Two MMA Legends Prove Age Is Just a Number

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Royce Gracie and Ken Shamrock are two of the oldest lions in mixed martial arts (MMA), but they’re still lions. The two iconic figures are ready to pick up where they left off more than 20 years ago, proving 50 isn’t too old to do what you love.

In 1993, I was 12 years old, enjoying a bag of ketchup chips and a cold pop with my father in the basement watching the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) – a bare-knuckle, anything-goes mixed martial arts tournament. It was the first time I had ever seen anything like this. Ken Shamrock, a shootfighter (a mix of wrestling and striking) from California, and Royce Gracie, a 26-year-old Brazilian who practised the art of Brazilian jiu jitsu (BJJ) – whatever that was – squared off in the semi-finals.

The event was a tournament style; fighters would have to win three fights in the same night to leave as a champion – and Shamrock was favoured to win. Weighing in at more than 200 pounds, he looked as though he was chiselled out of stone and extremely angry.

Gracie, dressed in his traditional BJJ gi, was 180 pounds soaking wet and looked like he could be your next door neighbour. He, too, was focused and intense, but I was generally concerned for his health; Shamrock was much larger, all muscle and a little scary.

The fight started, and the two combatants clashed. Within seconds, they were on the ground and, seconds after that, it was over. My first thought was, “What was that?” As a smaller-than-average kid, I marvelled at Gracie’s ability to make this much larger man submit without even throwing a punch. I have been a fan ever since.

The fighters met once more in 1995 and fought to a draw, leaving some unfinished business between the two cage warriors.

Fast forward more than 20 years and Gracie, now 49, and Shamrock, 51, are poised to clash one more time. The two will not only participate but headline Bellator MMA’s upcoming event on Feb. 19. Some people are calling the idea of two 50-year-old men fighting crazy.

Both Shamrock and Gracie, however, know exactly what they’re getting themselves into. “I wouldn’t put myself in a situation where I thought I was going to get hurt,” Shamrock says. “I don’t think Royce would do that either. I think we’re both pretty smart. We know our limitations.”

Gracie disagrees with those who say men in or around their 50s are too old to compete in MMA. “We’re not just sitting around gaining weight … we have been going to the range … shooting the target, we have been practising. The draw is fast, the grouping is good,” he notes, comparing his MMA skills to that of a marksman. “It really depends on the 50-year-old that you are talking about.”

Training camp is often tougher on fighters than the fight itself due to overtraining in preparation. Shamrock admits overtraining has been an issue for him but credits his age and experience for knowing how to properly train for competition at this point in his life. “Now it’s going to take a lot longer because I need a little bit more time to get the rest period and recovery time. It has taken me about 10 years to really dial it in.”

The elements of training camp change when you have been competing in a sport for 20-plus years. Shamrock believes he already has the experience, technique and training hours younger fighters need to get during camp. His camp focuses on fitness and reaction time.

“I’ve been tested in the ring. I’ve put in many hours in the ring during camp. I have been through it over and over,” Shamrock says. “The biggest thing for me is entering the fight healthy, making sure my timing’s good and I am in shape. That is the key to what my camp is about – timing, being in shape and being healthy.”

For Gracie, training is not only martial arts but his lifestyle. “It’s not just training hard and punching the bag until your hands bleed … you have to respect your body. I consider eating and sleeping as part of the training.” That is the key to Gracie’s longevity. He also genuinely believes he wouldn’t only fare well but beat the Gracie of ’93. “In ’93, I was just talent … now I have strategy, strength, more endurance, more preparation and more experience.”

“We have fought long, long fights so we know what it takes to be in shape,” Shamrock says. “We’re the ones who really developed a lot of the styles they are using today, so when it comes to knowledge and expertise we would probably know better than most whether or not this is a good fight or whether or not this is a dangerous fight.”

MMA Glossery of terms:

Shootfighting: A form of martial arts that blends both kickboxing and wrestling.

Brazilian jiu jitsu (BJJ): The art of submission fighting focuses on chokes and joint manipulation.

BJJ gi: The traditional uniform worn by brazilian jiu jitsu competitors.


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