One will battle through adversity and another will fold. There’s no hiding the true self in the war. And the aftermath is just as important.

“I think Nick’s a very different guy than he is before the fight,” said Shamrock of their post-fight embrace—a happening thought to be unlikely given the heated build-up. “But we all are.”

Diaz, whose trainer Cesar Gracie in 2006 was knocked out by Shamrock, lifted his battered opponent off the mat. He told Shamrock to get up, reminding him he was a legend in the sport. It’s a moment seldom seen at the end of a revenge story.

Shamrock enjoys a luxury most fighters do not: he doesn’t have to fight for fame, money, or accolades. He has all that. It’s simply about the challenge and even then, that’s become a personal prospect for Shamrock.

The epilogue is always what matters most to Shamrock. His star power and standing in MMA allows the fighter across from him a great opportunity for a young fighter. It’s one he extended to Phil Baroni—win or lose, run with the momentum and become a star. While he took “his lumps like a man,” Baroni didn’t capitalize like Shamrock expected he could. He is certain the fight will serve as a pivotal point in Diaz’s career as it did for Baroni and Le. What Diaz does with the opportunity is yet to be seen.

“I don’t know. Probably nothing,” said Shamrock, taking a heavy breath. “Hopefully he does something.”

Diaz backed up his talk, trumping Shamrock, and Shamrock couldn’t teach Diaz a lesson about what real martial arts are about like he promised. Just two weeks removed from the fight, Diaz has accepted another bout with Scott Smith on June 6. Whether or not he’ll make the most of the victory—Diaz’s biggest win since an eventual no contest over Takanori Gomi in 2007—will be answered shortly. But where does that leave Shamrock?

“I’m gonna be golden for the rest of my life,” he said. “I’ve already proved my bones and did my hard work. It’s his time.”

Shamrock’s Land of the Rising Sun

Modern training equipment is not enough to shed Shamrock’s gym’s dungeon feel. A pyramiding skylight beams down into the center, illuminating the mats like a gladiatorial arena. Frank Shamrock is on one knee throwing gloves and mitts and pads off floor toward a storage space. Winning and losing are both the farthest ideas from his mind.

“I don’t worry too much about that stuff. I lose in the gym all the time,” admitted Shamrock. “I challenge myself all the time, guys tapping me out, whacking me real good. I think that’s what’s kept me real good—I don’t surround myself with a bunch of guys that I can beat up. I surround myself with a bunch of guys who can beat me up.”

Losing was a real possibility against Diaz before it became reality. Shamrock concedes things aren’t like they were when he started. Injuries don’t heal. Instead of recuperating, the body hurts—pain lingers. Troubles nag. Before he trained like a madman. Now he skims off the top of his training sessions, cutting them down from two hours to an hour and 45-minutes. When he was young, injuries came because of inexperience and now they come because they are inevitable.

Shamrock didn’t coming out of training in pristine condition. He was as ready as a fighter can be come fight time. Battling through afflictions is part of preparation. He has watched his loss to Diaz since it happened. The loss has to do with a kink in his armor—a failure in his body, according to Shamrock. Uncertainty is still ever-present. He can’t be sure what left him battered on the mat come night’s end.

Just a week after Shamrock lost, another legend fell to a young fighter when Mauricio “Shogun” Rua knocked out Chuck Liddell at UFC 97. Liddell and Shamrock were lumped into the same category: fighters of yesteryear who have seen better days and likely won’t see them in the cage again.

Shamrock doesn’t see himself alongside Liddell because he wasn’t “horribly knocked unconscious.” The sport is still about putting on exciting fights in Shamrock’s estimation. As long as he can avoid being knocked out brutally and entertain the fans, there’s a place for him.

“I had a fight of the year last year, everyone’s forgot about that,” exclaimed Shamrock. “The year before that I was also up for fight of the year.”

Shamrock, though, is certain about one thing: “I’ve swayed that crowd many a times in my favor.”

For the past thirteen years, he’s tried to takedown his wrestling coach Eric Duce. The week before the Diaz fight, he finally got it and he felt “real good about that.” These days Shamrock doesn’t want it any other way.

He’d be obnoxiously positive if he wasn’t such a realist.

Frank Shamrock read books on serial killers and “anything that [was] out there mentally” before competing in mixed martial arts for the first time because he wanted to get some insight into justification for hurting others. He couldn’t comprehend willingly damaging others. Now he views hurting people as an art—one he’s good at and fortunate enough to profit from.

Unfortunately for Shamrock, Diaz wasn’t another one of his masterpieces.

“I think my best experiences in my life [are] getting my ass kicked—the best lesson you could ever learn and the changes you make from that,” Shamrock said, still raw from an ass kicking, waiting for the lesson to reveal itself.

Frank Shamrock, a former King of Pancrase, WEC and Strikeforce champion, feels like he’s starting over. The inaugural UFC middleweight champion, undefeated in the organization, is ready to hit reset.

“Everyone was asking me [before the Diaz bout], ‘How’s your comeback coming?’ I didn’t know I was making a comeback. Now, when people ask, I say: ‘The comeback’s going good.’ Starting now…”

With the gym clean, Shamrock climbs up two dingy ladders through a side door to the stone roof of the San Jose Athletic Club, which was a former Scottish Rights Temple and Freemason Temple. He looks out at the San Jose skyline, where skyscrapers decorate the clear blue sky. Shamrock breathes in the view. He’s in the center of the city looking at everyone, two weeks removed from the cage on either side. It all feels natural now.

Because after being at the top, coming down is the next step. But it’s not the last. And the sun will be the first to illustrate it for Frank Shamrock, a fighter disinterested in sunsets and which way the wind blows.

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The Ultimate Fighting Championship has had an interesting few months for their heavyweight division since Randy Couture had decided to reconcile and come back to the Octagon. The four man tournament is starting to take shape after Brock Lesnar defeated Couture and Frank Mir’s historic victory over Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. There are plenty of potential match-ups that could be made and we’re going to examine them.

Frank Mir vs. Brock Lesnar 2
This match isn’t a potential showdown, it is a reality. Having fought once before, this match was always going to happen again at some point. There were plenty of fans who thought that it wouldn’t happen quite this soon, but as everyone knows with MMA, anything can happen.

Brock Lesnar, in just three fights in the Octagon, has accomplished the pinnacle of the sport after his TKO victory over Randy Couture back in November. Lesnar finished Couture with punches and had pretty much controlled the fight the whole time before finishing “The Natural” to become the UFC heavyweight champion.

Frank Mir has overcome all odds after his terrible accident back in 2004 where he was told that he would never fight again. While he wasn’t terribly impressive in his first few fights back, he worked his way back submitting Antoni Hardonk and current UFC heavyweight champion, Brock Lesnar. Mir had then participated opposite Nogueira in The Ultimate Fighter. Mir then proceeded to dominate Nogueira at UFC 92, dropping him several times before finishing the Brazilian and becoming the interim UFC heavyweight champion. Mir has to be the favorite against Lesnar after defeating him once already and also having the one major skill that Lesnar hasn’t had time to polish – his jiu-jitsu. Look for this bout to happen in the spring.

Randy “The Natural “Couture vs. Antonio Rodrigo “Minotauro” Nogueira
A showdown between these two fighters should have been the first fight back for Couture. Now that both fighters lost their last fight, this is the next logical step. While we can’t see Fedor Emelianenko against Couture any time soon, having Couture fight another highly-regarded legend like Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira definitely makes sense. When asked if he would want to fight Couture at the UFC 92 post fight press conference, Nogueira seemed very eager at the prospect of fighting Randy. Couture is still one of the UFC’s top draws and would be an easy fight to promote given their name recognition, especially among hard-core fans. With Couture’s olympic-caliber wrestling and Nogueira’s phenomenal jiu-jitsu, this fight could headline any pay-per-view and still garner a lot of buys. Couture is a lot more particular about which fights interest him these days, and this is a fight that is sure to pique his interest.

Shane Carwin vs. Gabriel Gonzaga
This bout is heavily rumored to be held at UFC 96 in March. Shane Carwin is a very large heavyweight and holds some impressive credentials himself. He holds a 10-0 professional mixed martial arts record and is a two time NCAA Division II Wrestling National Runner-up and NCAA II Wrestling National Champion. Both men are pretty well-rounded and this fight could have title implications. Gabriel Gonzaga was the former number one contender and has fought some of the best heavyweights in the world including Couture and Fabricio Werdum. Gonzaga also holds a highlight reel knockout victory over Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic and has recently defeated Justin McCully and Josh Hendricks. Gonzaga may hold an edge in the ground game, but Carwin has the superior wrestling. Both fighters have one-punch knockout power as well. This fight would be a good top contender fight to determine who the next challenger for the belt could be.

Cheick Kongo vs. Cain Velasquez
Cheick Kongo and Cain Velasquez could be one of the next exciting fights on the horizon. Kongo just defeated Mustapha Al-Turk at UFC 92 very convincingly and took out Dan Evensen back in August. Even though he dropped a close split decision to Heath Herring, Kongo is fairly underrated considering he also defeated former Pride superstar Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic and holds an impressive 6-2 record in the UFC. Velasquez and Kongo are two of the top rising young talents in the UFC. Velasquez is a former two time All American from Arizona State University. He also hold a 4-0 record finishing all of his opponents with strikes. He currently trains out of American Kickboxing Academy with Josh Koscheck and Jon Fitch. Kongo just defeated Mustapha Al-Turk at UFC 92 very convincingly and took out Dan Evensen back in August. Even though he dropped a close split decision to Heath Herring, Kongo is fairly underrated considering he also defeated former Pride superstar Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic and holds an impressive 6-2 record in the UFC.

Junior dos Santos vs. Antoni Hardonk
Antoni Hardonk has had an up and down career in the UFC going 4-2 in his tenure with the promotion. Hardonk suffered back-to-back losses last year, but since has came back impressively with three straight wins. A former K-1 participant, Hardonk has very good striking and a decent ground game. He trains in Holland and has been looking very much improved in his last few performances in the UFC. Junior dos Santos shocked a lot of people back in October when he knocked out top ten heavyweight, Fabricio Werdum. After seeing Dana White’s video blog with dos Santos hitting the pads, the betting lines started to shift closing the underdog gap against Werdum. Dos Santos crushed Werdum with a nasty combination to put him away at UFC 90, thus giving him some newfound popularity. He currently holds a 7-1 record and many people are looking forward to seeing him compete again. A fight against Hardonk should be a fun stand-up affair for the fans to enjoy.

With all of the potential aforementioned match-ups, fans should have a good time watching the heavyweight division shake out. With the stable of heavyweight competitors that the UFC has, they are still missing a few big names in the puzzle, namely Fedor Emelianenko and Josh Barnett. Even if Mir ends up defeating Lesnar, or if Lesnar defeats Mir, it will be difficult to label either one of them the number one heavyweight in the world while Fedor Emelianenko is still competing. The UFC is still actively pursuing figuring out a way to bring in Emelianenko, but Affliction has him under contract. Hopefully, all of the bouts coming up will whet the fans appetite while we see if Emelianenko can be convinced to compete in the UFC.

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Are you looking forward to UFC 100? Is there anything we can do to get you stoked? A photo gallery of Logan Stanton, you say? Done.

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I wrote a column when the year started titled “Nine reasons to be excited about MMA in 2009.” One of the things I was excited about was the return of tournament formats. I’m happy to say I was right but I don’t need to say it to make you believe me – I could just post Bellator Fighting Championship clips, namely, Toby Imada’s “backpack of doom” as my Sherdog.com colleague Jake Rossen describes it over Jorge Masvidal in the lightweight tournament semi-finals and Yahir Reyes‘ spinning back fist knockout on Estevan Payan.

Imada’s win is the best kind – an upset and a major addition to the highlight reel. A veteran of over a decade, he’s always come up short against would-be top talents. He entered the tournament as an after thought to an expected Eddie Alvarez-Masvidal final. Instead, he’ll meet Alvarez, Sherdog.com’s no. 3 lightweight in the world.

Reyes, too, is enjoying newfound notoriety as is his finals opponent Joe Soto, who defeated Wilson Reis in an upset. In fact, the only tournament favorites left are Alvarez, Lyman Good, and Hector Lombard. That’s the beauty of the tournament: it makes stars.

Bellator’s format of crowning champions through the tournament then crowning the number one contender through the same rigorous schedule the champion had to go through is a non-stop great story line. A tournament is an emotional roller coaster for fans as much as it is for fighters. It’s why the UFC’s first stars and Pride fighters are remembered fondly.

The week-to-week format is hard to keep up with and can be difficult when building fights, but it provides consistency and is doing well on ESPN Deportes for a reason. If it moves to ESPN2 with an English broadcast as rumors have suggested, expect a boom.

Bellator is developing their identity by sticking to their own set of core values rather than reacting to the UFC. They made a great move as an organization by refusing to give in to Quebec’s combat sports governing body, who had a problem with their circular cage. Matchmaker Matt Stansell refused to budge. Rightfully so, the type of fight area defines an MMA organization–Octagon for UFC, white ring for Pride. Identity is major problem for fledgling MMA promotions, so Stansell and company did right by refusing to sacrifice their visual recognition with fans.

With Japanese MMA organizations picking next round match-ups on the fly, Bellator’s bracket style is welcome. Sengoku is in the midst of an excellent featherweight tournament that is sport fighting at its best. Dream’s “Super Hulk” tournament seems poised to ruin tournaments for everyone everywhere, but as I said before, call me crazy, I think its an excuse to draw in viewers, who will eventually see top-10 fighters Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou and Gegard Mousasi in the finals on the way to becoming Japanese mega-stars. Even if it turns into a sideshow like many expect, there will still be Bellator–and that’s saying something considering how fast so-called major promotions come and go.

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