All of the Feels: Ken Shamrock and the Agony of Heartbreak

Fightland Blog

By Michael Hresko

Artwork by Grimoire

Ken Shamrock is still steaming over his second loss to Royce Gracie. “Steaming” might not be the right word. “Heartbroken” might better describe how the 52-year-old veteran feels about his long-awaited shot at redemption last month when Bellator allowed two Hall-of-Famers revive a rivalry born during the very first UFC.

The bout wasn’t pretty, and even the fans who had dismissed the bout as pure novelty were bummed that two of the most important figures to shape modern-day martial arts fumbled the ball on game day—putting on a bizarre spectacle only topped by… well, Ken Shamrock’s last match with Kimbo Slice.

After tying up with Royce early in the first round, Ken may or may not have been hit in the groin. The ref didn’t stop the match to give him time to recover, and instead, Ken continued to stand up in the clinch for a few seconds before he was taken down. The ref was clearly allowing the fight to continue and as Ken winced in pain, his hands by his crouch, while Royce finished the fight with unanswered hammerfists from the top.

Royce claimed it wasn’t a low blow, that the knee hit him above his groin on the upper thigh. Besides, he pointed out, the two come from a time where there were no rules—so like, what’s the big deal?

Gif via MMA.tv

His nephews, (sort of) maintained that the knee that landed after the one in question hit Shamrock in the head, rocked him, and allowed Royce to take him down and finish the fight with relative ease. This severity of that second strike, they claim, is the reason Shammy was not defending himself as Royce peppered him with shots before the referee ultimately stepped in. Simple. Just another case of Gracie Jiu Jitsu being an impossibly perfect system of self defense invented by grandmaster Carlos Helio that can be yours for only 99 dollars a month online. (Just kidding, guys).

The result was a disappointing and strange ending. Ken Shamrock frantically sprung to life as soon as the referee called the match and accused Royce of purposefully throwing the low-blow. After some back and forth and a lot of confusion, Royce’s hand was raised and MMA fan’s everywhere let out a collective, “Really?”

After the subsequent media storm of disgust settled down, Ken posted an open letter to Royce on his website pleading for another fight. He seemed particularly passionate and distraught, and why wouldn’t he be? After decades of waiting for the opportunity, Ken was unable to prove he was better than Rickson’s younger, less skilled brother (another joke, relax!) because of what he feels was a bad call.

I was compelled to talk to the man about his woes in more detail, so I called him to talk us through the experience, and ask him what he thought about the later part of his legacy turning out to be such a shit show.

I’m still not sure if the knee-strike actually hit him in the nuts. I tend to think that he should have just sucked it up and continued to fight, but Ken is sticking to his guns. I wonder if history will remember him as the victim he paints himself out to be.

As I dialed his number I thought it would be best to reel it back and bit and warm him up before diving into the Royce Gracie drama, so I opened with some small talk.

Fightland: Did you watch Conor and Nate? Was it what you expected?
Ken Shamrock:
I was leaning toward Nate winning that fight because Conor went up two weight classes. If you get a guy like Nate, or a Diaz brother period, where they’ve got nothing to lose? They are tough kids anyway and you put them in a no lose situation, got yourself a problem.

I thought that matchup was bad for McGregor, with Nate not really having time to train for the fight, and for him coming in with nothing to lose and with that mental toughness and with that attitude. It benefited Diaz more than it did McGregor.

Who do you got if they fight again?
I think McGregor goes in and understands who this guy is—understands what his strengths are, what his weaknesses are. I think now the fight is more towards McGregor because now he actually has time to plan for Diaz.

I think the conditioning everyone thought about, and the training, and this and that… it’s like you know the Diaz brothers don’t go in and try to plan around someone. They just go in and kick their ass. And they do it tough like. They just come after you.

McGregor needs more of that opportunity to plan for his opponent. He’s a tough guy, don’t get me wrong. He’s just a smaller tough guy. And you can’t fight a bigger tough guy against a smaller tough guy. Now that McGregor has time to plan for it, and to use all the weapons he has and wields that against some of Diaz’s weaknesses I think it leans more towards McGregor now.

I asked a follow up question about keeping up with MMA, but Ken couldn’t wait any longer to acknowledge the elephant in the room.
It’s in my DNA. It’s always going to be apart of me.

I’m a little bit hurt and frustrated on how it’s kind of played out. I was 51 when I faught Kimbo. I’m not a spring chicken. I go in there I take him down, I put a choke on him, he taps, I ease up, he gets out, gets an opportunity to land a punch, he drops me, they stop the fight—the ref doesn’t even give me a chance to fight out of a tough situation—just stops it.

Knowing that Kimbo wasn’t that great of a fighter, they didn’t let me come back. Even after they missed the tap! It’s frustrating.

Ken sped up.
And then I go into my fight with Royce. I plan for it. I train for it. I go and I put my family aside and train for 3 months. Everybody sacrifices for this. I go in there, I get a low blow… and nobody sees it. I just… It’s like… I love MMA and No Holds Barred, and I was part of making it grow, but at this point I’m disappointed on how things have played out.

I don’t blame anybody for it. You know? Nobody knows why these things happen. It’s not like anyone is out to get me, things just happen this way. I don’t understand it, or why, but I just keep plugging forward and moving forward and hopefully one day I’ll know why these things are happening.

Are you still hopeful you will be granted a rematch?
I’m hoping that as time goes on things will all get put right again. That the fight will get overturned and that Royce will step up and do the right thing. We promised the fans something and they didn’t get it, so…

To me it’s not fair. I’m willing to step up, even being tired and almost broke down from all the things that have happened in the last 6, 8 months. I still don’t want it to end like this. I don’t want the fans to have to walk away with that taste in their mouth, nor do I.

I don’t understand how Royce could [walk away] knowing that it was a foul. I mean he knows it was a foul. How he could walk away being happy about that? And how his fans can be happy about that? I just don’t understand it. It’s something that needs to be righted, and I don’t know how Bellator or Scott Coker or Spike TV can stand aside and just ignore it because fans really want it—they put money in your pocket and you ripped them off.

Has Royce responded to your open letter?
No, he has disappeared. He’s not polite. He’s just as selfish as I expected him to be.  There’s no way. I mean he’s tried to lie about it saying that it didn’t happen, or that he didn’t do it, it was on the side, or this or that or whatever. And it’s not flying. He’s just trying to stay out of the way and hope things die down—probably doesn’t realize no matter how many times people talk about the history people are always going to look at him and know he ran away from a fight. 

And to be happy with it… That’s going to fall on him for the rest of his life whenever they bring up me and him. That’s what he’s going to have to deal with.

If you look back 20 or 23 or however long it was when I fought Royce the first time, [you will see that] he caught me in a choke. The referee didn’t see it but Royce let go.

And the referee said, “Fight!” and Royce said, “No, no! He tapped!”

I remember looking up at the ref… and looking at Royce… and I didn’t want to say it. I wanted to keep fighting.

And the referee looked at me and Royce said, “You tapped! You tapped!”

And I looked at Royce and said… “Yeah, I tapped.”

I didn’t want to say that! I didn’t want to it to end like that! I was a world champion over in Japan! I knew I had more. I knew I made a mistake. I wanted to go again so that I could prove that it was a fluke.

But I didn’t. I admitted to it. I said I did it. I did tap. Nobody saw it. Nobody saw it. And yet I admitted to it, and they played the replay and they saw the tap and then after that people understood my character, they understood who I was as a person.

Now, 20-something years later, we have the same incident where Royce hits something and people have seen it now. People have seen it now and yet he can't come forward and say, “Yes, I threw the knee low. My bad. Let’s do it again.”

Do you think he will ever accept a rematch?
I think it definitely has to be an idea. I don’t think Scott Coker or Bellator has a problem putting the fight on, I just think that Royce doesn’t want the fight. Behind closed doors he doesn’t want to get in the ring again.

The reason way… It’s my opinion—so don’t be jumping off a building and start freaking out because I said this. It’s not a fact it’s an opinion, but I believe that he threw the low blow on purpose because he knew I was going to make him stand up the whole time and he couldn’t take me down. So he was just looking for different ways to try to get himself out of trouble.

I wasn’t moving. I was standing in front of him and it landed. If he threw it and had no direction for it? As a professional athlete, that’s no different than doing it on purpose. Because we are professional athletes, we are responsible for where those things land. We are good enough to throw something that will hit our target. 

I believe Royce doesn’t want to get in the ring with me, and I believe that whole heartedly considering the first minute and a half of our fight. Going after him, closing the distance, closing space, and pressing him without throwing hardly anything, making him do all the work to keep me off of him. He knew I was going to keep it standing up. He knew it wasn’t going to go to the ground. There was nothing he could do about it.

Did having such a strong feeling the blow it was intentional contribute to your decision to wait for ref to step in?
Oh yeah, no doubt. I thought he would either give me a 10-count because the way the fight had gone. It was almost like he counting the knee he had threw, which didn’t really hit me. I was turning away from him because I was hurting. I was trying to get out of the way so I would have time to fix my cup. And then Royce jumped in back of me and took me down. So I was just trying to protect myself and push my cup down, and he started hitting me. I thought the ref was going to stop it and give me whatever you call it when you get time to get yourself back together.

I thought at most they would take a point away from Royce. At the very least, I thought for certain if I turned away and got my composure that he would have given me the opportunity to recover. That didn’t happen and Royce started hitting me. He wasn’t hurting me. They were like rabbit punches. I didn’t feel ‘em.

All of sudden I get up and I’m in the position where I’m wondering if they are going to award the win. I thought, “Whoa, what happened? Are they going to disqualify him?” That’s not what I wanted. I wanted to fight.

And then Royce hands go up. And I’m going, “What?!” I was confused the whole time, when he hand went up I was like, “what just happened?!”

Was there any interaction between you and the Gracie clan after the fight backstage?
Not that I know of. I try to conduct myself like a professional athlete. I’ve gone through the proper channels like we are supposed to and did everything the right way. Like I said, I don’t want my career or my legacy to be damaged by something I didn’t do.

I’m thinking about what to do now, and there’s things I can't take back […] I’m very careful about what I say and what I do. Hopefully things will be put in place.

Speaking of your legacy, it was reported that you did not pass the drug test for this fight. Any comment on that? You have been open about PED usage in the past, but don’t you think this will hurt this legacy you speak of?
Oh, I don’t think it will affect it at all. I really don’t. Right now the only people saying these things are guys like Dan Severn for whatever reason—he’s very unprofessional, he has no idea what we are doing or what we are going through. To come out and make a statement like that when the Athletic commission hasn’t done so? And other media people saying stuff about it…

How in the world? In the world we live in today, when privacy is so important and also it’s against the law to release things, could things leak out of an organization that’s supposed to be professional and is supposed to be able to protect your rights as a human being to protect yourself without prejudice? The ways in which things have happened to this point have been completely wrong.

I’ve done everything the right way. The proper channels, the proper lanes. I’ve done everything up to this point the right way. But yet the people in charge that are supposed to be the most professional haven’t done their job. […] I’m not just talking about the facilities where they are testing and how things are leaking out, I’m just not talking about the [promotion], I’m not talking about professional referees, I’m talking about everything down the line. I’ve tried to right by the rules, and yet every single time it seems like someone makes a mistake, they miss a call, they leak things out. How in the world? How in the world can we put MMA on the map if everything we do is so unprofessional?

Are you taking issue with the leak or was it incorrect reporting?
I’m not going one way or the other on this thing. I already made a statement once. You know, people are always going to jump the gun, they are always going to make their own assumptions. The one thing I will not do is speak before I have all the information I need to do the right thing. To make sure that what I put out is proper—is it going to hurt my fans or hurt my self? But I have to have all the information to do that. People will automatically want me to make a statement—they want to hear this, they want to hear that. I can’t do that until I get all the information.

When it’s all said and done, regardless of whether or not another bout with Royce happens, what is your hope for mixed martial arts?
I’ll tell ya—my hope for MMA is for us to become more like a business […] from the top to the bottom […] It’s to be professional about it and hold everybody accountable that isn’t professional. Not just the fighters and referees and promoters. I’m talking about athletic commissions, I’m talking drug testing facilities, I’m talking Bellator, I’m talking Spike TV. Everybody has to be held accountable for their job. If a referee misses a call he has to be held accountable just like a fighter would if he fouled somebody. It’s not fair that the fighters are the only ones who have to adhere to the rules and if they don’t they get penalized or they are gone. To me it’s unfair.

I have been misabused all the way through this process. With so many things that have gone wrong and nobody has taken responsibility for them but yet they’re still going to fry me.

A couple beats of silence went by before Ken started again.
And what I hope for MMA in the future is that we don’t do what boxing did because that’s what we are going right now. I don’t mind when people talk trash, I don’t mind people getting in people’s faces—as long as it’s done professionally.

When you’re talking about a fight, when you are talking about a fighter, when you are talking about him and him only, when you talk about going after him for certain reasons, I have no problem with that if it builds interest in the fight.

But when you start talking about other people messing in other people’s problems and throwing people under the bus, than you’ve gone across the line, and that’s not promoting the fight, that’s trying to hurt someone’s future and career.

Boxing did the same thing. We did not see boxing hold itself accountable and responsible for the mistakes from the top down. And then people started seeing things happen all the time because nobody—and I mean nobody—was held accountable [even] if you were famous or a top fighter or promoter. You could do whatever you wanted, but after a while the fans said, “Enough is enough, we’re done.”

Don’t think that’s not going to happen in MMA if we don’t straighten up.


Check out these related stories:

Shamrock and Kimbo Test Positive for Banned Substances and Move Further From Redemption

Read Ken Shamrock’s Open Letter to Royce Gracie

Watching Gracie-Shamrock II on the Eve of Gracie-Shamrock III