SAN DIEGO — Next to the bed in his Windsport motor home, parked behind a discount tire store in suburban San Diego, "The World's Most Dangerous Man" has a Bible and a Glock.
"That's the American way," Ken Shamrock says, breaking into a smile with just enough malice to make you wonder. "Me and my Bible will beat the faith into you."
In the next room, a timid pit bull whines, tail between its legs. She's been Shamrock's only company as he prepares for Friday's much-anticipated fight with Kimbo Slice on Spike TV. There's a greasy George Foreman grill in the back. A ubiquitous and eponymous energy drink is everywhere.
There are no luxuries here.
"Because of who I am and what I've accomplished, everything is pretty much given to me," Shamrock says. "People cater to me all the time. It's almost like I've lost that edge—lost the ability to want something and then put in the work necessary to get it.
"I have to earn whatever it is I get from here on out. Right now I don't even have running water in that trailer. I have to go and shower at the gym. Shave at the gym. I have to bring in water in jugs in order to have water to boil for food. It's been rough."
A UFC Hall of Famer, the 51-year-old Shamrock was the first man to earn seven figures for a fight in the Octagon. That was 10 years and a lawsuit ago. Now, training out of a sad motor home in a questionable part of town, he's looking for one more chance—a chance to write that happy ending all fighters dream of but few can realize.
A pink sign hanging on the door reads "The Gift of Friends." That may work for Mama Shamrock, but the grizzled cagefighter inside belies that message. The bathroom looks like it belongs to a college freshman. There's a pan on the bed to catch the drip, a rare spring storm having created a significant leak.
Last night, he says, he was forced to sleep on the couch with the dog. He says it with a twinkle in his eye.
Ken Shamrock looks happy.
"I feel really good," he says. "I feel like I've been given a second chance to do what I love doing. I thought I had lost my opportunity to go out of this sport the way I wanted to go out—and that's to go out fighting and go out fighting at a relatively high level."
Twenty minutes later, down the road at Cully's Restaurant in Poway, Shamrock is no longer in quite the same jolly mood. We walk into the place, a definitive greasy spoon where Shamrock eats each morning, and then walk out and back in again. We do it several times as reality television cameras from Spike TV attempt to capture the perfect authentic greeting from the restaurant staff.
Eventually they give up. They'll shoot it again when we're done. Reality, after all, is malleable. You quickly become inured by the cameras in Shamrock's presence. If it's not Spike, it's a team shooting a documentary on his life. If it's not them, it's a Marine with a cellphone camera. If you're with Shamrock, you are being documented.
It's easy to forget the two cameramen and the producer, though, when Shamrock has a bone to pick.
More than 21 years after his first professional fight, there's still a raging intensity just underneath the surface. There's a face Shamrock used to make as a WWE wrestler when he applied his signature ankle lock submission. He's wearing it at breakfast while chastising Spike's team for what he feels is a Kimbo-friendly slant.
"He's been last in everything," Shamrock complains. "Last one out at every press appearance. Getting the last word in the TV commercials. It's supposed to be a promotion of equals. That's OK. They'll see."
The interview, at some point, turns into a performance piece. It's my interview, but there are notes for me as well as for Ken, who orders pancakes and six scrambled eggs, insisting all the while that it probably won't be enough food. He's fighting at heavyweight and still hitting the scale at a svelte 217 pounds. The weight, he says, just won't stay on anymore in the face of all the intense workouts he's putting himself through.
"Eat more aggressively," I'm told, and I give it my all. Ken is instructed to stab violently into his eggs, covered in ketchup, while he discusses how much he loves to make an opponent bleed. He literally pounds his food while talking about inventing the MMA strategy of ground-and-pound.
At first, it seems a ludicrous claim. Invented it? But there he is on tape, sitting in Royce Gracie's guard at UFC 5, 20 years ago, creating a sport with the power of invention and desperation.
"Technique is certainly a lot better now. But when you talk about countering the guard, I developed that in MMA to fight Royce," Shamrock says. "If you stay in the guard and control the hips and flatten him out, you can control him. And that was the start of ground-and-pound."
|By the Numbers: Ken Shamrock|
|Record||28-15-2 (22 Submissions)|
In a way it's like listening to a basketball player discuss inventing the jump shot, a reminder that this is still a sport very much in its formative stages. Shamrock is MMA's most enduring star. Part of a pro wrestling troupe determined to put on matches that weren't fixed, he hit his physical prime at just the right time to make a global impact.
Within months of the first legitimate pro wrestling match in decades, Shamrock was one of the breakout stars of the very first UFC. He's been a presence on the scene ever since.
The doors at the San Diego Combat Academy roll up to let in the air. UFC fighter Liz Carmouche and a business partner have claimed two bays in an automobile repair shop. Instead of rebuilding engines, they are building fighters—even reclamation projects like Shamrock.
For Ken, this camp is a family affair. Waiting for him, in addition to trainer Manolo Hernandez, is Pete Williams, one of Shamrock's top students in the formative days of his legendary Lion's Den training camp. The first MMA "supergroup," the young men who met Shamrock's exacting standards and lived in his famed fighters' house went on to great success in the sport's early days. After all, if you could survive a training session with the 1995 version of Ken Shamrock, you can survive just about anything.
"He used to wake me up by whispering, 'I'm going to beat the f--k out of you today,'" Williams says with a laugh. He can laugh after two decades. But at the time it wasn't always so funny.
"There were definitely days we would be stretching and warming up and dreading whether or not Ken was going to come in that day," he says. "Because if Ken came in, it was going to be an intense day. When Ken showed up, it went to another level of intensity. Depending on what was going on in his life. The worst days were when he was looking to blow off some steam. Then he was going to beat the crap out of some people. You had to either up your game or get your ass kicked on a daily basis. It was a live or die situation."
Shamrock smiles when he hears Williams' description of their early days together. If you squint hard enough, you can pretend it doesn't have a predatory edge.
"It wasn't that bad! But I can imagine that's what they all thought," he says. "To me, it was all about toughness. It was about preparing these guys for a career. It was bare-knuckle at that time and pretty brutal. That was the only way you were going to make it.
"If they were going to do this, they had to know what you were getting into. My whole thing was getting in there with these guys and really pushing their limits. Testing their toughness and their desire."
The Williams sighting is kind of a big deal in the MMA subculture. Over the years, since riding a losing streak right out of the sport just as things finally started looking up, Williams has been a complete recluse.
More than a decade since his retirement, sporting a gnarly graying beard and a bit of a paunch, Williams is looking to reinsert himself into the fight game. Once again, Shamrock is leading the way. Williams has been there since the beginning, serving as Shamrock's main training partner for almost every one of his big fights.
Does his mentor still have what it takes to compete?
"I think 51 is probably too old to compete with the 20-somethings or try to go in and get the belt," Williams says. "But a grudge fight or a superfight where the opponent is also over 40 years old—I think it's totally viable."
That's certainly fine with Bellator promoter Scott Coker. Sitting cageside at an event in Temecula, California, he says he has no intention of pushing either Shamrock or Slice into title contention. Instead, the two big names from yesteryear are intended to be a bridge—to connect lapsed fans to the promotion's current crop of exciting young fighters.
"We do some fights like this that I call fun fights for the general fan and other fights for the hardcore fan. We have something for everybody," Coker says. "The fun fights we do are designed to cast a net for the audience that used to be there.
"The beauty of all those eyeballs is that they'll get to see Pitbull [featherweight champion Patricio Freire] and they'll get to see Michael Chandler. The same way the Tito Ortiz and Stephan Bonnar fight basically launched Will Brooks. We're going to build stars every time we have one of these fun fights. We're really going after it."
Even the normally unflappable Coker, a living repudiation of his bombastic UFC counterpart Dana White, couldn't hide his excitement for the fight—or his surprise that Shamrock was willing to step back into the cage again after five years on the outside. When Shamrock pointed at Royce Gracie at a legend's convention and said, "I want to fight that guy," Coker says he nearly fell out of his chair.
"I thought he was kidding," he says. "I asked, 'Wait, are you still interested in fighting?'"
Then the wheels really started turning.
"The next thing I asked was 'Would you fight Kimbo Slice?'
"And he said 'I'd love that fight.'"
At the San Diego Combat Academy's flagship gym, Shamrock's son Sean laughs at the idea he might be surprised his dad is stepping back into competition.
"He's going to be 80 years old and walking to the ring with an oxygen mask," he says. "He's gonna do it until he can't no more. It's exciting that he's getting back to what he loves to do. It's like things are back to normal."
If you were expecting trepidation and fear about Grandpa Shamrock returning to action, you'll be disappointed in Clan Shamrock's shoulder-shrugging nonchalance.
"I'm not worried at all. It's going to be fun," Sean's older brother Ryan says. "I hear what everybody is saying, that because he's old he can't do it. But I see his training. Just wait until he gets in the ring and everybody sees what he does."
If their confidence seems misplaced, have a look at this recently posted picture of Shamrock defying Father Time:
In the gym at least, the old Ken is back. He does a circuit that includes leg presses, flys and bicep curls on a balance ball. More insidious are the "wheel of doom" and the Indo Board.
The motivation for Shamrock is simple.
"I don't want to be disappointing again—to myself or my fans," Shamrock says.
He's open about his last several fights failing to live up to his own high standards. His problems go all the way back to a fight in Japan in 2000, when he was forced to quit during a fight he was winning handily, asking Williams to stop the bout with the haunting cry of, "Petey my heart."
"No matter how tough you are or how much willpower or determination you have, if there's something wrong with your body it's going to shut down and stop," Shamrock says. "It's good to have those qualities, but it's important to know what you're pushing against. And I almost pushed myself into the grave. I was frustrated. I was disappointed. I was depressed. This is not me. This can't be all I have. This can't be it. But there came a time when I had to accept that it was."
He claims to be back on the right track now. And while there's every reason to be skeptical that a man's physical condition would be better at 51 than it was at 36, Shamrock's strength and conditioning coach Bill Crawford says the fighter's work in the gym is a powerful counterpoint to any critics.
"I can't really throw anything at him he can't handle," Crawford says. "I train fighters from the age of 19 all the way up to Ken. All I know is that he does the same workouts they do."
Inside Team Shamrock, there's much talk about his spiritual walk and how much he's changed over the years.
"Getting a chance to live with him since he's been going to church and living the way he's supposed to live, you can definitely tell a difference," Sean says. "Anybody who knew him before can see that."
But glimpses of the old Shamrock emerge from time to time.
At his trailer, Sean somehow manages to take up three parking places. "I park where I want to park," he says. The lax attitude doesn't extend to others' cars, and when the Shamrocks are forced to take a short walk because a Mustang has blocked the entrance to the motor home, Father Shamrock screams, "Hey, whose car is this?"
The anger is palpable as he stalks the parking lot looking for the culprit. It quickly dissipates when an older woman, not at all impressed with the hulking fighter, calmly comes out to move her car.
If Shamrock needs to access his dark side, it's not far from the surface. Just the mention of Slice can get him going. The two men have a long and sordid history. In 2008, they were set for a fight on CBS, a bout designed to continue Slice's launch into the MMA mainstream.
For Shamrock, it was a stormy time. He knew he was there as the opponent, expected to lose to a man most famous for backyard street fights on YouTube. Already in a dark place because of his father's failing health, a fight week contract dispute with promoter Elite XC sent him spiraling on a downward trajectory.
"They told us they didn't have to meet with us," Shamrock says. "We could do the fight or they would see us in court."
And then, in the midst of the madness, it happened.
"I got a friend of mine, Dan Freeman, and we moved all the stuff out of the way in the hotel suite and started rolling around," Shamrock says. "Easy stuff like you'd do in the locker room to warm up. Just to get my mind back on the fight.
"As I had his back, my head came down just as he popped his head up. Boom. He caught my eye. It wasn't really that hard, and we even kept moving. Then I saw blood."
It was a bad cut, on the day of the fight no less. Shamrock was scratched from the card, forcing Kimbo into a fight with the unknown Seth Petruzelli instead. Petruzelli knocked Slice out in 14 seconds. Shamrock was surrounded by whispers that he had cut himself on purpose in protest over Elite XC's poor treatment.
Neither man has ever really recovered from the incident. Slice claims to this day that Shamrock was looking to duck out of the fight because he was afraid. In Team Shamrock, this is literally only mentioned in whispers. Even today, it's a claim that stings.
"When Kimbo said that, I thought, 'Are you kidding me? Who are you? Where did you come from?' I would never say that about another fighter. Because I don't know their situation. I would never do that," Shamrock says. "To me that's just a guy that's got no character, he's got no morals, he's got no respect for life or for people.
"I fought all over the world against everyone. I ain't afraid of nobody. Fighting in a ring is not scary. On the street, with guns and knives, where I came from? That's scary. Fighting in a ring? Please."
With Shamrock, you have to take these displays of temper with a grain of salt. His years in the WWE have made him a master salesman and, over and over again throughout his career, a series of opponents have been turned into his arch-nemesis for the purpose of ticket sales.
Still, there is the sense that there is truth here, lurking just under the surface.
"He called Ken a coward," Shamrock's business partner Des Woodruff says. He shakes his head, unbelieving.
"When I watch them interact, you can feel how much they dislike each other," Coker says. "This is going to be a fight. These guys are going to fight. They are going to come out, and it is going to be on. When they walk in, I'm going to have goosebumps. It's going to be that kind of fight. The emotions are so high it's going to be a special night."
As Shamrock towels off to leave the gym, a month before the fight, he looks ready to go. He's on track, he says, already in shape to do three rounds. He's fueled by many things—his doubters and his opponent among them. But most of all, there's a burning desire to prove something to himself.
"I've been saying forever that I needed to do this again. Inside of me, I knew I had something more," Shamrock says. "People who are given second chances often squander them. This is my second chance, and I promise you I am going to go into that ring and give everything I have.
"And it's not just about winning. It ain't about winning a three-round decision. It's about finishing him in the first round. It's not a fight I want to go to a decision. I want to finish this guy because I can."
Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.