Attitude Era: Ken Shamrock vs. The Rock and the Demons of the Road

Jonathan Snowden@JESnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterMay 2, 2020

Photo courtesy of WWE.com

Editor's note: The Rock is a global icon, but his lofty status was built with considerable help from WWF Attitude Era stars like Ken Shamrock. In this excerpt from Jonathan Snowden's new book, Shamrock: The World's Most Dangerous Man, we learn more about Shamrock's blistering-hot feud with a cocky young heel, Rocky Maivia, and how he helped launch the career of one of WWE's greatest performers.


As he started his second year with WWF, Shamrock was placed in the defining feud of his short career, taking on the Nation of Domination as the faction entered its last days. It was a program that allowed Shamrock to play to his strengths and minimized his weaknesses.

"Ken just couldn't figure out how to deliver the long promos you needed to be a top star in those days," one WWF contemporary said. "He was, frankly, really bad [on the microphone]. In the ring, he could hang with anyone. But if you gave the Rock or Stone Cold a mic, it wasn't a fair fight. Ken was about as articulate as a tree stump."

That made his pairing with the Nation perfect. Ken could focus on wrestling Rocky Maivia, while most of the work crafting the broader narrative was handled by Nation members as they worked through an internal drama focused on Rock's attempts to usurp leadership of the group from Faarooq. It was a very entertaining, monthslong soap opera—but one that left Shamrock as sort of a supporting player despite, ostensibly, being the lead babyface.

The focus here was clearly on Maivia. The previous year he'd been the target of fans' ire as an ever-smiling, generic babyface they didn't think deserved his push. As a heel, he was a revelation, stealing scene after scene weekly on RAW and basically forcing his way up the card by making himself undeniable. By early 1998, he and Shamrock were a hot enough pairing to main event smaller house shows in tag team action, and his future seemed almost impossibly bright.

"I watched the Rock happen right in front of my eyes," Shamrock says. "The minute they gave him the mic and stop trying to choreograph his personality, he was like a rocket. They took the reins off him, and he just ran. He was this funny character in real life and started being himself. Once that happened, nothing was going to stop him."

The two feuded all the way through WrestleMania and beyond, though like everything else, they played second fiddle to the ongoing serial drama that was Mike Tyson. His high-profile appearances leading into Steve Austin's title win over Shawn Michaels reminded the mainstream of WWF's existence and introduced the wider world to Stone Cold for the first time.

While Shamrock had actually challenged the boxer the previous year in an early appearance, by this point the company was fully committed to Austin as the next big babyface star, leaving Ken mired in the midcard.

Warning: contains profanity.

Dwayne Johnson @TheRock

@MrGMSI_BCage @The90s7 @ShamrockKen @TheMooseNation @IMPACTWRESTLING @IMPACTPlusApp @FiteTV @itsvadertime I’ll co-sign that. @ShamrockKen helped build “The Rock” character. Huge #AttitudeEra influence. We tore the houses down together. I’ll always be grateful and respectful. He’s a fucking machine. They don’t make em like that anymore. Thanks for the house brother Ken 💪🏾🥃

But helping launch the Rock to stardom isn't bad as consolation prizes go, and Shamrock was fully committed to the task. Rock had already established himself as a funny and entertaining guy. But that was the path to becoming a babyface, especially during the Attitude Era, where fans were more than willing to cheer on vile behavior that would have once immediately marked a wrestler as a villain.

Instead, WWF was looking to build a rival for Austin and needed the Rock to be seen as a little more menacing and a little less amusing. Shamrock had an idea to help make that happen. The February 9 match on RAW between the Nation and Ken and DOA member Chainz was booked to end after the Rock nailed Shamrock with a chair shot. Par for the course in those days—until Shamrock suggested that Rock hit him right in the face.

"I said, 'You going to hit me in the back?' And he said, 'I want it to be a headshot,'" Shamrock says. "I said, 'Dude, I would rather take it in the front than the back of the head. Just swing at my face.'"

"What?" Rock replied.

"Just swing at my face," Shamrock said. "I'll look up at you, and as I start getting up, just hit me right in the face. Make sure it's the flat part of the chair.'"

"'What are you talking about?'" Rock sensibly asked. "Hit you in the face?"

"'Don't worry about it," Shamrock said. "I promise I'll take care of myself. From that angle you can't actually possibly hit me in the face unless you're doing a golf swing. But it will look like you did. So swing it like a bat."

"Are you sure?" Rock asked, giving him a chance to change his mind.

"Just bring it," Shamrock said. "I'd rather get hit in the forehead than the back of the head. I've got a big old skull. You lay it in there. I mean it. I don't want anyone saying it looked fake."

JESnowden @JESnowden

The Rock would hit Ken Shamrock directly in the face with his chair shots. But, as we learn in Shamrock: The World's Most Dangerous Man (https://t.co/pN5kZumed8), this was by request. Ken didn't want anyone to say it looked "fake." 📼@GrappleClips https://t.co/VpUQVizoou

The result was an epic shot, one that they would repeat night after night, even in low-stakes situations like house show events. Four days after Shamrock's Lion's Den fighters wowed fight fans at UFC 16, he and Rock took it even further, upping the violence a notch during the March 17 RAW, where Shamrock was on the receiving end of one of the most brutal chair shots in WWF history, again courtesy of the Rock.

While it couldn't have done him any good long term, Shamrock preferred what he felt was a little bit of control over the situation that didn't exist with the typical chair shot delivered from behind.

"I'd taken some bad chair shots before," he says. "I'd take 100 of those to the forehead before I took one on the back of the head. I couldn't get people to believe I was fine. It popped the boys. These are workers, and they totally bought it. Mankind copied me but took it to a different level. He didn't take one—he took five."

Shamrock survived another brutal, unprotected chair shot from Rock in what would end up being his only high-profile singles match at WrestleMania—then had the rug pulled out from beneath him when the referee reversed the decision after he refused to break his patented ankle lock submission.

Photo courtesy of WWE.com

It was a decisive win that somehow resulted in a loss when Shamrock couldn't maintain his cool. He ended up tossing three referees and a random man in a suit before order was briefly restored. When the decision was announced, Shamrock snapped a second time, attacking the Rock, who was being removed from the ring via an inexplicably slow-moving stretcher.

With Rock's blood dotting his left arm, Shamrock lifted the Intercontinental Championship to a huge response. But it was Rock who left the arena with the strap.

The story WWF was telling of Shamrock slowly losing control was a matter of art imitating life. His marriage and life in California were crumbling. The new Lion's Den he had invested so much in wouldn't survive the year, and his marriage was hanging by a thread. When he was home, he and Tina spent most of their time fighting. And on the road, it was like he wasn't married at all.

"Joining WWE was like being let out of the military," Shamrock says. "The doors are open. You can go to the clubs, go out every night. And you have the money to do it or everything is given to you because they want you to be a part of what they are doing. It's like going to Disney World and all the rides are free. I was being paid to play. All of a sudden the gates were open, and it's all open now. If you're not ready for it, it will eat you up."

What had seemed like a good time at first soon became a grind. Drug use went from recreational to a matter of surviving from day to day.

"When I first started doing it, I was tired from constantly traveling from one place to another," Shamrock says. "So I'd do some cocaine to get going. Then, after the show, we'd go out and party, drinking and having a great time. Maybe you need some somas to go to sleep. Then you wake up the next morning and have to travel again. So you'd hit an energy drink, or some coffee, or more cocaine to get you going.

"It's this never-ending wheel. Pretty soon, the body starts to wear down. You get a tear here, or a dislocated joint there. So you go to the doctor and they give you pain pills. Now you're taking those all the time. Because you couldn't stop or someone would take your spot. So you work through all this."

Veterans of this game could weather the whirlwinds they created for themselves with a storm of poor choices. Shamrock, thrown in the deep end, sometimes found himself struggling to keep his head above water. He would miss shows occasionally, his body crashing from the never-ending onslaught of partying and drugs. Occasionally, Tina would call WWF officials to let them know he was too sick to make a town.

"He could've been the champ if he didn't get as f--ked up as he did," one former opponent who was close to decision-makers in the WWF office says. "Absolutely, one hundred percent. A lot of stuff was overlooked just because he was Ken Shamrock. That was true of every star back then.

"You could show up not in the best condition. As long as you can perform, as long as you still did your job, they would overlook it. But showing up is a huge part of any job. You can't just miss shows and have the missus calling in for you.

"Once that got around, there's all the politics backstage. People whispering that he wasn't dependable. That was stuff that he wasn't probably the best at. And that's just a fact of life everywhere in this business. There's more to it than just in-ring skills. I'm not sure Ken ever fully understood that."

Shamrock knew he was making mistakes, knew that he couldn't go on the way he was living. But at some point, it's like you're watching the water circle the drain and you don't know how to reverse the momentum.

"You have to be disciplined in your training, disciplined in your travel and disciplined in your eating habits," he says. "And I got off track. I started paying more attention to where I could go play in the next town we were going to. Do the show, go play.

"I just went off the track. It will eat you up. Pretty soon you don't know which way is up. It is a very dangerous game, pro wrestling. And that's out of the ring. People couldn't see it in the ring. I was always professional enough to deliver my matches. But when the match was over, I was out of control, out there endangering my career—and my life, really."


Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report. Shamrock: The World's Most Dangerous Man is available at Amazon and wherever books are sold.