Shamrock documentary stirs ghosts still haunting former UFC champ

Thursday October 10th, 2013

Within the first 20 seconds of Frank Shamrock: Bound By Blood, the retired 40-year-old fighter does something viewers might find uncharacteristic of him. He starts to take responsibility for himself and his actions.

"..Success came at a high price," the polarizing former UFC champion says somberly. "I've left a lot of damaged relationships in my wake... but now I'm ready to confront my past."

Shamrock, who famously retired as UFC champion in 1999 because he felt the sport wasn't ready to properly compensate a star of his magnitude, has been sort of a cat with nine lives in mixed martial arts. After retirement, he became a trainer and commentator, later returned to fighting, then went back to commentary, all the while working for virtually every competing promotion to the UFC that's ever existed stateside. Most recently, Shamrock signed a multi-project deal with Spike TV and coached on the network's Fight Master: Bellator MMA reality series, which aired to lukewarm ratings over the summer.

In that time, perceptions of Shamrock have varied, depending on what angle from which you look. Regarding professional achievement, longstanding fans have petitioned against his exclusion from the UFC Hall of Fame, a byproduct of Shamrock's decision to break away from the promotion's new owners, Zuffa LLC., in 2001. Newer fans, whether aware of his storied past or not, have questioned his relevance to modern-day MMA, particularly as a coach to up-and-coming fighters of this era.

On a personal level, it's hard to tell where fans stand with Shamrock. For those who've gotten the opportunity to interact directly with him for even a short length of time, there's no denying he's astute. He's well-spoken on a variety of topics and has a cool confidence that TV executives love. However, not every fan gets this experience, and at times, that self-assuredness has gotten lost in translation and skewed Shamrock's likability. Many have described Frank as arrogant, self-involved and sometimes egomaniacal. But Shamrock's first 20 seconds challenges that façade with Frank's promise to delve into his past and right some of his wrongs.

From this starting point, Shamrock, a gripping 65-minute documentary that airs Thursday on Spike (11 p.m. ET), stirs up a few ghosts still haunting the MMA personality. There's a lot of story to tell (Spike producers said they bandied the fighter's 2012 memoirs around the office to begin), but wisely, Shamrock focuses mostly on Frank's deteriorated relationship with his iconic brother Ken. Frank and Ken, a weathered UFC Hall of Famer still trying to ply his trade at age 49, haven't spoken in nearly 15 years.

When Frank left his brother's premiere fight team, The Lion's Den, in 1998, it was salacious news for the embryonic sport. It became one of the sport's unanswered mysteries, fueled by rumors of deception and backstabbing. But over the years, as memories of both fighters' tremendous achievements have inevitably faded when compared to today's talent evolution, the Shamrock split has often been demoted to a simple sibling rivalry between two narcissistic athletes.

In 2009, when the brothers (then 35 and 44) verbally agreed to fight one another, the proposed bout was largely viewed as a circus stunt concocted for both to make some quick cash. Luckily, that fight never happened, but it did renew some interest in their failed relationship. The question why has always remained.

In truth, no one knows why Frank and Ken fell out other than Frank, Ken and their adoptive father, Bob, who died from heart failure in January 2010. As the documentary concludes, with Frank and Ken sitting face-to-face, shifting uncomfortably in their folding chairs in some nondescript gym, the answers finally begin to flow.

Before we get there, though, Frank sifts through the pages of his virtual photo album, revealing some raw and unnerving details of his life. Frank's life has been neither neat nor pretty, leaving one to wonder if the fighter-turned-commentator-turned-reality series coach's cocky demeanor over the years has been something else entirely.

Born in Redding, Calif., Shamrock (then Frank Juarez) and his three siblings survived an early childhood of neglect and abuse at the hands of their alcoholic stepfather, Joe. Frank was an energetic child who had trouble standing still, so his "punishments" often included elements of restriction and confinement. The most traumatizing was being locked in the closet, where Frank was forced to lay on a narrow linen shelf, smothered on all four sides like a coffin, for hours. Rebellion quickly became Shamrock's coping mechanism.

"I was already drinking in the park with the hobos by the time I was seven," says Shamrock, "but the real trouble started a few years later, the night I pulled a knife on my little sister Susie."

At 12, Shamrock was sent to a juvenile detention facility, where he discovered that life there was a dramatic improvement from what he'd left. At 13, Frank was sent to Shamrock's Boys Home for delinquent youth in Susanville, Calif., where the boys would settle their differences in an empty swimming pool under patriarch Bob's watchful eye. Among the 2,000 or so troubled boys that would pass through the foster home through the years, Bob would adopt only Ken, at first.

Frank, a father himself by age 16, was incarcerated two years later for robbing a Taco Bell after hours. When he was released at 21, Bob Shamrock told Frank he saw two options for him: stripping or fighting. Under Ken's tough-love tutelage, Frank was fighting professionally in Japan within eight months. Upon his return, Bob adopted Frank as his second son, and unknowingly created a psychologically damaging tug-of-war for affections between the two competitive brothers.

"I was the replacement for Ken when he [wasn't around]," Shamrock told "I fell in love with Bob because I didn't have a dad. Bob fell in love with me because I was all the things Ken wasn't and I was there. The minute there was a disagreement with Ken and I, it was, 'You need to go make it right with Ken, or you're no longer my son.'"

Knowing he couldn't flourish, let alone survive in Ken's sometimes oppressive, larger-than-life shadow, Frank left the Lion's Den and lost his connection with Ken and Bob in the process.

As Frank embarked on his own journey from the Lion's Den to a UFC championship and later a career comeback, the documentary offers a slice of timely retrospective, given the sport's approaching 20th anniversary in America next month.

We visit Shamrock's highs (his epic UFC 22 five-rounder with a prime Tito Ortiz in 1999) and his lows (the beating he took at the hands of Nick Diaz in Strikeforce in 2010.) With the latter came the inevitable moment when every fighter realizes the sport has passed him by.

"I could feel minute by minute that he was better than me," says Shamrock of Diaz, "and there ain't nothing I could do about it."

En route to confronting Ken, Frank makes a welcome detour to his homeless brother Perry, who suffers from Bi Polar 1 disorder. Frank hasn't seen his older brother in eight years and is ashamed to admit he never returned a call for help a year ago, but he knows exactly where to find him. Perry has lived in a tent with his dogs under one of the two bridges in Redding, close to the veteran's hospital, since he was discharged from the U.S. Navy. The two brothers sit at Perry's make-shift refugee camp and exchange small talk on their family's whereabouts, but it's obvious that Frank is fishing for forgiveness -- not necessarily from his brother, but from himself. As Shamrock drives away in his black BMW, tears escape from under his sunglasses and stream down his cheeks.

"I gotta help him," Shamrock says between heavy breaths. "I gotta help him get out of there."

As the documentary climaxes to the dramatic final sit-down between estranged adoptive brothers (sadly, whittled down from 90 to nine minutes), there's no denying that substantial emotional wreckage has piled up on both sides. This runs much deeper than sibling rivalry. There is talk of humiliation, of cowardice, of jealousy and family betrayal. It's a riveting discussion between two athletes recognized for their theatrics, (whether subtle or not), which makes it difficult to predict whether the tete-a-tete will ring completely authentic among more skeptical viewers, especially when the subject of a potential fight is reintroduced.

Motivations might be questioned: both were compensated to participate in this project. However, neither Frank nor Ken suggested Ken's inclusion at the project's inception, said Spike TV Executive Producer Terry Minogue.

"In our first production meetings, I asked if we could at least get Ken on camera," said Minogue. "When we found out from Frank that they hadn't spoken in years, that's when we broached reuniting them on camera. Getting them both in the same room together was the only thing that was produced about that."

Why Frank and Ken couldn't have met behind closed doors, away from the lights and cameras and paychecks will be a topic for debate. We can all believe that some things are best left out of the public eye, but that's easier said than done. For those that have spent most of their lives in the spotlight, maybe this is where they feel the safest. In the end, it's Ken who probably puts it best.

"I'm not sure we could have gotten it done any other way than like this, face-to-face," Ken says, as he drives away from the scene. "No way of skirting around."

For MMA enthusiasts, Shamrock will be an enlightening hour. It also takes a more serious tone than Spike's previous MMA programming. But at its heart, Shamrock is not about MMA. It's about love and hurt, and finding forgiveness and acceptance in the face of dysfunction. For Frank, on his own road of self-improvement, it was about finding peace.

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