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In this series, "From Shows to Shoots", we'll take a look back at some of the most important ways in which professional wrestling has helped shape mixed martial arts. Today's entry deals with one of the most important and influential fighters in MMA history.
If I asked you who the most important draw was in the history of North American MMA, I'd expect to hear many names. Perhaps the original champion, Royce Gracie. Perhaps current PPV juggernaut Brock Lesnar. Many would mention names like Tito Ortiz, Chuck Liddell, and Randy Couture. But for all these men did for the sport, none was as important in terms of drawing power as Kenneth Wayne Shamrock.
Entire books could be written about Ken Shamrock's pre-WWF years, but for our purposes we can stick to the basics. Ken Shamrock began his martial arts career as a pro-wrestler in Japan with the promotion Fujiwara Gumi. Shamrock and several other Fujiwara Gumi wrestlers formed the mixed style, proto-MMA company Pancrase in 1993. Shamrock would have a very successful career in Pancrase, going 17-3 and winning several titles. At the same time, he was an integral part of the first dozen UFC events. Shamrock lost at UFC 1 to Royce Gracie, but after that failure he went 6 fights in the UFC without losing, compiling a 4-0-2 record (which would have been 6-0-0 if not for the lack of judges leading to draws). Shamrock lost to Dan Severn at UFC 9 in a strange no-closed-fist match due to the meddling of Michigan's governing bodies.
After one more victory at Ultimate Ultimate 1996, Shamrock left the UFC to join the WWF. To that point in his career, Shamrock was 23-5-2 in Pancrase and the UFC. Three of the losses were rumored works in Pancrase, one loss was to Royce Gracie (which was perceived as avenged at UFC 5), and one loss to Severn in the UFC 9 debacle. Shamrock was still regarded by many, if not most, as the best fighter on the planet. But unfortunately, even for the best fighter on the planet there was not enough money to be made in MMA. John McCain's campaign to take MMA off of pay per view began after UFC 9, and as a result Shamrock took his reputation as the top MMA fighter in the world to the WWF and crafted a persona as "The World's Most Dangerous Man"
Shamrock was a nearly instant star. Shamrock fought Shawn Michaels for the WWF Championship in December of 1997 at In Your House 19, within a year of joining the company. Shamrock would go on to win the 1998 King of the Ring, the Intercontinental Championship, and the WWF Tag Team Championship all within a year's time from that fight. Shamrock fueded with mega-stars like Shawn Michaels, The Undertaker, Chris Jericho and many others. Despite leaving the WWF in late 1999 after less than 3 years, Shamrock was a legitimate superstar with household name recognition, something no mixed martial artist before (even Royce Gracie) could even imagine. At this point, even without competing Shamrock was by far the most recognized MMA fighter in North America.
(Shamrock as "The World's Most Dangerous Man")
Shamrock fought 4 matches, mostly in PRIDE, before returning the the UFC at UFC 40. Simply put, the importance of UFC 40 to North American MMA can hardly be overstated. The UFC was in dire straits. Buyrates for UFC pay per views had been hovering near 50,000 and sometimes lower. Zuffa had recently purchased the UFC, but until UFC 40 their investment looked like nothing more than a money pit, a sucker's investment. With Ken Shamrock's return, UFC 40 did 150,000 buys, almost quadrupling the recent baseline pay per view numbers. The card also featured Tito Ortiz, Chuck Liddell, and Matt Hughes, but make no mistake, Ken Shamrock alone was responsible for this jump. All three of those fighters had appeared on recent cards that failed to draw even half what UFC 40 drew.
Even after a lopsided loss to Ortiz at UFC 40, Shamrock was still by far the biggest draw in the company. Ken even outdrew the man who had just beaten him, drawing 110,000 buys fighting Kimo Leopoldo at UFC 48, while Tito Ortiz drew 105,000 buys for his UFC 47 clash with Chuck Liddell.
After defeating Kimo, Shamrock would go on an extended losing streak, but it hardly mattered. Shamrock would continue to act as the company's go to draw as the UFC exploded. Shamrock headlined another of the most important fight cards in UFC history, the TUF 1 season finale. Shamrock would then coach opposite Tito Ortiz on the third season of TUF, and rematch him at UFC 61. UFC 61 absolutely shattered the North American PPV record for an MMA event, totaling 775,000 buys. After UFC 61, Shamrock would fight Ortiz a third time on cable television, and once again the bout broke records by totaling 5.7 million viewers during the main event.
Given all this evidence, it's not hard to see that Ken Shamrock is the most important draw in UFC history. His fights consistently shattered viewership records. He headlined arguably the two most important UFC cards ever: UFC 40 and the TUF 1 finale. He was involved in the two most important rivalries in UFC history: Gracie vs. Shamrock and Ortiz vs. Shamrock. He helped shatter the UFC's pay per view record, as well as their cable television ratings record.
Shamrock's incredible run of popularity in the WWF made him a household name. He was a big enough name that when he left, many fans followed him to the UFC. His WWF popularity and image as "The World's Most Dangerous Man" almost single-handedly rescued the UFC from their dark ages. The early Zuffa era UFC was still fighting to emerge from the "dark age" of pay per view banishment and perceptions of barbarism. Ken Shamrock was the magic bullet. Crucially, Shamrock's drawing power gave Tito Ortiz (and by proxy, Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture) a massive push in popularity and turned the entire upper echelon of the light heavyweight division into superstars.
From a competitive standpoint, Shamrock's second UFC run was worse than mediocre, it was awful. His best years as a competitor were long gone. But it's impossible to say what the North American MMA scene would look like today if Ken Shamrock hadn't come back from the WWF when he did. MMA fans everywhere owe him a debt of gratitude and should respect the man for helping to push the sport to the level it enjoys today.