Ken Shamrock remembers thinking about how he’d find his next meal.
He remembers his father leaving, his mother scraping by to pay the bills. He remembers being left to fend for himself, without guidance or parental supervision. Without someone who really cared.
He remembers Napa Valley, Calif., the place he called home when his mother, Diane Kilpatrick, moved from Georgia after remarrying to Bob Vance. And he remembers when Vance, a hardnosed Vietnam War veteran, incessantly beat him and his three brothers.
The fighting and the stints in California’s juvenile halls, the bouncing from one foster home to the next — he remembers those, too.
“My childhood,” Shamrock, 54, recalled in a telephone interview, “was about survival. … It was about making sure I wasn’t going to get killed.”
“Nobody had ever took me for who I was; nobody really tried to understand what my issues were.”
Behind the veil of his many accomplishments, Shamrock — a mixed martial arts icon and the first inductee into the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Hall of Fame in 2003 — carries with him a troubled past. And he does so not as a burden but as a reminder of where he once was and where he is now, and where he could’ve been had he taken a wrong turn.
“I was in this from a young age, fighting through every hard point in my life,” he said.
There’s a palpable sense of fear and intimidation to Shamrock. Even from afar you can feel it. The anger and confidence, the thrill and excitement: it’s what he’s known for.
Shamrock spent 12 collective years fighting professionally, going back and forth between wrestling and mixed martial arts — at times both simultaneously. He’s a UFC Superfight Heavyweight Champion, a World Wrestling Federation (now WWE) Intercontinental Champion, World Tag Team Champion, and a Total Nonstop Action Wrestling (TNA) World Heavyweight Champion.
“I never had a preference,” he said, alluding to whether he favoured one form of the sport over the other. “It was always about a challenge; challenging yourself at being successful, at being one of the best.”
In 2015, after a five-year hiatus from the UFC, Shamrock returned to the octagon at age 52, losing both fights in which he was featured by knockout. Critics can claim his comeback was a last-ditch effort to recapture fame, he said, but quitting — in life or in the ring — has seldom seemed a suitable option.
“I’m never going to announce my retirement,” he said. “[W]hen you step in and you announce your retirement, it’s like you’re giving up. You’re quitting.
“And I don’t ever want to have to say that.”
The public remembers Shamrock, beyond his successes, for his brashness — his better-than-you attitude. And to many, his confidence, which at times could pass for arrogance, served as the backbone of his career.
It’s what compelled the WWE to sign him to a $3-million contract in 1997, and what prompted ABC to dub him The World’s Most Dangerous Man in the mid-’90s.
“Every time I walked in the ring, I knew I was going to win,” he said. “I knew there was no way anyone was going to stop me. Destruction and satisfaction is what I felt in there.”
For Shamrock, fighting seemed natural from a young age. In his teens, as an outsider with a Southern accent living in California, he defended those who teased him with violence. But in the ring he found comfort and solace. It presented a platform to entertain and a place where his anger could be vented in a controlled environment.
“Walking into a ring for the first time was, like, ‘Oh, so there’s just one guy, and I don’t got to worry about getting stabbed or shot? OK, this sounds like a great option here. I’ve been doing it my whole life in group homes. … Game on,’” he recalled.
There are layers to Shamrock to which the public is often not privy. His bravado and self-assurance are coupled with a humbling sense of care and compassion. His checkered past encouraged him to launch Lion’s Den Ministries, a non-profit that serves to help at-risk youth. And his career success has him itching to give back to those who made it possible.
“Without my fans, I wouldn’t be able to live the lifestyle I’m living,” Shamrock said. “Whether it was pro wrestling or fighting, I always made sure the fans walked away feeling like they got their money’s worth. … I never wanted to let them down.”
On Sunday, Shamrock began a spoken-word tour across Ontario and will hit nine cities in a 10-day span. He said it’s a chance to reconnect with fans and express his appreciation for their decades of support. But, more importantly, it’s so people can see him for who he is.
“I want people to know who I am as a person, just like anybody else does when they go out and meet people,” he said. “They see me as an athlete, on the field or in the ring, but they don’t get to know who I am when I walk on the street. Or who I am with my kids or my friends. … That’s what I want people to know; I want them to know who I am.”
Shamrock is set to appear in Kingston on Friday at Don Cherry’s, where tickets can be purchased.