Shamrock experienced hardships as a child. He came from a broken family and was often left to fend for himself without the supervision or guidance of his parents. Shamrock was eventually abandoned by his parents and placed in a foster home at 10 years old.He bounced around between several group homes before being placed in Bob Shamrock's Boys' Home at age 14, where he turned his life around. Bob Shamrock legally adopted Ken as his son, and Ken changed his last name to Shamrock in Bob's honor
In High School, Shamrock excelled in both American football and wrestling. As a senior, Shamrock qualified for the state championships in wrestling, but broke his neck in practice days before the competition and underwent neck surgery.Shamrock did not receive scholarship offers from big league colleges, and doctors told him his sports career was likely over. Against doctors orders, Shamrock joined the Shasta Junior College football team, where he was voted team captain in his final season. The San Diego Chargers of the National Football League later offered Shamrock a tryout, but Shamrock declined in order to pursue a career in professional wrestling, where he debuted in 1989 in the South Atlantic Pro Wrestling promotion. Shamrock's professional wrestling career eventually brought him to Japan, where he met professional wrestlers Masakatsu Funaki and Minoru Suzuki and set the stage for his mixed martial arts carer to begin.
Pancrase Hybrid Wrestling (1993–1996)
The origins of Shamrock's mixed martial arts career began in the Japanese pro wrestling organization Fujiwara Gumi. On October 4, 1992, at the Tokyo Dome, a legitimate match between "Wayne" (Shamrock's show title in Japan) Shamrock and kickboxing champion Don Nayaka Nielsen took place. Shamrock took Nielsen down and submitted him with an arm lock in 45 seconds. The success of this match made young pro wrestlers Shamrock, Masakatsu Funaki and Minoru Suzuki question what they had been told since entering into predetermined wrestling: that nobody would ever pay to see real matches.
Shamrock, Funaki and Suzuki then founded a group of pro wrestlers and decided to pursue marketable legitimate matches. They formed a promotion called Pancrase, named by ’60s wrestling star Karl Gotch after the sport of Pankration in the ancient Olympics, which combined all different forms of fighting into one sport. Using pro-wrestling rules – no closed fisted punching to the head (closed fisted punches were allowed to the body), breaks on the ropes, but fighting for real – Shamrock beat his friend and mentor, MMA legend Masakatsu Funaki by arm-triangle choke in the main event of the very first Pancrase show on September 21, 1993. The show attracted a sell-out audience of 7,000.
Shamrock, now an enormous star in Japan,defeated world kickboxing champion and future UFC Heavyweight Champion Maurice Smith and Alex Cook in the Opening Round of the 16 man King of Pancrase Tournament and Masakatsu Funaki and Manabu Yamada in the Second Round to become the first King of Pancrase before crowds of 11,000 fans both nights at Tokyo’s Sumo Hall in December 1994. He then defended his King of Pancrase title against Bas Rutten in 1995, submitting him with a kneebar. He lost the title in his next fight against Pancrase co-creator, Minoru Suzuki.
In addition to his MMA bouts in Pancrase, Shamrock also competed in a kickboxing match in 1994 with kickboxing legend Frank "The Animal" Lobman, who holds a pro record of 110-6 with a 90% KO ratio. Shamrock broke Lobman's nose with a right cross early in the bout but was ultimately defeated by TKO due to leg kicks.
Shamrock eventually had a falling out with Pancrase management in early 1996 and left the company to compete in the UFC full-time. Shamrock left Pancrase with a record of 17-3.
Ultimate Fighting Championship (1993–1996)
On November 12, 1993, after the first three Pancrase shows, Shamrock returned to America to fight in the newly formed Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), despite fighting in Japan just four days earlier. Masakatsu Funaki served as Shamrock's head trainer for the event. The event was held under a one-night tournament format with minimal rules (in contrast to Pancrase, which had extensive rules and a gentleman's agreement not to strike on the ground). Shamrock's first opponent was Patrick Smith. In the opening seconds of the fight, Smith came forward and threw a leg kick, but Shamrock shot off the kick for a double-leg takedown. Following some ground and pound, Shamrock seized Smith’s right leg and dropped back, applying a heel hook, forcing Smith to tap out.
First UFC rivalry: Ken Shamrock vs Royce Gracie
Shamrock's opponent in the semi finals of UFC 1 was Royce Gracie. To start the fight, Gracie immediately shot for a takedown on Shamrock, who sprawled and following a brief scramble, ended up in Gracie's open guard. Shamrock then grabbed Gracie's ankle and sat back to attempt a heel hook. However, according to Shamrock, Shamrock's arm had gotten tangled in Gracie's gi and when Shamrock sat back, it pulled Gracie on top of him. Gracie then secured a rear naked choke and advanced to the finals. The bout was a source of controversy at the end because the referee did not see the tap and ordered the two fighters to continue fighting after Gracie had let go of the hold. Shamrock paused for a few seconds but declined, admitting to the ref that he tapped out and that it would not be fair for him to continue fighting. After the fight, Shamrock admitted that he underestimated Gracie: “I didn’t know who Royce Gracie was...when I saw him in his gi, I thought he was some karate guy (with no ground skills).” The loss to Gracie haunted Shamrock and was the beginning of a large rivalry between the two fighters.
Shamrock, haunted by his loss to Gracie, aggressively sought a rematch. He was originally scheduled to compete at UFC 2 but broke his hand after blocking a high kick while sparring with a teammate. He still wanted to compete, but when doctors told him that he might never fight again if he injured his hand any further, he reluctantly withdrew from the show.
On September 9, 1994, Shamrock returned to the octagon at UFC 3 in an event that was marketed by the UFC as the ultimate rematch between two-time champion Royce Gracie and #1 contender Ken Shamrock. Masakatsu Funaki, Minoru Suzuki and Frank Shamrock served as Ken's cornermen for the event. Shamrock's first fight was against top ranked judo practitioner Christophe Leininger. Leininger was the #2 ranked judo player in the United States with U.S. Olympic team experience and was also versed in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. After a feeling out process to start the fight, Leininger engaged for a takedown, but Shamrock crossed faced him so hard into the mat that Leininger admitted to being knocked out for a second. After regaining full guard, Leininger attempted a triangle choke, but Shamrock defended it and took Leininger's back. Leininger eventually rolled back to full guard, but after Shamrock landed a series of hard punches to his head, Leininger tapped out. Leininger suffered a mild concussion during this fight. Shamrock's next fight was in the semifinals against kickboxer Felix Mitchell. Shamrock took Mitchell down and forced him to tap out due to a rear naked choke. Shamrock was shown limping significantly after his fight with Mitchell. He later revealed that he entered UFC 3 with a knee injury and aggravated the injury during the event.
With this win, Shamrock advanced to the finals of UFC 3. However, when Shamrock learned Gracie had dropped out of the tournament after his win over Kimo Leopoldo, Shamrock, combined with his knee injury, refused to come out for the finals. Bob Shamrock, Ken's father, tried to explain to him how much money Shamrock would make by winning the championship, but he refused. "When something is taken from you, you lose everything...everything I trained for, everything I had wanted...you get so hyped up for it and now it's gone!" Shamrock said. Alternate Steve Jennum took his place in the final and won the title, having not fought previously.
Shamrock was unable to compete in his rematch with Gracie at UFC 4 either, as he was fighting in the King of Pancrase Tournament to determine the first champion of Pancrase. Shamrock defeated Alex Cook and future UFC Heavyweight Champion Maurice Smith in the Opening Round and defeated top Japanese fighters Masakatsu Funaki and Manabu Yamada in the Second Round to win the tournament. With this win, Shamrock became the first King of Pancrase and became the first ever foreign champion in mixed martial arts history in Japan.