By Rahul Lal
Ken Shamrock, a legendary mixed martial artist and UFC pioneer, got brutally honest about the historic sale of the company on the Gold Tone podcast, part of CBS Radio’s Play.it podcast network.
“It’s a shame; it’s a damn shame,” said Shamrock, who fought in the first UFC event, UFC 1, in November of 1993. “Those guys are walking away with all that money, but they didn’t do it themselves. There’s a lot of guys that put their blood, sweat and tears in that ring and didn’t get paid what they should’ve gotten paid. That, to me, it just hurts.”
Over its 23-year history, UFC has become the world’s foremost MMA promoter, holding events worldwide. Helped by growing pay-per-view audiences, television contracts and a reality series, UFC moved from the fringes of sports to the mainstream. It’s $4 billion sale to a group of investors was announced in early July.
Shamrock’s fighting career predates UFC. The young professional wrestler had been fighting kickboxers in Japan when the opportunity to compete in the United States presented itself.
“To me it was raw, it was real and it was something that people really didn’t believe was going to happen until it happened,” he said. “There was no such thing as punching somebody then being able to kick him, while on the ground, in the head then punch him while he’s on the ground, because you never saw that unless it was a street fight.”
Fighting with this level of violence was not common in those days and dismissed as unpalatable to mainstream audiences. But the competition evolved into a sport, both in living rooms and in the ring.
“The guy who was standing across from me was trying to take away an opportunity to live my life so, [early on], I wanted to destroy him, I wanted to hurt him very badly,” he started. “It changed from being aggressive and wanting to hurt the guy to being more tactical and wanting to find ways to take him into deep waters where he didn’t want to go but not necessarily hurting.”
As UFC’s popularity grew, so did the level of competition and paychecks for the sport’s best fighters. Today’s athletes make more than Shamrock did in his day, but it’s still not a lot given all that’s needed to excel in the sport.
“They think ‘well that’s a lot of money,’” said Shamrock. “Well, yeah, it is, but you’re talking about a guy that’s probably got a three-year opportunity to fight at this level and they make that money. You have to have a handler… you got coaches, you got trainers and you got an agent, and all of them are making a percentage off of your money.”
Fighters can net a fair bit, though they generally don’t, and their takes don’t come anywhere close to the hundreds of millions of dollars Dana White and other UFC shareholders are likely to pocket. While Shamrock doesn’t regret fighting and takes pride in pioneering the sport, he is haunted by what could’ve been.
“I had the opportunity to grab a percentage of the UFC,” he said. “That’s the only thing I regret, because I was in a great position. I was a guy that stuck around, and I built that organization. After Royce [Gracie] left, I did not think about getting equity ownership while I was there. That was a great time because there was a lot of opening.”
To hear more about Shamrock’s fighting and wrestling careers as well as analysis of today’s UFC, listen to the full episode of Gold Tone with Seth Gold.
Rahul Lal is an LA native stuck in a lifelong, love-hate relationship with the Lakers, Dodgers and Raiders. You can follow him on Twitter here.