Shamrock and Kimbo Test Positive for Banned Substances and Move Further From Redemption
If this doesn't look like the lowest point of a fighter's life, it's damn close. Fifty-two years old. Once a founding father for an outlaw sport that thrashed its way into the mainstream, today he's a headlining act with a permanent residence on the freak show circuit, lobbying for a fourth fight with an arch nemesis after their pointless trilogy ended in embarrassment and controversy. In 15 years, four forgettable wins counterbalanced by 11 defeats, 10 of them by KO or TKO.
And now, after another loss, there's another drug test failure. On Friday, the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation announced that Ken Shamrock and his onetime opponent Kevin "Kimbo Slice" Ferguson each failed pre-fight screens for banned substances before their recent respective bouts at Bellator 149 in Houston. No word yet on what specific substances either fighter allegedly ingested, nor have Shamrock and Ferguson responded publically to the commission's findings. For Shamrock, confirmation would mark his second drug test failure, after testing positive for three steroids in the wake of his 2009 armbar over the late superheavyweight Ross Clifton. It would also mark the latest ignominious episode in the life of an MMA pioneer seemingly determined to erase all the esteem he earned 20 years ago.
Performance-enhancing drug use, of course, wouldn't reflect kindly on either fighter: Ferguson's opponent, Dhafir "Dada 5000" Harris, nearly died in the hospital afterward. His death would have been a tragedy made only more awful because Ferguson's time in mixed martial arts has never had anything to do with seriousness. The win column of his 6-2 record comes from handpicked match-ups designed to capitalize on his unlikely fame. He endures thanks to a big, stupid, remote-holding contingent that conflates MMA with grainy clips of street fights they downloaded during the George W. Bush administration.
Shamrock, meanwhile, was a serious all-around fighter back in the 1990s. He was a Pancrase veteran and leg lock specialist with takedowns, size, and savvy—attributes that carried him to a Superfight title, the promotion's heavyweight title precursor. Along with Royce Gracie, he was among the UFC's first marquee fighters. But as losses and years piled up, Shamrock has given up the pretense of continuing in mixed martial arts to pursue great athletic heights and instead justified it with simple self-determination: as long as he still wants to fight, as long an audience still wants to watch him fight, as long as a commission will still deem him physically fit to fight, then he should be allowed to fight.
Those are reasonable standards that the 50-something version of Shamrock has consistently met and are hard to deny him. Setting aside the drug test failure, he passed the pre-fight requirements for athletic commissions in Missouri and Texas. He still looks the part of an athlete, certainly. And against Royce Gracie and Ferguson, Shamrock headlined Bellator's two most-watched events, both of which peaked with more than 2 million viewers. As for the criticism of MMA's burgeoning senior division, Shamrock equates it with age discrimination. Then there's our own underlying hypocrisy: why should Ken Shamrock stop doing something we all want to watch even as we criticize?
I did not watch Shamrock's most recent fight in full. Shamrock seems to forget that a big part of the criticism sent his way comes from not wanting to see aging men get knocked unconscious, whether or not it's by other men of the same vintage.
For me, Ken Shamrock has long been divided into both a memory and a reality. When I started watching MMA, I was impressed at how ahead of his time Shamrock seemed, how even in the mid-1990s he had more in common with Frank Mir and the cross-training MMA fighters of the early 2000s instead of the dojo weirdos that filled out those single-digit UFC brackets. I mimicked submissions from the back of his book Inside the Lion's Den. Even though I had my doubts about his performance-enhancing drug use, a younger me was gullible enough to take him at his word when he wrote: "I have been asked many times how anabolic steroids might fit into a fighter's overall plan of diet and training. The answer is simple: They don't." Shamrock also had an inspiring story of finding personal agency and escaping a dead-or-in-jail future through no-holds-barred fighting. When he looked to be headed for retirement after his third loss to Tito Ortiz 10 years ago, it was heartening to see that his successes outweighed his failures, and that he was getting out before things got really bad.
That's the memory. The reality is that Ken Shamrock has been losing badly for a very long time. He's turned a fighter's mindset—the mental fortitude that abides even when the odds are steeply against them—into pathology. With each loss, he sees the next fight as a way to redeem himself: the 2015 booking with Ferguson was a way to silence conspiracy theorists suspicious of his last-minute removal from their 2008 bout, the fight with Gracie was in part a chance to make up for the mistakes he made in his loss to Ferguson, and the fantasy of a fourth bout with Gracie is way to make up for the end of that most recent shit show. With each fight, audiences watch anticipating a car crash. (If not for the medical suspension after his most recent loss to Gracie, this month Shamrock—not Tank Abbott—would have been booked to fight Dan Severn for a third time.)
Whether or not Shamrock can successfully defend against his recent drug test failure, whether or not he gets another rematch with Gracie (or Severn), whether or not he notches another win or two, none of those small victories will reroute the path he's been cutting for more than a decade. He has every right to keep fighting for money. But if he's fighting for redemption, he should know this: redemption has never been further away, and each time he climbs into the cage, it slips a little further.
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