Legend In the Fall? Shamrock on Mixed Martial Arts and Legacy

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.

***

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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