Shamrock: Invincible, Invisible

By: Jake Rossen
Mar 24, 2008
Want a career in MMA? Go punch Tito Ortiz (Pictures) in the face.

Just ask Forrest Griffin (Pictures), who saw his stock rise considerably after a valiant near-win against the former UFC light heavyweight champion; or Chuck Liddell (Pictures), who colluded with Ortiz to set pay-per-view records for MMA attractions; or Lee Murray (Pictures), a British thug who got slotted in main events for dropping Ortiz in a raucous London brawl, Lenny McLean-style.

Even swinging and missing, as in the case of Ken Shamrock (Pictures), can lead to considerable viewership. Fans never seem to tire of Ortiz's considerable forehead being assaulted.

And so it stands to reason that Frank Shamrock (Pictures)'s bizarrely fascinating win over Ortiz in 1999 -- at once boring and not boring, like a Fellini movie -- should've been the beginning of a legendary career.

Instead, it was more or less the end of it.

Shamrock, dissatisfied with meager pay and uninspired by remaining contenders, chose to semi-retire to a life of acting and teaching, taking only the sporadic, pointless bout. Fights against Elvis Sinosic (Pictures) and Bryan Pardoe (Pictures) seemed more for his amusement than the audience's. Fighting a 0-0 Cesar Gracie (Pictures) had him flirting with outright irrelevance.

It took a victory over Phil Baroni (Pictures) in 2007 -- flashy, exciting and violent -- for observers to realize that Shamrock's constant boasts might not have been empty self-flagellation. He had always claimed to be a digital fighter in an analog sport. People chuckled.

Looking at a lifeless Baroni in the ring, splayed out as if he had just eaten the business end of a semi-truck, it didn't seem so funny anymore.

Is Shamrock as good as he thinks he is?

With a rotting ACL and 15 years' of abuse logged in the Lion's Den and the Pancrase circuit, it's probably unadvisable to gamble his body won't simply decide to retire in mid-fight. Despite a vaunted cardio regimen, he hasn't seen a championship round in nearly 10 years. His wrestling, which he admits is rarely used to avoid being taken down, is too lax for today's scoring criteria.

And yet Shamrock continues to stir interest, in large part because his bravado has yet to be contested. He is the only fighter on record who predicted a finish in mid-fight -- miming the "nappy time" sign against Baroni -- and then more or less delivered on the promise.

Shamrock's primary weapon is his intellect. He's a strategist worthy of Patton, and his ability to make adjustments is second to none. It's the same brain that told him not to become a cripple for free sandwiches in the late 1990s and the same brain that frustrates viewers looking for him to demolish a who's who of the sport's top middleweights.

Saturday brings a fight with Cung Le (Pictures), a dynamic standup artist with a perfect 5-0 record in MMA and the odd anecdote about clocking Shamrock in practice years ago. It's a fight that is guaranteed to be explosive -- and guaranteed to leave questions about Shamrock lingering.

Whether he has interest in answering them is another matter.

It's unlikely Shamrock, the Strikeforce middleweight champion, would have interest in following a promotional hierarchy. Yet a fight against a ranked competitor, someone like EliteXC champion Robbie Lawler (Pictures), could intrigue Shamrock.

There's still depressing talk about a fight with adoptive brother Ken, which isn't nearly as interesting as Frank believes it to be. At 45 and with a half-dozen losses in recent memory, a commission would have to be feeling particularly sadistic to approve the elder Shamrock's participation in another pounding.

Then there's Ortiz, who seems likely to become a free agent when he fulfills the final fight on his UFC contract. When Frank defeated Ortiz in the fall of '99, no one much cared: The sport was struggling politically, and it was a minor miracle to be hosted in an arena without livestock. Today, a rematch would likely be seen in millions of homes on CBS, achieving a goal of network exposure that Shamrock recited to journalists in 2005.

The fight with the elder Shamrock, worthless; a fight with Ortiz, interesting; with Lawler, worthwhile.

All of them are seat-warmers for what would be a monumentally entertaining and important bout with Anderson Silva, the sport's current king. Unfortunately, Shamrock's differences with the UFC brass would likely act as an insurmountable hurdle. That leaves other fights that appeal to a general audience -- but hold little in the way of establishing him as a viable threat in his division -- as expected options.

What to do, then, with a paradoxical career like Shamrock's?

He's too good to be toiling against aging non-threats and undeveloped newcomers, yet apparently unwilling to risk his legacy against a tested contender. He plans to fight for "10 more years," but he made similar claims of ambition before the Ortiz bout. His attention drifts from ventures like Shootbox and the IFL to self-marketing and the occasional prizefight.

But he seems to be enjoying himself, laughing loudly and satisfied with his status as a freelance mercenary.

In a sport where fighters are all too often abused physically and financially before being discarded, maybe that's as good a victory as any.

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