Being a fight fan is a funny thing.
As fans, our tools are two parts statistics, one part favoritism and the rest is faith. We are usually drawn to those fighters who are consistent and exciting; everyone loves a winner, but they love them even more when they win in exciting fashion.
Predicting which fighter will be successful over the long haul has never been easy in a sport with so many ways to lose, but predicting who is going to lose is an endeavor most fans seem eager to participate in.
Perhaps it is just human nature to expect failure, and it is certainly easy to do when a fighter has shown a tendency to falter at one point or another. To think such fighters are going to “grow taller” than their previous shortcomings seems like too much fancy and not enough fact.
But it does happen.
Perhaps the most compelling example of this is Frank Shamrock.
Many older fans of the sport were surprised when it was announced that Shamrock would be facing Olympic gold medalist Kevin Jackson for the first-ever UFC middleweight title. It’s not that we didn’t get the fact that the UFC was trying to capitalize on a known name; we just thought there had to be a bit more to it than that.
Up until the Jackson fight, Shamrock had a 3-3 record in his last six fights, including a KO loss at the hands of Yuki Kondo. His career in Japan had been a tale of a daring personality struggling to escape the gravity of a middling fighter.
In fact, his most notable fights had been losses to Bas Rutten, Masakatsu Funaki and Kondo. Then, in his first fight outside of Japan, he took a pretty good thumping at the hands of John Lober at SuperBrawl 3, losing by a split decision that in truth was a pretty one-sided thumping.
The younger Shamrock was a valiant, tough gamer, but a world-beater? In truth, his career to that point had looked like anything but.
But if we had been watching closely and had seen his performance against the uber-tough Enson Inoue, we would have noticed that something had changed. Shamrock was not the same middling fighter we were used to.
He had turned a corner in his training, philosophy or some combination of the two. He wasn’t just fighting to make a good accounting of himself anymore, but he was fighting to win and to that end he had suitably armed himself.
To think he had managed to reinvent himself into the image of a man who would become the greatest pound-for-pound fighter of his generation, in less than a single year—that was quite simply beyond our grasp. It was shocking enough that he had been tapped to face the heavily favored Jackson; to think he actually had a chance to win was pushing the envelope of even the most optimistic Shamrock fans.
In his first foray into competition, Jackson had faced the last man to hand Shamrock a loss—John Lober—and had savaged him. Jackson then won the UFC 14 middleweight tournament without breaking a sweat, announcing himself as the top dog at middleweight in all of MMA.
Or so most of us thought.
When Jackson ran Shamrock up against the cage and ripped his legs out from under him, it looked like it was going to be a very short night. Then Shamrock snatched an armbar out of thin air and Jackson was tapping out.
From there, Shamrock would go on to defend his title four times, culminating in a come-from-behind victory over Lion's Den rival Tito Ortiz.
For two years, Shamrock was the best pound-for-pound fighter in the sport, a prototype for the fighters of the future. He was excellent on the ground, and his striking was vastly improved under the tutelage of Maurice Smith.
His reign as the best may not have been long, but it was as significant as it was surprising.
Shamrock proved it was never too late for a fighter to reinvent himself if he had a mind to improve and the necessary training partners to achieve that end. It’s a lesson we should remember anytime we brazenly declare that a fighter is finished or has no chance.
There is always a chance that we can be surprised by the men and women of this sport, who toil behind closed doors and share great ambition.
And that is something we should be thankful for.