UFC History: Frank Shamrock on the Early Days of MMA & the UFC
MMA legend Frank Shamrock has just about seen and done it all in the sport of mixed martial arts. He has beaten a "who’s who" of the sport's top fighters and developed himself into a brand, rather than just a fighter.
He is a true pioneer and goes back to a time when there were no rules, no multimillion dollar television contracts and there was a constant threat of the sport going dark.
Shamrock would leave the sport back in 2000 because no one was offering the opportunities that are presented to fighters today. Shamrock had a family to think of and at the time there was more money to be made outside of the sport than there was inside of it.
Thankfully, Shamrock made his way back to the cage in 2003 and not only created opportunities for himself to make money, but for other fighters as well.
Recently I had the pleasure of speaking with Frank about just how far the sport has come. With UFC on Fox 1 fast approaching, I felt it was important to dig into the darker days of MMA. With the sport getting bigger and bigger everyday, why not get the opinion of someone who has had so much impact on mixed martial arts as a whole?
For that, there is no better man than Frank Shamrock.
Bryan Levick: What are some of your very first memories of the UFC back in the beginning? If you can tell the readers about the differences in how the sport was covered, governed and how the fighters were treated.
Frank Shamrock: Back then we really didn’t have any commissions to oversee the sport like we do today. There was a doctor who would handle your physical and go over all of your medicals. Fighters took care of their own stuff for the most part. We didn’t have locker rooms like the fighters do today, there were eight guys bunched into one room, and because of the tournament style you never knew who you were fighting.
BL: What was the media like back then? I would imagine you didn’t have the elaborate press conferences that are held today.
FS: There were a few regulars at each event. You had Joe Doyle of Full Contact Fighter, there were only about three or four steady guys, most of them were from the internet. Dave Meltzer was always around as was Eddie Goldman. Most of the media that came were first-timers who were usually there to report the bad side of the sport.
A lot of the mainstream media were clueless about the sport—it was definitely a weird time. We had to be cautious because we knew they were looking to report on the negative aspects of the sport. It was easy to pick the guys out, it was a lot of Wild West shit going on that’s for sure!
BL: Was there any type of drug testing done for illegal drugs, steroids, etc.?
FS: I don’t think so, I really don’t remember any testing being done and that can be attributed to the lack of any true commissions regulating the sport. This was well before the unified rules went into effect. When I first came along there was also only two weight classes, so you can imagine things were pretty crazy back then. The only reason they even came up with those weight classes was because the politicians were coming down so hard on them.
BL: Was there a lot of recreational drug use or heavy drinking in the early days of the sport? Was it done out in the open, was it hidden or was their an attitude of don’t look, don’t tell?
FS: I didn’t see any drug use myself, by the time I arrived in the UFC we had commissions looking after us. New Jersey in particular was very strict. I may not have seen any drug use, but you pretty much kept to yourself.
Regardless of what was going on, these guys were still fighters and they still had to take care of themselves. We were pretty serious about the sport and didn’t want to risk getting injured.
BL: Can you tell me a story that happened years ago that if it were to occur today would really shine a negative light on the sport?
FS: I remember when Harold Howard was leaving the Octagon and heading back through the small entrance area that led the fighters to the back. He had just won his fight to get into the semi-finals and he was hit by a rotating light right on the temple. He fell and was completely unconscious. He literally dropped like a sack of potatoes!
His team picked him up and got him on the examination table in the back and woke him up. Fifteen minutes later he was back in the Octagon fighting. I was a young man and I remember thinking to myself, this is freaking crazy! The doctor didn’t see it happen so he couldn’t be at fault, but with the amount of television coverage there is now, things like that would never happen.
BL: What were your initial expectations when you first arrived in the UFC? You had made a name for yourself over in Japan, especially in your fights against Bas Rutten. Could you see the potential for the sport and the organization?
FS: As soon as I saw it, I realized it had great potential. I always thought it would be one of the greatest sports in the world because it was so compelling. I thought the possibilities were endless. It was unfortunate because when I came around it was one of the slowest times for the sport.
I saw a ship sinking right before my very eyes, but I also knew and believed that it would be reborn and eventually take off again. It was crazy, incredibly dangerous and challenging, those were the reasons I stayed involved.
BL: When did you first retire? Was it after your fight with Tito Ortiz at UFC 22 in September of 1999? What was the main reason you decided to leave the sport?
FS: I left the UFC after the fight with Ortiz. Tito was the last super tough guy as I had already handled all of the other guys quite handily. I saw the sport was about to go dark for awhile. I tried my best to promote it and do whatever I could to help, but it was inevitable that there was going to be a period where MMA would go through some really lean years before it could make a serious comeback.
I didn’t want to keep fighting and risking injury to my body when the pay wasn’t where I needed it to be. I made a strategic decision to give it up after I fought Tito. I always planned on coming back when the sport was able to right itself and had a brighter future.
BL: When you first began training you were one of the first guys to concentrate on different disciplines. Who were some of your very first trainers?
FS: My first coach was my brother Ken. He taught me submission wrestling, the catch-as-catch-can style that he was famous for. Then I trained in Japan with Funaki and Suzuki. Then I learned jiu-jitsu and sambo with Oleg Taktarov and Gokor Chivichyan.
After that my main coach was Maurice Smith. All of my previous trainers were basically grapplers, while Smith was the first real striking coach I had. He was one of the best athletes involved with the sport at the time and was breaking into cardiovascular training and how to implement that into my fights.
I then met Javier Mendez from American Kickboxing Academy, and he incorporated the boxing aspect of the sport into everything I had brought with me. We kind of hit it off immediately and worked well together.
Part II of my interview with Frank Shamrock will be posted early next week. Shamrock discusses Dana White and their supposed beef as well as who he believes are some of the best fighters in the sport today.
Read Part II by clicking here.
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