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August’s winner, RIPBossman won the first of his four Columnist of The Month titles back in 2005 and recently returned to the LOP Forums where he has been tearing it up with his series Hardtime. Ripper is never afraid of articulating a controversial opinion on well worn wrestling tales and does an expert job backing his alternative takes up with evidence. This column really turned some heads down in the forum (mine included) discussing the first high profile MMA convert to the WWE Ken Shamrock. If you enjoy this you can read more of RIPBossman’s work right here.
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Narrowminded critics of professional wrestling, the ones who know virtually nothing about what we watch and think wrestlers don’t get hurt at all, will often say things to us fans like “Don’t you know it’s fake?” and “Those wrestlers wouldn’t be tough in a real fight.” Conor McGregor, one of the best pound for pound UFC fighters, said most WWE wrestlers are “pussies”. I never hear anyone point out that Sylvester Stallone is not a real boxer, yet this criticism is something professional wrestling deals with on a regular basis. Then every so often someone big, really big, from a legitimate combat sport enters the WWE and it offers us fans a name that non-fans will recognize that can help legitimize pro wrestling. WWE actually has a good handful of legitimately tough men and women, with the two most accomplished being former UFC Champions Brock Lesnar and Ronda Rousey. But long before Brock and Ronda, there was the first UFC Champion to step foot in a WWE ring. The “World’s Most Dangerous Man”, the man who came in 15 years too soon, Ken Shamrock.
Ken Shamrock had a very decent career in WWE for the 3 years he worked there. But he did not get the star treatment that Brock Lesnar and Ronda Rousey have received in recent years. He never attained a WWE World Championship, never main evented WrestleMania, in fact he only main evented 1 pay per view in a singles match, In Your House: Degeneration X against Shawn Michaels. But why exactly did Shamrock never reach the levels of pro wrestling stardom that Brock and Ronda have? In my opinion, it’s because he arrived 15 years too early.
When Ken first entered WWE in 1997, he brought with him all the believability in the world. Most fans were always highly suspicious of pro wrestling being a real sport or not, and with WWE pulling back the curtain in 1997 with several on-air shoot promos, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that wrestling was staged. However, no one questioned the legitimacy of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Everyone knew that was a real combat sport and Ken Shamrock was a former Champion. ABC News called him “The World’s Most Dangerous Man”. However, just being a believable fighter will only take you so far, and combat sport credentials are not a substitute for charisma. Look at how Daniel Puder and Sylvester Terkay fared in WWE. Even Dan Severn, who held the UFC Championship and beat Shamrock in the UFC, barely had a career in WWE. Accomplished amateur wrestlers like Shelton Benjamin, Charlie Hass, Jesse Jordan and Chad Gable never came close to being main eventers in WWE. Luckily for Shamrock, he actually had more charisma than those guys, as well as a better look.
Ken initially sort of had an MMA in ring style when he had his first match against Vader, going for double leg take downs and doing several submissions (the rules were you won by knock out or submission). But he soon adapted a mostly traditional pro wrestling style, really only keeping his MMA fighting stance (arms outstretched and bent, one farther out than the other) when he was standing, and tried submission holds every now and then. Even his Lion’s Den matches looked like pro wrestling, using Irish whips and even spring boarding off the sides of the cage. Overall, when he was given enough time for his matches, they were usually very respectable compared to most matches of the nineties.
Sometime during 1997 was probably his best opportunity to become WWE Champion. The storylines were less over the top that year as opposed to what they would become the following year. In my opinion, most of 1997 was much more of a professional wrestling product and grounded in relatively more realistic storylines compared to the full-blown sports entertainment product we would soon get. The top wrestlers that year were Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Undertaker and Steve Austin. Vince McMahon was waiting for next year’s WrestleMania to put the title on Austin. And from a financial perspective, none of the other three were ever really big draws. Shamrock had a very reasonable chance of becoming World Champion sometime during that year. Shamrock seemed like a great choice for Bret to drop the title to when he was on his way out and he was adamant about not dropping the title to Shawn Michaels. There are too many conflicting reports about what went on backstage leading into the Montreal Screw Job, so I can’t comment on exactly why that didn’t happen.
However, when 1998 came along and Austin won the title, it became a more over the top product suited for outrageous characters. The rebellious Austin, the evil boss Vince McMahon, the satanic worshiping Undertaker and Kane, the goofy Mankind, the immoral Degeneration X, The Rock who referred to himself in the third person… Shamrock didn’t fit in. His straight up intense, bad ass persona didn’t give him enough character depth for the storylines that Vince Russo was writing. Ken didn’t have much range as an actor, pretty much only being able to convincingly display the emotion of anger. Watching his promos, it was clear that mic work did not come natural to him. He did score 4 clean falls over The Rock on pay per view when Rock was Intercontinental Champion, but each time either the decision got reversed or the title was not on the line. He did win the King of the Ring in 1998, but after Summer Slam that year it was clear that Mankind and The Rock were the next rising stars in town, not Ken.
In the summer of 1998 WWE had a Brawl For All tournament, a shoot tournament where the participants boxed and attempted takedowns. This was not the same rules as UFC as they wore boxing gloves and there were no submissions. There are conflicting reports that Shamrock wasn’t allowed to participate and also that he refused to be in it because he didn’t like the rules. It was said that legit tough guy Dr. Death Steve Williams was brought in specifically to win this tournament, which would then propel him towards a main event feud with Austin. Even if Williams did win the tourney and feuded with Austin, he still would have looked out of place in the main event scene as he did not have an over the top character. WWE did virtually nothing with him after he lost, and the other wrestlers that Bart Gunn knocked out still had decent careers afterwards. Even if Shamrock had been in this tournament and won, it wouldn’t have made much of a difference for him, in my opinion. He wouldn’t be proving anything we didn’t already know about him, and on an entertainment level he still wouldn’t have been able to hang with the likes of Austin, Mankind, Rock and Vince McMahon.
When Shamrock turned heel and became just another henchman in the Corporation, it was all downhill for him. In January of 1999 he had his first clean loss to Billy Gunn, who had mostly been a tag wrestler. He won the Intercontinental Title, but around that time so did Val Venis, Road Dogg and Godfather. In late 1999 Shamrock left WWE to go back into MMA.
When Brock Lesnar returned in 2012, the storylines were not nearly as outrageous as they were during the Attitude Era, generally speaking. Cena was the face of the company and a lot of his storylines revolved around him having too much pride to lose his next match. Shamrock’s straight up bad ass persona would fit in perfectly in today’s era, as that’s basically the same character that Lesnar and Rousey have currently. Most wrestlers today give scripted promos, so Shamrock would have writers coming up with his promo material and would probably fare better on the microphone. Like I said before, combat sport credentials only take you so far in WWE. They are not a substitute for charisma and a good look, but Shamrock had those things. If only he had been in his prime and dominant in the UFC in the late 2000’s or afterwards, making a name for himself as one of the toughest men on the planet during the Obama administration, and then came over to WWE, things would have been much different for him. Ken would have faced a completely different landscape much more suited to his generic tough guy character and limited acting ability.
But another reason why Shamrock arrived in WWE 15 years too soon is because when he was making a name for himself as a legend in UFC in the nineties, the UFC was much less popular then as opposed to now. Boxing was still by far the most popular combat sport, and the Heavyweight Division was still thriving. Evander Holyfield, Mike Tyson, Lennox Lewis, Riddick Bowe and George Foreman were all household names during that time period, and most people had no idea who Ken Shamrock and Dan Severn were. There’s a reason why Mike Tyson’s involvement in WrestleMania 14 made the ppv buy rate skyrocket from the previous year’s WrestleMania (it wasn’t just because of Austin). When the Heavyweight Division in boxing fizzled out, UFC started to rise dramatically in the pay per view market. When Brock returned in 2012, his star power was initially much stronger, drawing big numbers for Extreme Rules and Summer Slam that year. That increase in drawing power was due to him having won the UFC Heavyweight Championship when the UFC had become very popular. If Ronda Rousey had not been such a dominant women’s champion in UFC when she was, there’s no way she would have main evented WrestleMania this year.
Sports fans like to compare athletes from different eras of the same sport, and because professional sports evolve over time, there’s no accurate way to do that. Would Babe Ruth have hit as many homeruns if he played baseball during today’s era and faced today’s pitching? We don’t know that. If Michael Jordan was in his prime today would he be better than LeBron James? We’ll never know. And there’s no way to know how Ken Shamrock would do if he was taken from the nineties and transplanted into today’s UFC. Would he adapt to today’s competition and win the UFC Heavyweight Championship?
Ken Shamrock is certainly one of the most credible wrestlers in WWE history. Having been a UFC Champion, there was no question that he was double tough. But truth be told, he didn’t have the star power that Brock Lesnar and Ronda Rousey have today. He came along at the wrong time, facing a WWE landscape that was not suited for him and being dominant in UFC before it was really popular. We can only wonder how much more successful Ken Shamrock would have been if he hadn’t been 15 years too soon.