Frank Shamrock (Pictures) has long been regarded as one of the finest mixed martial artists in the sport's history, with some going so far as to suggest that he is the best to grace a ring or cage.
While that's merely fodder for debate, there is one thing most people now agree on when it comes to the former UFC champion: Shamrock has painted himself into a corner as far as his legacy is concerned.
At his best Shamrock was the quintessential mixed martial artist, a man with a skill set head and shoulders above anybody else. During his reign atop the sport in the late 1990s he was the prototype -- he could strike with the best strikers; he could grapple with the best grapplers; his endurance was second to none.
Yet at the height of his career, having just passed his stiffest test against young brawler Tito Ortiz (Pictures), Shamrock walked away -- in reality he "retired" from the UFC as a means to terminate a contract -- leaving a void so vast that it seemed like it would take an eternity before MMA found someone as talented.
At times Shamrock teased us with the resumption of his career and each time we fell for it in hopes that he'd return with the sheer brilliance that mirrored the likes of Joe Louis or Michael Jordan.
It's been more than seven years since Shamrock, now 34, parted ways with the UFC -- his return to glory has not yet materialized.
As a result, Shamrock's legacy has slowly deteriorated since leaving the octagon on September 24, 1999, and now most fight experts label him one of three things: a name; a waste of talent; or just a fighter lacking the passion to become an all-time great.
He's resurfaced from time to time to fight what many believe were hand-picked opponents -- Elvis Sinosic (Pictures) in 2000; Brian Pardoe in 2003; Cesar Gracie (Pictures) in 2006 -- and on Friday he faces veteran tough guy Phil Baroni (Pictures), whom Shamrock himself has called "hand-picked."
It seems every fight for Shamrock these days offers a "no win" situation.
"Well it's always been a ‘no win' situation for me," Shamrock sighed. "My whole career has been ‘no win' situations where I have nothing to gain and nothing to prove. Everybody I go up against is pretty much a ‘no win' [situation] for me. The good thing about Phil is that he's a great marketer and he's kind of a meathead and he puts it out there. That's where our sport is headed, where it's more entertainment these days than the best fighters in the world. But it's still a ‘no win' situation for me."
At some point you'd think constant nagging from the media and gripes from fans must wear on Shamrock, but the Californian scoffed at such a notion.
"Oh, I don't care," he laughed. "I don't care what people say, but I do say that everyone should get in there and have a match or two and then they'll figure out what I'm talking about. People can say whatever they want because it makes no difference to me; I'm the one training and fighting."
If Shamrock can get past "The New York Bad Ass" -- especially if he accomplishes it in spectacular fashion -- at least some of the criticism will be stifled, that is until his next fight at least. But toppling the tough Baroni, particularly in such a manner that would pry open even the most tightly sealed critical eye, won't come easy.
"I'm expecting a war," Shamrock gushed enthusiastically. "I mean, he's a strong guy and he's going to be hard to put out. He's got a good chin, but he doesn't like to get hit and if I can catch him, I think I can put him out. But I'm always expecting a war. I'm always prepared to go to battle."
"I think he's going to come and try and bang me out," the middleweight continued. "And if that doesn't work or he gets caught a few times, he'll try and take me down and try to tire me out on the ground by beating on me and stuff. I think it's pretty straightforward and I don't think he's had any huge epiphanies over the past couple months to himself together. I'm just expecting him to come out and brawl like he always does."
Most followers of the sport predict at least an explosive start to the fight, as it's expected Baroni will come flying out of the gates trying to swat Shamrock's head clean off.
Though he sports a mixed record, Baroni (10-7-0) has warred with many of the sports best middleweights, including Matt Lindland (Pictures) twice. Yet some doubters feel as though Baroni, 31, is a lamb thrown to the lion tonight.
"Oh come on: he stands a chance certainly," Shamrock laughed. "I take each fight as it comes. He's a puzzle I gotta figure out but I think I have all the pieces necessary to dismantle him and put him back together. He's a great talker and that's a good part of his assets and his strategy. He comes out swinging and he's is super tough, but I just think that the art of fighting, he doesn't know anything about. I'll teach that to him."
One thing Baroni knows a lot about is the trash talking aspect of the fight game. In MMA, he's one of the best and at a time when there are so many fight promoters vying for the public's money, a trash talker the level of Baroni is vital to a fledging promotion's success.
Whether it's poppycock to sell tickets or genuine disdain for an opponent, trash talking is the oldest trick in the book to lure a would-be fan into the arena.
And Shamrock is grateful for Baroni in that regard.
"Well, I don't really know him much as a person," Shamrock said. "But as a fighter, you know, he's a tough guy. He's a brawler, he's strong. Eh, that's about it. He's good at talking smack. Like I said I really don't know Phil at all; I've never had a conversation with him. I don't know. He certainly sells good tickets. I think he may genuinely not like me but I couldn't care less -- it's just fighting. He can do all the talking and then when it comes ready to fight, I'll do the fighting."
Provided Shamrock gets past the pre-fight ramblings and prevails against his antagonist, questions surrounding one of the few remaining fighters sans a nickname will turn to his intentions in the sport.
"I'm back in it full time, so for me it's a new beginning," Shamrock said. "I'm starting at the bottom and working my way up. I'm down to do it full time and my next match I gotta rematch Renzo (Gracie). The fans got robbed in that one so Renzo should be next."
A second clash with Gracie seems like a lock considering the dubious manner with which their encounter ended last February. (Shamrock was disqualified for twice striking Gracie on the back and side of the head with knees while both were down on the canvas.)
"My thoughts on that are the same today: I know when someone's done and when someone's hurt," said Shamrock about his first loss in nearly 10 years. "He was done and he wasn't hurt -- that's the bottom line. I was gonna run a race that he couldn't keep up with and he knew I was going to knock him out so he found a way out of the match. That's fine. He gets the win and I'm disappointed, but I think more importantly the fans got cheated. I'd like to give them that closure."
If Shamrock truly intends on becoming a viable mixed martial artist again he can't afford to look past Baroni. The veteran middleweight is too powerful and too resilient for Shamrock to overlook, and that's what makes this fight so intriguing -- it's been a long time since we've seen Shamrock with a test like this in front of him.
Perhaps he's got something to lose after all … and that might be enough to make him great again.