Ken Shamrock has achieved athletic success as an All-American in football, and as a world champion in both professional wrestling and mixed martial arts.
But to get there, he had to basically pick himself up from despair and a troubled young life with the help of others.
He sees many of the same troubled youth in his own reflection. Now, at the age of 55, one of his missions is to guide them to find their own success in life.
Shamrock will speak Wednesday at Pine Ridge High School, Red Cloud High School and Wolf Creek Elementary School. The Ultimate Fighting Championship Hall of Famer was brought to Western South Dakota by Mike Kelly and his wife, Annie, along with Pine Ridge coach David Michaud.
He’s the ninth pro athlete that Kelly has brought to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation for motivational talks. Some of the most recent others include former UFC champion Jens Pulver and National Basketball Association Hall of Famer Rick Barry.
“The kids are worth it," Kelly said. "When someone like Ken walks in there, you look at him and he is a physical presence, and even the kids who might not know who he is, when he says something, it will resonate ten thousand times more than my wife or I or anyone. They look at Ken and his back story and what he has done with his life, and the seed is planted.”
He’s lived their life
Shamrock is no stranger to the same struggles he will see in the eyes of some of the youth he speaks to on Wednesday. He lived it.
Born Kenneth Kilpatrick, as a youngster he didn’t always have a home. He once lived in a car. Violence was rampant; he was stabbed as a kid. He then became a ward of the court.
It was then when he finally got a chance to turn his life around. Bob Shamrock, who owned the Shamrock Boys Home — the last home that Ken went to — was able to get to him in a positive way.
“He took an interest in every kid that came into that home. He had worked with more than 300 kids and his success rate was through the roof,” Shamrock said. “The reason why was because he wasn’t just housing these kids, he wasn’t just there to make a buck, or get a pat on the back for doing a good job. He cared about what was happening to these kids.”
Shamrock said that in order to do that and be able to help kids, you have to be able to figure out how they tick; why are they doing most of the things that they are doing?
“He spent his whole life working with kids, trying to figure out ways to help kids. I was one of those kids,” he said.
Shamrock said that what he learned along the way was everybody has anger and frustration built inside of them. It comes out differently in everyone.
“For some people, it was outward, which was me. Violent, aggressive, dangerous,” he said. “In other kids it is more inward — they cut themselves, they do drugs, they try to chill that pain with things that will take over that pain, which will take them out of reality.”
Bob Shamrock, who later adopted Ken, taught him to deal with his anger and frustrations through sports.
By doing that, all of that emotion was coming out in a constructive manner. Now, he said that instead of people wanting to throw him in an alley and wanting to lock him up, they were accepting him as being an element of importance in society.
“My mind started to change, like I was important, like I was relevant. People liked me," he said.
His first high school football game as a freshman was a learning experience that basically changed his life.
Playing at cornerback, on the first play of the game, he went to the receiver and his only plan was to hit him as hard as possible.
“I wanted to hit him so hard that he blew snot bubbles,” he said. “That’s how much aggression I had.”
When he hit him, it just happened to be the same time the ball was there, and he knocked it loose for an incomplete pass.
Everybody cheered, which Shamrock didn’t know how to take. His first instinct was to run for the fences because it was the same intensity he had during a street fight. He was confused.
He played the game out and did well. Afterward, he asked Bob Shamrock how it was OK that he tried to hurt those kids on the football field.
“He said, ‘You don’t have to understand reasons why or how this crazy world works with their rules, all you have to do is play within the rules,’” he said. "'As long as you know what the rules are and you play within those rules, you can achieve whatever you want to do in this life. The minute you start going past that, there’s consequences, and you can’t get away with things forever. The same thing in sports applies in life. You can’t keep breaking the rules without hurting people.”
How Shamrock learned to live life is by playing within those rules.
In high school, he also was an outstanding wrestler, undefeated his senior year, and he had qualified for the state tournament. Everything he had achieved as an athlete and in academics was from hard work. He had to work hard to keep moving forward.
He walked into the wrestling room one day before state and there was no practice. There was still some wrestlers training and they hadn’t put the mats together properly, they just rolled them out.
While wrestling, Shamrock picked a kid up and he slipped on the mats and fell, breaking his neck. Shamrock was told that he would never play contact sports again.
For a short time, like most would expect in that situation, he felt his life was over. Depression hit him at 17 years old.
Again, it was advice from his father, Bob Shamrock, that turned his life around.
“He said, ‘Are you going to whine and just lay there, or are you going to get up and do something about it,'" he said.
Ken thought, "You’re right. I’m the only one who can change things. Nobody will get a job for me or take care of me the rest of my life. I have to do something about this. So I got up and started training. When I got out of the hospital I had a halo on. I had bone chips in my neck. I was messed up.”
He hit the weights and put on 25 pounds in six months. A year and a half later, he was on the football field again playing linebacker at Shasta College. He became an Junior College All-American.
His message is that there are times when there will be some obstacles that are hard to overcome. But what does it mean? Do you lay down and die, or do you do something about it?
“Even if I wouldn’t have been able to play football, let’s just say I just trained and got stronger, but I still couldn’t play. There are always other things, like running a group home for kids, or something like that," he said. "There was so many things I could do because I made a decision that I was going to do something about where I was at. I made opportunities for myself in a lot of other areas that I could choose what I wanted to do.”
Before he knew it, those other opportunities led him to professional wrestling, and then to mixed martial arts. As they say, the rest is history.
Hall of Fame history.
Life as a professional athlete
Bob Shamrock was a big-time pro wrestling fan and he pointed Ken in that direction.
“He said, 'What else are you doing to do? Try it,'” Shamrock said.
Shamrock started in North Carolina in the independent circuit and a year later had a championship belt. He suddenly had a whole new respect for the sport.
“People would ask what was harder, wrestling or MMA?” he said. “I said wrestling. In MMA, I was good, but I would only fight two or three times a year. In pro wrestling, I had to let a guy suplex me, slam me, clothesline me, come off the top rope on to the floor on me.
“I get to the WWF and in my first match I’m against Big Van Vader. It was a brutal match, really good, and I get backstage and he asks me how I felt. I said I feel good. He says, ‘Good, because you have another seven shows (that week).’
“Imagine that. Even though the outcome is pre-determined, the falls, the kicks and the chairs, and all of those things, is learning how to take them. And you’re doing it seven days a week. You get three days off and then you’re doing four straight days. It’s like that 365 days a year.”
He wrestled the best that pro wrestling had to offer — The Rock, Shawn Michaels, The Undertaker, Bret Hart and Stone Cold Steve Austin.
Nicknamed, “The World's Most Dangerous Man,” in 1998 Shamrock won the King of the Ring Tournament. That same year he won an eight-man tournament to capture the Intercontinental Title. As Intercontinental Champion, he teamed with The Big Boss Man to win the World Tag Team Championship, becoming a dual champion.
“I got an opportunity to wrestle against some really good guys — all of them were really great memories,” he said. “But what sticks out the most was with The Rock. We had built an understanding of each other because we wrestled against each other and did a program with each other for six months.”
By this time, Shamrock was also competing in MMA, first with the fledgling UWF (Shootstop) and eventually with the upstart UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship).
He would go on to defeat Dan Severan in the 1996 UFC 6 for the UFC Superfight Championship.
A torn ACL, a couple of broken hands and a neck injury suffered wrestling Chris Jericho took its toll on Shamrock for a few years, but he came back in 2000 in the Pride Fighting Championships, before returning to the UFC in 2002, where he had three famous matches with Tito Ortiz, although Ortiz won all three times.
In 2003, he and Royce Gracie were the first two fighters inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame.
A pioneer in the sport, Shamrock said it is hard to put it all in perspective. He said sometimes he feels honored, and sometimes he feels slighted, not only for himself, but for other pioneer fighters, as the sport has changed throughout the years.
“But you look at it and go, ‘Man, what an opportunity. What a time that we were there when something first started out,’” he said. “It was so raw and the journey we were on was to bring it to where it is today. Those times were special.
“On the flip side, you also get a little angry because the work and the times you put in to get it to where it is now, and then you have people like the promoters and the owners taking money that should be spread out to the guys in the ring. We wanted this thing to be big, but the way they are doing it now is they are going to end up ruining it because they are not paying anybody.”
Even at the age of 55, Shamrock says he isn’t officially retired. It's more like semi-retired.
His last MMA fight was in 2016 and he has gone back to some independent wrestling circuits, specifically in Battle championship Wrestling in Australia.
Message to kids
Shamrock said that when he talks to the youth, he just tells them about his life and what he has gone through.
“Whatever message that they hear, it leads them to do something about it, it leads them to understand that they have the ability to change things,” he said. “Hopefully I can leave that with these kids, that no matter how bad things are, they can change. It just comes to how bad they want to change.”
He said a lot of troubled youth now don’t even see tomorrow, they don’t look past tomorrow; it is just here and now. That can sometimes lead them down the wrong path.
“Somewhere along the line, you have to trust somebody," he said. "It is risky. You may get hurt and you may get let down. But that is life. You get back up and you do it again until you find that one person that is for real, that will help you. But if you stop, what are the alternatives?”
Ken Shamrock has learned to never stop.