Photo Credit: Eric Nyenhuis
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In a past article, I noted how Frank Shamrock, in just two years, went from a failure at the Lion's Den, told by adoptive older brother Ken to retire and stick to managing his gyms, to the greatest fighter of all time. Moreover, Frank was never considered anywhere close to the most talented guy at the team. One conclusion we can draw from this is that the younger Shamrock was grossly underrated. But what about the guys at the Lion’s Den, the ones who had been considered better than Frank, yet never attained the same success? Could they have also become all-time legends if they had trained at a better team? In my view, the answer is a resounding yes.
Before going further, we should examine what the hell The Lion's Den even considered to be “training” According to posts made in 2016 on the Underground forums by former Lion’s Den member Jerry Bohlander, a fighter to whom we will return later:
“We trained like maniacs. We were a bunch of immature cavemen. Our training program wasn't exactly sophisticated by today's standards. Doing hundreds of air squats, push-ups and sit ups every day wasn't smart. Trying to callus one another with unprotected leg and body kicks, trying to tough out leg submissions, etc wasn't probably the best idea, but it was all we knew. The gym fight as opposed to limited sparring was tough, but fun and we were young.”
In other words, like many professional wrestling dojos—remember that the elder Shamrock was a pro wrestler before, during and after his MMA career—it was more about proving one's toughness while doing an awful job of preparing for a mixed martial arts fight. This was reflected in the skills, or lack thereof, that Lion's Den representatives would showcase during fights. Their striking would usually never improve. Frank Shamrock is a fine example: someone with almost nonexistent standup while at the Lion's Den, who started working with Javier Mendez and Maurice Smith and quickly became one of the best strikers of 90s MMA, with a refined kickboxing game years ahead of his time. Lion's Den fighters typically possessed very basic wrestling that was effective against those who had never trained in the discipline, but left them at a severe disadvantage against specialists. Consider the example of Lion’s Den nemesis Tito Ortiz, a good junior college wrestler who took Guy Mezger, Bohlander and Ken Shamrock down at will.
In terms of submissions, the Lion's Den eschewed Brazilian jiu-jitsu and focused on the rudimentary style developed in early 1990s Pancrase. Not only was this style so primitive that even 90s-era BJJ was far ahead of it, but it didn't translate well to outside the organization. Leglocks work great when fighters are bare-handed and everyone has to wear thick leather boots, as they did in Pancrase. It's far less effective when one is wearing gloves and has bare feet. (Incidentally, this never improved; as late as 2006, when he coached opposite Ortiz on the third season of “The Ultimate Fighter,” Shamrock hand-waved away Brazilian jiu-jitsu, telling his team that he was “more of a brawler and leglock man.” It was stunning to hear the future Hall of Famer sound so proud of his failure to evolve.)
However, it might be in strength and conditioning—ironically—that the Lion's Den was the most deficient. In the interests of proving their toughness, they would frequently injure themselves. Consider not only Bohlander's account above, but what happened at the open tryouts Shamrock and Vernon White conducted in the mid-00s, of which the first part involved carrying tree trunks on one's neck over long distances. This is a great way to injure that body part, already a major concern for fighters.
Meanwhile, Lion's Den fighters would always, always showcase poor cardio. As a fan of the sport in the early 00s, any time a Lion’s Den representative fought, I would jokingly speculate with friends about when they would gas out. It was practically a guarantee. Nor should it come as a surprise. The Lion's Den was all about developing big muscles, whether through natural or synthetic means, and the team even employed a bodybuilding coach, one who turned a lot of heads on “TUF” when Shamrock brought him on instead of a BJJ coach. Big muscles, as we've come to learn, require too much oxygen, and lead to gassing out. Meanwhile, squats, pushups, and sit-ups are fine exercises, but they don't develop the unique type of cardio necessary to succeed in MMA, something other early teams quickly figured out but not the Lion's Den.
To see an example of all of these factors in action, consider the example of White, who was with the Lion's Den longer than anyone except for Ken Shamrock himself, and was second-in-command for most of those years. What mastery did he have to show for 10-plus years under the famous stable? His striking was sloppy, featuring amateurish, pawing punches he fell forward with that an ordinary weekend warrior with six months of boxing would wince at. His wrestling was limited, and he was routinely dominated in that regard, even by smaller men such as Kazushi Sakuraba. Incidentally, that competitive fight against the Japanese legend is often used as a point in White's favor, but one should bear in mind that Sakuraba was competing in only fourth fight and still developing, whereas White was a 33-fight veteran—never mind the size disparity. And even White's much-vaunted submission game was fairly harmless. In a fight at UFC 43 against English kickboxer Ian Freeman, a man not known for his grappling, the two engaged in a pure ground battle, seemingly to the advantage of the early Pancrase pioneer and supposed submission specialist White. Not so, as the grappling was largely even and the fight ended in a draw. Did I mention that White would routinely gas at the end of fights? I'm not arguing that White would have been an all-time great, but had he spent that time training at, say, Miletich Fighting Systems, he certainly wouldn't have ended his career with a solidly losing record. You know who should have been all-time greats had they trained somewhere better, though? These three guys:
Now a Napa Valley police officer in his 40s who still trains on the weekends and occasionally makes cool posts on the Underground, Bohlander was once a giant-killer and one of the best young fighters in MMA. Making a huge splash at the aptly titled UFC 8 "David vs. Goliath," as a baby-faced 21-year-old who weighed 180 pounds soaking wet, he faced foul-mouthed, 320-pound Scott Ferrozzo, was beaten up and tossed around like a rag doll, and...ended up winning with a guillotine choke.
Bohlander had a solid wrestling base, tremendous heart and toughness, and learned as much striking and submissions as he could at the Lion's Den. He dominated BJJ champion Fabio Gurgel and then had a classic armbar victory against legendary Olympic gold medalist wrestler Kevin Jackson. Given that Bohlander was in his early 20s, and how young the sport of MMA was, he could very easily have become one of its big early stars. Alas, his game didn't develop nearly as much as it should have under the Lion's Den. This was badly exposed by Ortiz, who delivered a one-sided beating to Bohlander at UFC 18, displaying his large advantage in both wrestling and cardio.
But it didn't have to be this way! Imagine a Bohlander with better cardio who continued developing his wrestling and learning to strike. He could have been an early star of the then 200 pound weight class and been a rival to Tito Ortiz. In an alternate universe where Bohlander trains at a place like Miletich, or joins Frank at The Alliance, he never quits MMA in his 20s due to a lack of success, becomes a champion, and has many classic battles against Ortiz and later Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture.
We covered Mezger recently when talking about his spectacular bout against Chuck Liddell in Pride Fighting Championships, one that Mezger was winning handily until, among other things, he gassed out. Frankly, it's amazing how much Mezger accomplished despite the handicap of being at the Lion's Den for most of his career. As noted, he submitted a young Ortiz, defeated Semmy Schilt and Yuki Kondo twice, and absolutely defeated Sakuraba despite a blatant robbery giving the local superstar the win. He also defeated Ricardo Arona in most people's minds and even took Antonio Rogerio Nogueira to a split decision at the end of his career.
Now, imagine a sophisticated striker with decent takedown defense and submission skills like Mezger, with merely much better cardio. Suddenly, that loss to Liddell might be a win, and he might have gotten the nod over Arona and “Little Nog.” He might possibly have stopped Sakuraba too, never allowing the judges to claim it was a draw and they needed an overtime period. Or, alternatively, he wouldn't have minded the overtime since his cardio would have been up to snuff. With victories over Ortiz, Liddell, Sakuraba, Arona, and Nogueira, we're suddenly talking about one of the very greatest light heavyweights of all time. I don't even want to talk about what would happen if Mezger had learned better wrestling or developed his striking defense at a camp that actually taught either.
In that universe, we might be talking about Mezger as the best light heavyweight of that period, head and shoulders above Ortiz, Liddell and Wanderlei Silva. Considering the esteem in which a smaller, seemingly less talented fighter in Frank Shamrock is held, that's possible. And maybe, without the Lion's Den “caveman” methods of training, Mezger never gets injured to the point of forcing an early retirement, and gets to fight—and perhaps defeat—Quinton Jackson and Mauricio Rua. In that case, fans today might be comparing him to the likes of Georges St. Pierre, Fedor Emelianenko and Anderson Silva as one of the greatest ever.
Obviously, this is all conjecture, but it's completely possible given the unique high-level skills Mezger displayed. Instead, we're left wondering what could have been.
How could I possibly top the ceiling I set out for Mezger? Well, with an even more forgotten fighter in Burnett. Burnett should have been a superstar of the lower weight classes. One of the best powerlifters in the country, he was ridiculously strong, fast, and athletic, had possibly the best pound-for-pound wrestling in the entire Lion's Den, had fantastic striking years and years ahead of the rest of the welterweight division, and decent submission chops. Did I mention his cardio was surprisingly solid and he was only 23 years old when he debuted in the UFC?
His abilities weren't hypothetical either. In his debut, he destroyed Eugenio Tadeu, a budding Brazilian star who had been dominating Renzo Gracie in a fight in Brazil before Gracie’s allies cut the lights to the arena, causing a no-contest. (Early MMA was wild!)
A short while later, Burnett faced Pat Miletich for the inaugural welterweight championship. Now, consider that Miletich is considered a legend of the sport, a welterweight champion with four successful defenses who is in the UFC Hall of Fame. When he fought Burnett, he was at the peak of his powers and had the perfect gameplan to defeat the young upstart. (Miletich's best weapon was always his mind.) Nonetheless, in my opinion and that of most who watched the match, Burnett won a very close affair, showcasing tremendous heart and toughness, landing the deciding blows in overtime.
A few months later, Burnett faced NCAA wrestling champ and Olympic silver medalist Townsend Saunders at UFC 18. Saunders had gone to a split decision against Miletich and by modern rules, absolutely won the fight due to his time on top. Burnett wiped the floor with Saunders, battering him with excellent, accurate combinations that had him knocked down and badly hurt, all while stuffing every single one of the Olympian’s takedown attempts. Again, keep in mind that Burnett did all this despite the enormous handicap of training at the Lion's Den!
After the victory over Saunders, a rematch with Miletich seemed likely, but never happened. Accounts get muddled here. Some claim that the UFC never offered Burnett his promised rematch, fearing their favored champion Miletich would lose. There was also the issue of Burnett getting a female relative of Ken Shamrock pregnant. With the pressures of supporting a family on the limited money in late-90s MMA, Burnett, one of the most talented, can't-miss future champions in MMA history, exited the sport for the better part of a decade, and by the time he returned, it had passed him by.
But just for fun, imagine a Burnett who was training with someone better, perhaps even Miletich himself, and stayed in MMA. Not only do I think he could have easily matched and exceeded Miletich's title reign, but I don't see him being defeated by Carlos Newton. In fact, Burnett with better training makes me think of a larger, stronger Jens Pulver with more punching power and better wrestling. That is an absolutely terrifying prospect for that era. I can well see a Burnett at the height of his powers defeating Matt Hughes, who is the same age. What's more, I believe Burnett could have defeated B.J. Penn in his prime. I don't know whether Burnett, even having fully maximized his potential, would have defeated a prime St. Pierre, but it's certainly an intriguing fight. At this point, we are talking about a fighter with an ironclad case at being considered the greatest ever, a decade or two ahead of his time.
When people talk about the greatest that never was in MMA, no one beats Burnett for me. And while his failure to fulfill his potential can't be blamed entirely on the Lion's Den, they absolutely failed him.