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Ken Shamrock knows you want to see more legend vs. legend fights in MMA, even if you really don't

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

HOUSTON -- Recite the numbers and Ken Shamrock just chuckles. The kind of chuckle that only a decade of 'I told you so' can provide. Over 2.1 million people tuned in to the nostalgia tour last summer; 2.1 million people to watch a 51-year-old UFC Hall of Famer march back from irrelevance against a YouTube sensation of the early aughts. Sure, losing to Kimbo Slice was far from ideal, but Shamrock knows better than anyone that the numbers are the real truth. That numbers are what write the checks.

Bellator 138, Scott Coker's most unapologetic and brazen dive into the world of the theatrical, shattered Bellator ratings records by every possible metric last June. At the show's peak, when Shamrock and Slice combined for a chaotic two minutes and twenty-two seconds of guilty pleasure, more eyeballs watched than any cable fight of the FS1 era other than when Conor McGregor announced his presence as MMA's reigning ratings king. Dominick Cruz and T.J. Dillashaw have since been the only others to overtake those figures.

It is enough to make purists sick to their stomach, a sideshow outdrawing the best in the world. But this is nothing new. The fight game has long enjoyed it's occasional carnival. And brother, the Bellator carnival is alive and well. Look no further then the ruckus that unraveled on Wednesday, when 101 years of combined Hall of Fame résumé sat between Slice and a previously unknown backyard brawler from Miami, the calm between the baby nuts, and at some point things started to feel inevitable. Damnit, Coker, you did it again.

Ask yourself: if Bellator 149 sets a new Viacom ratings standard, who among us will truly be surprised?

"I've been talking about this for a long time," Shamrock told MMA Fighting. "A legends division, because the fans want to still see those guys. It was unique. It's different now because everybody does the same thing, but there were those 10 years of MMA that just were very unique, and the fans locked on to them. There were a lot of legends that were created during that time, and a lot of those guys are still capable of getting into the ring and fighting. Obviously not fighting for a world title, but there are guys who, fighting other guys who are basically the legendary status, they will still pack the house because people want to see them. Royce (Gracie) did it, I did it, many other ones have done it, (Pat) Miletich has done it -- there's guys who have kept themselves in tremendous shape and can still go.

"We don't have the recovery or the reaction time we used to, so we're not going to compete with the guys who are young. But we could compete with the guys around our time who the fans want to see fight again, and I think there's a huge market for that. Scott Coker has bitten into that, and I think he has bitten into something very unique. If he keeps going with this, he's going to see this thing really blow up."

Whether you like it or not, Shamrock may very well be right.

The power of nostalgia is a mighty temptress, and the names of MMA's early days still carry more weight to those outside of the bubble than many first realized. Coker's inaugural grand experiment in this fashion, when he dredged out the cadavers of Tito Ortiz and Stephan Bonnar in 2014, drew a cool 1.8 million viewers to crush Bellator's previous ratings records. The next step up in the craziness, Slice vs. Shamrock, crushed that ratings record yet again.

The only iteration of this formula to fail? It came when Bellator threw Ortiz to Liam McGeary, one of it's most talented fighters but a face unfamiliar to those mythical casual fans, and Dynamite 1 drifted asleep to the tune of a 930,000 viewer peak. But Shamrock indirectly points to that as a reason a legends fighting movement can succeed.

Fans aren't stupid, he says, and to get something like this right, you need to be realistic. No one wants to see the old guy get smashed by the young stud. But if it's old guy versus old guy, then Shamrock believes MMA can provide a perfect vehicle like no other sport can.

"It's the opponent that you get," Shamrock says. "For instance, the older NBA guys, who are they going to go against? You'd have to create a team, a league, whatever, and it's just not going to work, because now you're talking about trying to find enough of them who can play. In this, it's one-on-one. You can find guys who are within 10 years of each other. They can fight one another and the fans are going to just go, ‘man, I remember those guys.' There's history.

"They didn't get a chance to fight each other. Maybe they were supposed to fight each other; it didn't happen and now we're going to put it together. So to me, I think that's the unique part about what we do. The guys who can fight one another who are still legendary status, a lot of those guys keep themselves in shape because they have their own gyms. But there are opponents out there for them to fight who are also legends. That's the difference."

Shamrock says he hears it more and more everyday. More fighters wanting to try and emulate the path he has laid out.

It is an inherently dangerous idea, pitting middle-aged men against one another for a belated round of blunt force trauma. The optics of it alone are enough to make any physician queasy. But if the formula continues to prove successful, driving big ratings and allowing platforms for Bellator's young talent to grab some of that osmosis shine, then Shamrock knows more and more fighters from generations past will look to grab their own piece of the action.

"When I first started doing it, everybody was criticizing me," Shamrock says. "Hey, I want to do it. I fight for fun. I enjoy it. Shoot me. I'm doing what I love doing. And now I'm starting to see it turn around. I'm starting to see people embrace it. I'm starting to see guys coming out of the woodwork, like Miletich just the other day, saying I want to fight the winner. Dan Severn wants to fight. So I'm starting to see that big burn now, where these guys are going, ‘I can still do it,' because a lot of them were forced out. They didn't want to be the guy standing up going, ‘well I'm going to do it, I don't care what you think.' I did that. I broke the barrier for them.

"Now they can come out and they can feel comfortable doing it, because why wouldn't you do what you love doing? You put the time in. The fans still follow you. You still are a draw. Find another guy who is still in shape, who's around you and has some credibility that you can fight, and put it on. Because I'm telling you, the fans want to see those fights."

The whole thing would be inspiring if it wasn't so dang morally uncomfortable. But this is a numbers game, and for Shamrock, that goes both ways. If fight fans still want to see their heroes compete, and those same heroes left the game before the big money entered the equation, then he is more than willing to answer an occasional critic if it means the old-timers can get their personal slice.

"For me, to see these guys come out and continue to fight, and be able to dip in to some of the things that are happening today, with the money that's being made for some of these fighters -- not anything like they should be making, but they're making some money now. More than we were doing at the time. And so to see these guys come out and actually get a piece of that pie, it makes me happy for them," Shamrock says. "They deserve it."