Shamrock FC owner Jesse Finney, 44, knows a thing or two about fighting. A former kickboxer and mixed martial artist, Finney was introduced to combat sports at a very young age.
“How I got started in mixed martial arts is a really long story,” Finney began in an interview with The Body Lock. “My stepdad is actually who got me involved, [world kickboxing title challenger] Robert Biggs; he fought [karate legend] Bill Wallace back in the ’80s in kickboxing… that’s how it all started for me.”
From there, Finney said, he began training in kickboxing and boxing. When he was finally old enough to begin competing, he did so often. Finney had many amateur bouts as a kickboxer before going off to play baseball on scholarship at the collegiate level.
When Finney returned from school, he resumed kickboxing, but it was a controversial new form of fighting that had polarized the combat sports community.
“I was kickboxing all over the country, and then, basically, this thing called the UFC came along,” said Finney. “We started watching some VHS tapes in like, ’98, ’99. They called it, like, ‘No Holds Barred’, then they called it, eventually, mixed martial arts.”
Initially, though, Finney thought MMA was “absolutely ludicrous; crazy”. However, a few of Finney’s friends were able to convince him to give the sport a try once it was legalized in his home state of Missouri.
“Buddies of mine, [UFC veteran] Steve Berger; [KOTC veteran] Mike Rogers, some guys that were in the area, they were doing this cage-fighting stuff that I thought was absolutely ludicrous. They were always trying to talk me into getting into it, and you know, I was a kickboxer and I was a former collegiate athlete, and I was a decent athlete, but I was like, ‘There’s no way I’m getting into that stuff.’
They were like, ‘Listen, it’s not that hard. All you’ve got to learn is, like, a little bit of submission grappling’, aka jiu jitsu back then, right? So, I was like, ‘Okay, well, I’ll give it a shot,'” recalled Finney.
Finney then transitioned to MMA, where he kicked off his professional career with a stellar 4-0 start. Following the impressive genesis of his career, Finney was signed to the now-defunct Strikeforce promotion.
“You know, these guys talked me into doing [MMA], and I was doing okay with it. Then I got picked up by Strikeforce and then, I think I fought for Strikeforce three or four times, and then basically what happened was UFC bought Strikeforce, and I was with [Strikeforce CEO and Bellator president, Scott] Coker.”
It was his connection with Coker, Finney said, that has made all the difference for him in the world of promoting.
“Scott Coker became a mentor to me – and a good friend. And he was like, ‘Man, you need to get out of [fighting competitively], you know? You’re 35 years old. You’ve got it, man, for promotions. You can do this. You really need to, you know, take a look and see what you’re gonna do,'” Finney recalled of Coker’s first suggestion that he move into the promotion game.
Finney initially resisted the idea, opting instead to continue his fighting career, but after his only career loss to UFC veteran Josh Neer, Finney decided to hang up the Strikeforce gloves – and brand his own.
“Then, ever since I would say 2010, you know, we’ve really given it a go with Shamrock FC, and I got out of focusing on myself and really started focusing on Shamrock, you know? I love it. I feel like I’m living a dream every day, man.”
Shamrock FC, a Missouri-based MMA promotion which was founded in 1998, is heavily influenced by Finney’s long past in the combat sports world.
“I was a manager. I’ve owned a management company, owned a promotion company, I own, currently, I still own mixed martial arts gyms – at one time I had four, you know, I’ve done everything. I’ve been a trainer for guys in the UFC, guys in Strikeforce and Bellator; listen, I know what fighters want. I know what it takes for these fighters, and I feel like I can relate to these guys a lot different[ly than other promoters] because, you know, I still to train this day, you know, every day. I just trained with three [active fighters] just the other day, and they’re like, ‘Man, you’re a nut’, you know, just because I love it. I love what I do,” said Finney.
To Finney, his ability to relate to and take care of fighters is of paramount importance.
“I know what fighters want in the back, I know they want water. I know they want grappling mats. I know how they want to be treated. I know how they want to be talked to. I know that they will all want to feel special in many different ways. I know that they want to get to the next level and I want to be that guy to help get them to the next level.”
In order to get fighters to the next level, Finney and Shamrock FC have implemented a uniform, standardized process aimed at bringing up local talent from the amateur ranks to the national stage.
“I feel like what’s different about Shamrock is, listen, we start our guys off in the amateur ranks, okay? We start them off; we groom them to get there to win an amateur title. When they win an amateur title, they get a three-fight contract into the pros with us, right? [If] you win all three fights in the contract as a pro, we’ll sign you to another three-to-five-fight contract.
If you win that, you get a multi-fight contract – a four-fight contract – directly into Bellator. There’s no gray areas for us. Here’s your path, and you follow your path, you know? What’s every fighter want when they’re starting up? They want, ‘If I achieve this, I want this. If I achieve this, I want this.’ Not many people can do that.”
That championship deal with Bellator is a major point of Shamrock FC’s growth; when a champion in Shamrock FC defends their title, they are automatically offered a spot on the Bellator roster. Examples of Shamrock champions who have gone on to Bellator include Zak Bucia, Jordan Howard, Rudy Bears, Bobby Brents, Rebecca Ruth, and more.
The deal, said Finney, came about for the fighters as a result of his friendship with Coker.
“That’s all my relationship and belief in Scott Coker. I mean, he’s been a mentor of mine for the last, literally, probably twelve years. If he believes in me, and, like, listen, I was the one that talked him into signing Tyron Woodley through Strikeforce; I’ve been there for him. I would do anything in the world the guy, truly. We’re good friends.
At the same time, like, instead of just like handing the guys off to the UFC, he was like, ‘Hey, listen, what do you think about working with us?’ I’m like, ‘I’m in.’ Whatever Coker wants, I mean, I’ve been there for him from day one. I mean, he’s one of my best friends,” said Finney.
To date, Shamrock FC has promoted 318 numbered events. Their 319th event, Shamrock FC 319: Peterson vs. Grindstaff, is set for June 8 in Kansas City, MO, live on FloCombat. To Finney, the reason for the promotion’s prolific output and marked efficiency is the professionalism with which his staff goes about running the promotion.
“Listen, this is what we do every single day. This isn’t what we do: start at six o’clock on a Monday night. This is what we do. No joke. I mean, the office opens at 9:00 AM, which for a lot of organizations is way earlier, and the office closes at 8:00 PM. Okay? That’s what we do Monday through Friday; Saturdays from eight until noon. I mean, at any given time there’s, you know, there’s seven of us in the office, you know, so it’s very, very unique. I think we’re probably one of four organizations that has more than five people working for them full time.”
Finney says he and his staff aim to pull out all of the stops for the fighters.
“We make it a production for these guys. These guys pour out their heart and soul. We owe that to them as the fighters. You know, we do pyro, we do lights, we do it all for weigh-ins. No one, no one does that. Because you know what; you know why? ‘Cause these damn fighters deserve it, man, they deserve it. If you look at our shows and our production, the quality that we put into this… [there are] not a lot of other shows out there next to the UFC or Bellator, none of them do it.”
But despite all that Shamrock FC has accomplished in twenty-one years, Jesse Finney says he’s just getting started:
“The ultimate ambition is basically: do what we’re doing but only get better at it, and I really mean that. I would say this: only get bigger, only get better, and you know what? I really mean this: stay in our lane. And, take this the way it is, but we’re a debt-free company. We’re not the guys out there that go and ask for investors, we’re not the guys that are selling a pipe dream. We’re not out there putting our egos before our pocketbooks.
You know what we’re doing? We’re putting on kickass entertainment, we’re putting on kickass fights, and we’re also doing it first class at the same time, and I just want to keep doing what we’re doing but only do it better.”
Michael Fiedel is The Body Lock's deputy editor, a staff writer for FloCombat, and a Russell-Rice scholarship recipient at Vanderbilt University.