I have a scary-good memory for the wrestling I grew up with, but I’ve got to admit that I didn’t really remember what made Ken Shamrock so damn special to my group of wrestling-loving friends in elementary school. I was a die-hard WCW fan until 1999, and, when I made the switch to WWF, Ken Shamrock was a dude who screamed a lot, hit himself, and suplexed the occasional referee while Jim Ross or Jerry Lawler screamed about him being in THE ZONE, which, compared to Mankind or The Rock—the other two participants in the most talked about match of Shamrock’s career—or even WWF midcard stalwarts like D-Lo Brown or Val Venis, was decidedly boring. Coupled with the fact that you had to spend hard-earned WWF Dollars at the SmackDown! Mall in WWF No Mercy on the Nintendo 64 (which, before home internet service was fast enough to load pictures, was the way to learn about wrestlers you’d never heard of before), and I just never got on the Ken Shamrock bandwagon. And yet, there he is refereeing the classic Submission Match between Bret Hart and Steve Austin. There he is again fighting Owen Hart in the Hart family dungeon. And here he is, in his first WWF match, against the man they call Vader.
Big Van Vader has long been one of my absolute favorite professional wrestlers, and this, believe it or not, is one of his finest moments in the WWF, if not his very best. If it seems strange that Shamrock’s first match would be against a guy so vastly different than him in both size and skillset, Vader was actually something of the WWF’s secret weapon, as he was formerly the World Champion of Nobuhiku Takada’s UWF-I, a precursor to promotions like PRIDE-FC, which utilized a shootfighting style. Shamrock, the king of Ultimate Fighting Championship at the time, needed somebody with the skills Vader possessed to ease him into an entirely different sort of combat sport, and Vader wound up being perfect. The word “brutal” is often tossed around in professional wrestling (it’s a word I’m guilty of overusing in press releases), but Shamrock not only broke Vader’s nose during this contest, but kicked his leg hard and often enough that the big man from Boulder, Colorado was unable to walk for several days. Not that Vader didn’t give as good as he got, as this clip from the end of the match demonstrates:
The fact that Shamrock was able to trap Vader in a submission hold to end the contest after a shot like that is amazing, but only half as much as the fan’s reaction to Vader tapping out, which, if I’m not mistaken, was a first for the promotion. Shamrock wouldn’t have too many matches with specialized rule sets (beyond the rare Lion’s Den match—which was the WWF’s bastardized UFC Octagon—and the aforementioned match in the Hart Dungeon, I’m not sure he had any other MMA-style matches), but he didn’t need them after this one. This was a star-making match, and, looking back at it, it’s easy to see the seeds of the UFC’s burgeoning fandom being sown. Mixed martial arts, in an effort to distinguish itself from the carnival nature of wrestling, try to frame the sport as an evolution of boxing and other legitimate fighting styles, but Shamrock’s WWF success garnered plenty of interest in a mature, bloodthirsty audience that wasn’t long for wrestling’s more juvenile tendencies.
As a matter of fact, with the WWE’s courtship and resigning of Brock Lesnar, its possible to make the argument that the WWE understands that and is trying to win those fans back. Both of Lesnar’s matches have, to varying degrees of success, emulated the MMA-meets-wrestling Frankenstein offered here by Shamrock and Vader, and I suspect part of Lesnar’s success (at least popularly, as I’m not aware of the critical consensus surrounding his matches with Triple H and John Cena) since his return is that the now-sanitized WWE allows, at least for the twenty minutes Lesnar’s working, a bit of blood here and a stiff shot there. No matter how unreal the world of wrestling is, it’s that little taste of reality that keeps fans coming back. Were Shamrock able to maintain the big fight feel of this match throughout his WWF carrer, there’s a good chance he’d have been the WWF Champion. Instead, he became a cartoon shootfighter; someone with the ability to be great, but who never quite broke through.