However young the sport may be, MMA has a budding problem with its own history. In North America, where “UFC” is still synonymous with MMA for the vast majority of the population, the historical narrative surrounding the birth, growth, and worldwide expansion of no holds barred fighting has been molded almost exclusively by the UFC. History is written by the victors, and at least for now, the UFC is that victor.
With the UFC acting as the steward of MMA’s history, the predominant narrative conveniently distances itself from anything suggesting that the UFC and the UFC alone fostered the growth of MMA. The UFC’s narrative forgets fighters or personalities that at some point butted heads with the promotion. The history of MMA is, for all intents and purposes, what the UFC wants it to be.
This is the problem Jonathan Snowden, author of the new book Shamrock: The World’s Most Dangerous Man, is trying to remedy. This important book, a comprehensive look at the life and professional career of Ken Shamrock, is the first of its kind in the MMA space (I can’t speak for the professional wrestling space, and this book is just as much about wrestling as it is MMA). While there are certainly examples of phenomenal writing about MMA — Josh Gross’s Ali vs. Inoki and Kerry Howley’s Thrown come to mind — no other work has so exhaustively examined its subject to present such an honest look at an individual.
The “MMA” section at any Barnes & Noble is filled with fighter biographies and memoirs, but those are largely just exercises in brand management and promotion. The fighter tells his or her story, solely from his or her perspective, with whatever basis in reality that fighter so wishes. These are the network TV talk shows of sports writing: good, dependable fun with few surprises and not much to think about.
Snowden’s book, on the other hand, presents an unfettered look at the often ugly life of Shamrock. Snowden approaches his subject with the appreciation of a fan, telling his story with reverent honesty, yet never shying away from the seedier elements of Shamrock’s wildly entertaining life.
It’s difficult to say if this book (and therefore, Shamrock’s career) is more about MMA or professional wrestling, but therein lies an important reality that Snowden illuminates: MMA has been wed to professional wrestling since its inception. This is a historical truth that the UFC narrative overlooks. Many of the sport’s biggest early stars, including Shamrock, came directly from professional wrestling. The Japanese professional wrestling offshoot organization Pancrase utilized a ruleset that mimicked professional wrestling, but with genuine competition — the first structured iteration of modern MMA.
Shamrock fought at three Pancrase events before he ever stepped foot in the Octagon at UFC 1. By pulling back the curtain on Shamrock’s simultaneous involvement in professional wrestling, Pancrase, and no holds barred fighting, the reader is given an honest and complete view of the birth of the sport. Snowden’s reporting on the various behind-the-scenes relationships, business deals, betrayals, and promotional infighting and competition is meticulous, if even a bit distracting early on, as we’re introduced to countless wrestlers and promoters, all with their own unique motivations and cliques. For the MMA fan with only a casual knowledge of professional wrestling (like myself), it can feel like a mountain of information. But as Shamrock’s career advances and his life comes into focus, Snowden weaves together these otherwise disconnected elements to paint a full picture of Shamrock and, necessarily, the early days of MMA.
Some of the most fascinating parts of the book, beyond the more salacious details, involve backdoor business deals and matchmaking. More than just who Shamrock fought, we learn why he fought them. At times, Shamrock was motivated strictly by money, and at times by personal vendettas, but mostly we are led to an important conclusion: how and why fights come together is largely a matter of chance and a complex web of personal and financial circumstances that we rarely understand.
Unlike any other piece of work in the MMA space, the book delves into the good and bad of Shamrock’s personal life. Snowden collected uncensored statements from dozens of people that knew or know Shamrock on a personal level, from former training partners to wives to close friends. Interviews with Shamrock’s children, still nursing wounds from childhoods with The World’s Most Dangerous Man as a father, are particularly candid and sometimes heartwrenching. Through these interviews, we meet a Shamrock that struggled with drug abuse, financial catastrophe, failed marriages, and life as an absentee father. Behind his Captain America mystique and gladiatorial toughness, we meet a Shamrock that is, above all else, human.
While interviews from those that know Shamrock create a 360-degree view of the man, much of the best storytelling comes from Shamrock himself in the form of extensive interviews that Snowden must have conducted over the course of several days. Often, Shamrock displays the guarded machismo and refusal to accept blame that may have turned fans off in the past. At other times, though, Shamrock is open and vulnerable, taking responsibility for a pivotal moment in the falling-out with his adopted brother Frank, or describing vivid memories of childhood trauma.
The book drags a bit in the final fourth, the unfortunate nature of a story about the life of an aging athlete. In general, though, Snowden re-tells Shamrock’s life just as he has lived it — at breakneck speed. The descriptions of the fights, while tending to agree with Shamrock’s perspective of them, are addicting and exciting to read, causing me several times to watch classic fights with fresh eyes. Lurid details and anecdotes from Shamrock’s life — ranging from wife-swapping stories to drug-induced benders, to parking lot fistfights — seem to pop up every few pages and make the book nearly impossible to put down.
Shamrock accomplishes a couple of important tasks. First, it (hopefully) opens the door for more books or biographies in the MMA space that offer an entirely unfiltered look at their subjects; it makes room for books that are more than just brand promotion. Second, by using Ken Shamrock’s life as a vehicle for storytelling, it offers a broad, free-from-UFC-influences look at the history and growth of the sport. The book is a must-read for any MMA fan looking for a deep understanding of a pioneer of the sport, and, therefore, a deeper understanding of the sport itself.
Shamrock: The World’s Most Dangerous Man is available on Amazon here.
Disclosure: The Body Lock received a copy of Shamrock: The World’s Most Dangerous Man from the author in exchange for an honest review. This did not affect our opinion or the content of our review.