MMA History XVII: The Lion’s Den Roars

In the 1990's a few fight camps dominated MMA. I've already blogged about Carlson Gracie's Jiu Jitsu camp and Rico Chiaparelli's R.A.W. Team in…

By: Nate Wilcox | 14 years ago
MMA History XVII: The Lion’s Den Roars
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

In the 1990’s a few fight camps dominated MMA. I’ve already blogged about Carlson Gracie’s Jiu Jitsu camp and Rico Chiaparelli’s R.A.W. Team in this series on MMA history.

There were three major American MMA camps in the 1990s — Hammer House, RAW, and Ken Shamrock’s Lion’s Den. Of the three, the Lion’s Den had far and away the most advanced approach to MMA.

In addition to his adopted brother Frank Shamrock, the Lion’s Den produced top Pancrase fighters Guy Mezger, Jason DeLucia, and Vernon “Tiger” White as well as successful UFC competitors Jerry Bohlander, Pete Williams and Tra Telligman.

Modeled on the approach of his adoptive father Bob Shamrock’s Ranch for troubled boys, the Lion’s Den actually provided fighters a place to live and train full-time.

Jerry Bohlander’s story of joining the Lion’s Den from Sherdog is typical:

After watching some of the first UFCs on video, Bohlander knew competing in MMA was something he wanted to try. The former high school wrestler sought out Bob and Ken Shamrock, who were assembling what would become the sport’s first true training team, and the rest was history.

“The first day [of training], I subbed one of his better, if not best, students, and Ken asked if I wanted to fight pro,” Bohlander remembers.

This Guy Mezger interview talks about the infamous Lion’s Den tryout:

SC: I’ve heard legend of the old Lion’s Den tryout. Could you tell me a little more about what that was like?

GM: It was basically the same tryout they had for the Pancrase organization in Japan. Ken (Shamrock) went through it when he first got over there to do shoot style wrestling and he brought it over when he came over and started doing his own thing. It was pretty straight forward; you had to do 500 squats, 500 sit ups, 500 leg lifts, 200 push ups, you had to run for a mile and a half, and then you fought. Most guys didn’t make it out of the squats.

Most of the Lion’s Den crew had some background in wrestling,although to my knowledge none were wrestling elite ala Hammer House or the RAW team. Thanks to Ken Shamrock’s experience in Japanese pro-wrestling and PANCRASE, the Lion’s Den emphasized submission wrestling to a much greater extent than their more wrestling-focused rivals.

They also emphasized striking to a greater extent, and recruited numerous members with strong traditional martial arts backgrounds. Jason DeLucia had trained for years in and Five Animal Kung Fu and aikido before becoming an early victim of the Gracie Challenge. Guy Mezger’s fighting background before joining up illustrates the kind of early martial arts cross-training some Lion’s Den fighters brought to the camp

I train in Chung Do Kwan (korean karate) and Kyokushin. (started at 14)
I train in boxing (around 16)
I wrestled since I was a kid into college. (started at 8 thru my second year in college)
I trained Thai boxing and Judo. (started around 22)
I later started training in pancrase style and BJJ. (started around 27)

Until 1997 none of the Lion’s Den fighters had really come out of founder Ken Shamrock’s shadow. But once Ken left MMA for pro wrestling early in that year, they had no choice.

Ironically it was younger brother’s decision to leave the Lion’s Den to form a group called “The Alliance” with kickboxer turned UFC Champ Maurice Smith and RINGS star Tsuyoshi “TK” Kohsaka.

Sherdog recently did a decent write-up on Frank’s first fight after leaving the Lion’s Den, against shooto star Enson Inoue at Vale Tudo Japan 1997:

At the time Shamrock had plenty of Pancrase experience under his belt but less than a year of unabated MMA. In fact, earlier that year John Lober had exploited Shamrock’s unfamiliarity with closed-fist striking to the face for a split decision.

To heighten the stakes, UFC owners Semaphore Entertainment Group announced that the winner would meet Kevin Jackson weeks later at Ultimate Japan for what was then called the UFC middleweight title.

Frank still calls Enson Inoue his toughest opponent. And watching the fight today (online here but I highly recommend ordering the DVD from MMA Classics.) you can see why. Sherdog calls the first round boring, but they’re missing the point. Thanks to his training with Kohsaka, Shamrock had learned how to survive being mounted by a BJJ-trained MMA badass like Inoue.

The Lion’s Den guys, especially those like Frank with experience in Pancrase had bad habits of giving up position for submission attempts. Against BJJ fighters this had been deadly, until Frank learned the “TK Guard”. Just as Maurice Smith had used TK’s system of defense off his back to beat Conan Silvera and Mark Coleman, Frank now applied it against the dangerous Inoue. This fight was a pivot point in MMA history for a number of reasons but I think its greatest historical importance comes from it being one of the first fights where the mount was successfully defended against. Back in the early days, being mounted had been virtually a death sentence.

When the frustrated Inoue exploded into a reckless standing attack in the second round, Frank capitalized with his newly honed stand-up game. Inoue had lost the year before to Igor Zinoviev, but he’d also beaten highly touted wrestler Royce Alger at UFC 13. Beating Enson and setting up the fight with Olympic medalist Kevin Jackson put Frank Shamrock on the path to becoming the greatest MMA champ of his era.

More fights in the full entry including Frank Shamrock’s epic MMA debut loss to John Lober. An absolute old school war, featuring head butts, head kicks to a grounded opponent, elbows to the back of the head, heels to the kidneys and more. One of the greatest fights of the era when fights were transitioning from No Holds Barred to Mixed Martial Arts.

This is the complete Frank Shamrock vs John Lober at Superbrawl 3 in Hawaii.
Lober had just fought Igor Zinoviev to a draw at Extreme Fighting 3. And its very easy from the distance of 11 years later to look back at Lober and write him off. But in early 1997 he was 2-0-1 and was rising fast. And as you’ll see in this fight, he was able to use sheer toughness to overcome skill. There’s a good highlight reel of Lober’s career at the end.

It’s a tad long, but its a total grudge match and a fight I watched over and over again back in the day.

Frank Shamrock vs. John Lober (1 of 4)

Frank Shamrock vs. John Lober (2 of 4)

Frank Shamrock vs. John Lober (3 of 4)

Frank Shamrock vs. John Lober (4 of 4)

This shows the kind of fights the Lion’s Den crew was getting in Pancrase. here’s King of Pancrase Bas Rutten defending his title against Jason DeLucia

Guy Mezger Highlights from throughout his career

John Lober career highlights

Previous installments of MMA History:

XXII: Catch Wrestling and Kazushi Sakuraba’s Early PRIDE Run
XXI: The Amazing UFC Championship Run of Frank Shamrock

XX: Kazushi Sakuraba and Frank Shamrock Emerge at Ultimate Japan
XIX: The Humbled PRIDE of Nobuhiko Takada
XVIII: The Losses of Luta Livre
XVII: The Lion’s Den Roars
XVI: Rico Chiapparelli and the RAW Team
XV: Pancrase, RINGS, and Shooto 1996
XIV: Boom and Bust in Brazil
XIII: Coleman Gets His Kicks
XII: End of the UFC Glory Days
XI: Carlson Gracie’s Mighty Camp
X: The Reign of the Wrestlers
IX: Strikers Attack
VIII: From Russia With Leglocks
VII: A New Phase in the UFC
VI: A Dutch Detour
V: The Reign of Royce
IV: Rickson Brings Jiu Jitsu Back to Japan
III: Proto MMA Evolves Out of Worked Pro Wrestling in Japan
II: The Ur-Brazilian MMA Feud: BJJ vs Luta Livre and the Style They Never Saw Coming
I: UFC 1 Pancrase meets BJJ

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About the author
Nate Wilcox
Nate Wilcox

Nate Wilcox is the founding editor of As such he has hired every editor and writer to work for the site. Wilcox’s writing for BE is known for its emphasis on MMA history, the evolution of fighting techniques and strong opinions. Wilcox developed the SBN MMA consensus rankings which were featured in USA Today from 2009 to 2011. Before founding BE, Wilcox was a political operative working for such figures as Senators John Kerry and Mark Warner and an early political blogger. He is the co-author of Netroots Rising, a history of the political blogosphere from 2003 to 2007. Wilcox also hosts the Let It Roll podcast on music history for the Pantheon Podcast Network.

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