When Frank Shamrock paroled out of Folsom Prison in the early nineties, he had narrowed his career choices down to three possibilities.
"I was going to be a physical therapist, or an exotic dancer, or I was going to do this no-holds-barred fighting thing that Ken [Shamrock] was doing. And I didn't know anything about any of them."
Shamrock had spent most of the last decade in one institutionalized setting or another, whether it was group homes, youth crisis centers, or prison. His adopted father, Bob Shamrock, pointed him in the direction of the Lion's Den, then an unknown gym for a mostly unknown sport, and run by Frank's adopted older brother Ken. The first day Shamrock walked in the door, he was told he'd be getting a "tryout."
"You did 500 squats, 500 sit-ups, 500 leg-lifts, 250 push-ups, then you fought Ken for 20 minutes," Shamrock says. "After that it took me about four days before I could walk down the stairs again. I was just traumatized, and I didn't know you could tap. Ken was tearing my ankles and knees out, and I was just taking it. I didn't know you could tap and I was trying to be this tough guy. That was my intro to it."
For reasons even he can't fully articulate, Shamrock kept coming back. The next thing he knew, his brother had arranged for him to spend eight weeks living and training in a dojo in Japan.
"I had spent three years in jails and prisons, and then all of a sudden I'm in Japan in this dojo. It was just so surreal. I was this young kid and nobody even knew what I was doing there."
What he was doing, as it turned out, was preparing for a fight in the King of Pancrase tournament in December of 1994. Along with his brother Ken, the 22-year-old Shamrock joined early MMA luminaries such as Matt Hume, Maurice Smith, and Vernon "Tiger" White on the fight card that night in Tokyo.
In the first round of the tournament, and for his first professional bout, Shamrock drew a Dutchman by the name of Bas Rutten.
"What I remember distinctly is being so freaking scared and nervous," says Shamrock. "It seemed like I could feel the lights in the building, like I could feel the electricity running into my body. It was the weirdest thing in the world. Then the fight started."
Rutten was more experienced in the sport, having already had eight fights in Pancrase by that point. When they locked up early in the bout, Shamrock remembers being awed by Rutten's raw power.
"He had that old man strength. He was just super strong, and he absolutely smacked the sh-t out of me five or six times."
At one point, Rutten snapped a front kick directly into Shamrock's nose. He heard it crunch and he knew right away it was probably broken. It occurred to him that he had to shoot for a takedown and get the fight to the ground.
"I had maybe two or three moments of clarity in the whole fight," says Shamrock. "One was when I took him down, and I remember the feeling of kind of floating through the air. Another was when he was front choking me and he said, 'Aha, I've got you!' You know, in that booming Bas voice of his? He was weird like that; Bas was always talking to me. He's the one who taught me to talk to people in fights."
And yet, even as Rutten was telling Shamrock that he was done, Shamrock could feel himself slipping out of the choke. In his corner his brother Ken was shouting instructions, but to Frank it might as well have been in another language. The experience was so bizarre, he was struggling to understand it even as it was happening.
"I remember a couple points in the match kind of looking up and thinking, my God, I'm fighting this crazy bald guy in front of a bunch of people in Japan. How did this happen?" Shamrock says. "The ten minutes seemed like literally 40 seconds. Then they rang the bell and it was over."
Shamrock walked back to his corner after the fight and met with the begrudging approval of his adopted older brother.
"He was like, 'You did good,'" Shamrock says. "All I could say was, 'He broke my nose!' That was the first time I'd ever had my nose broken. It was like he caught me right on the tip of it with his wrestling shoe and kind of snapped the cartilage. It's still in the same shape and form that Bas put it in. That's what you see today."
Though it was as big a surprise to him as to anyone, when the fight was over it was Shamrock who got his hand raised. Then he had to go back to the locker room and prepare himself to fight again that same night, though the fear and confusion still hadn't worn off.
"My first ten fights or so it was like that. I was just so scared. You can see if you go back and watch them that there are moments where I just stop and look around, like, what's going on here? I was so scared for all those fights," he says.
"You have to remember, I had come from a pretty hard life. There was all this abuse and everything else, so the idea of fighting for sport was pretty heavy. Fighting to me was about fighting for your life, you know. It was about killing people or protecting people or stopping people from killing you. That's what it had been for me. So I went into those fights thinking, they're trying to kill me."
He would go on to lose via submission against Manubu Yamada later that same night. It was a bittersweet way to follow his first win with his first loss, but already Shamrock knew he had found something he wanted to be a part of, even if it all seemed to go by in a blur. There was no way he could have known that this was how he'd spend the next fifteen years of his life.
"I still thought everybody in this sport was crazy, and I was wondering if I was little bit crazy too," he says. "The whole thing was like a dream. I had to go back and watch it on tape. Then I was like, yeah, we're all freaking nuts."