Ken Kilpatrick, whose biological father deserted him, his brothers and his mother shortly after Ken was born, had shifts in all of them: foster homes, juvenile hall, the occasional hospital visit when he cornered the wrong guy on the wrong night. As young as 7, the kids would come home to an empty house, their mother having gone go-go dancing to pay the bills. Assaulting a teacher at age 5 was rage without the physical ammunition to back it up, but by the time he was in high school, he could bench-press 360 pounds. He strong-armed seniors for their lunch money. When he was 13, his stepfather grew tired of delivering punitive beatings and told police that Ken didn’t have a home with him anymore. His outlook consisted primarily of group homes, prison or an early grave.
In 1979, with the state fed up with his temper, Ken was driven by a parole officer to a ranch in Susanville, Calif., and ushered into a sprawling home in a town fueled by jobs offered at a nearby state prison. Having housed more than 600 boys since opening their doors in 1968, usually eight at a time, the Shamrock Boys’ Home was operated by Bob Shamrock and his wife, Dee Dee, and it was love that had a twist of masochism to it: By taking in boys between 13 and 16 years old, they were getting delinquents who lacked the maturity to make civil decisions but the developing strength to find real trouble.
But Bob had grown up with a heart. His father ran a mission on Skid Row, and he would have his son dish out hot soup to the homeless and luckless men who had seen no reward after the Korean War. On good days, Bob would see familiar faces come back with suits and success stories. On bad days, he would have to step over a dead body in the doorway. When he was of age, he enrolled in UCLA’s pre-med program, but dropped out when his father needed more help running the family fabrication business.
After Bob sold the business, he and his wife bought the 6,400-square-foot ranch in Susanville, building on the group care ideal they had started in Anza, Calif., years prior. The care-giving had an obvious origin in his father’s shelter, but the focus on young adults was for other reasons: Despite repeated attempts, the couple couldn’t have children.
State care was often sterile and disconnected, but Bob wasn’t interested in housing problems for profit. To curb their aggression, he had the kids cutting cords of wood for their three fireplaces, cleaning highways and movie theaters, keeping them busy and tired. He fostered a sense of community and respectability by having red satin jackets with a Shamrock crest made. Walk a straight line and you could see movies, have friends over, even drive Bob’s classic cars into town. If you still had the energy for trouble, you could put on some boxing gloves and hash it out with another boy in the yard: Bob would serve refreshments.
He knew the kids needed an authority figure, not a prison guard: He showed interest and curiosity in their problems and ambitions. When he saw that Ken had significant athletic potential, he encouraged him to enroll in his school’s football and wrestling programs -- but only if he maintained at least a C average in his classes.
“He was real comfortable about who you were,” Ken recalled in 2008. “And the things you did, didn’t matter to him. He just wanted to know who you wanted to be, and where you wanted to go, not what you did in the past.”
By the time Ken was late into his teens, and even though it meant the state would no longer subsidize his housing, Bob had formally adopted him. Without calculation on his part, Bob was slowly taking on echoes of what Cus D’Amato was doing for another athletic, troubled teen: Mike Tyson. Ken Shamrock liked to fight -- he won several Toughman competitions, dusted with bar brawlers in back lots -- and had an iron-jaw intensity that lacked navigation. So Bob got him into a career that he himself had idolized as a child: professional wrestling.
Ken ran the local circuit before getting wrapped up in the stiffer style of the Japanese scene, where his physique and willingness to go all-out led him into the burgeoning Pancrase organization, a promotion that debuted in 1993 and was an open-handed precursor to MMA, with few predetermined finishes. Ken excelled, and while hardly a terror on the level of Tyson, was already bucking the odds of most boys who grow up in the system.
Accounts of what happened next vary, with some suggesting Shamrock’s student Scott Bessac saw an ad in a 1993 issue of Black Belt magazine for the Ultimate Fighting Championship, and Bob himself claiming that he personally phoned promoter Art Davie and suggested Shamrock for a slot. Either way, it was a perfect match. The UFC was something Ken had inadvertently shaped himself for: a freestyle fight that didn’t place emphasis on technical boxing, but a punch-grapple hybrid that his training in Japan was perfectly suited to.
From 1993 to 1996, Shamrock was more or less the leading man of the UFC. (Royce Gracie, unequivocally the most compelling presence in the sport’s earliest days in America, had a reputation that far exceeded his actual participation: He competed for only 18 months before bowing out.) Bob had taken a wayward, angry young man and given him the emotional nourishment he needed to become the face of a sport.
In assisting Ken with contracts, negotiation and ancillary business tasks -- including the formation of Shamrock’s Lion’s Den, which turned out several contenders and champions in the 1990s -- Bob was a crucial cog in what was then a freewheeling business. Several fighters went unrepresented, or were inadvertently aligned with the barrel-scraping rejects that populated boxing. Bob looked out for Ken; Ken, in becoming the first U.S. fighter to be the focus of mainstream media attention in outlets like People and “Larry King Live,” carried the sport, showing a strength of character and respect that contradicted the perceptions of the time.
Allegedly, it was Bob who suggested to Davie the idea of a “Superfight” to resolve the rivalry between Shamrock and Gracie; it was also Bob who tried to petition the promotion not to cut Shamrock’s pay when politics intervened, then phoned Bret Hart to see what opportunities might be available in the WWE. And it was Bob’s charge who returned to the UFC in 2002 to help an ailing company draw some much-needed attention with a grudge fight against Tito Ortiz.
Ken was Bob’s most visible project, but celebrity isn’t everything. The other boys that passed through his home learned the rewards of hard work, and the consequences of thoughtlessness. He wasn’t segregating troublemakers: He wanted to reform them. There’s no telling how many lives he saved, or what those lives went on to accomplish.
“He had this presence that kids would open up to him,” Ken recalled. “They would allow him to talk to them. They would allow him to get into the personal problems that most people would never come close to. He was gifted with that. That’s something that no one will ever be able to understand.”
Sports are full of peripheral characters that operate outside the frame of a camera. Some get their proper acknowledgment, and some do not. To wonder about what mixed martial arts would be like today had Bob Shamrock not opened his home to troubled young men plays with quantum theory: what if this, what if that. We only know that Ken speculated he’d be incarcerated or dead if not for Bob’s intervention, that the earliest incarnation of the UFC was a sea of ill-equipped fighters with hearts bigger than their sense and that Shamrock represented actual athleticism. In possessing legitimate skills and a poster boy’s body, he helped nudge it closer to respectability.
Bob died Jan. 14 at age 68, succumbing to complications from diabetes. He is not the first father that will be sorely missed, though perhaps the only one to be mourned by 600 sons. His contributions to this sport were largely unseen. But like all great supporting roles, the story would not be nearly the same without him.
Josh Gross’ 2008 research into the Shamrock family contributed significantly to this essay. For comments, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.