So, first things first: the cover! We must talk about the cover of Jonathan Snowden’s biography Shamrock: The World’s Most Dangerous Man, out now from Hybrid Shoot. This is a photo of Shamrock, that upon first viewing and if I hadn’t been sitting down, I would have definitely taken a step back. It is that powerful. The portrait is unexpectedly raw and striking. This is not a glamour shot. In fact, the photo is downright ugly and serves as the ultimate metaphor/reminder of the life Shamrock has lived.
“My friend Ryan Loco took that photo for the book,” explained Snowden, who resides in Alabama, in a phone interview with SlamWrestling.net. “So, this was towards the end of the process last year. Ken decided to come back to professional wrestling. He did an independent date in Atlanta. And myself and the photographer went to the show and took a series of pictures and that was one of them. It’s really a remarkable photograph. I thought it was perfect. It kind of captured who Ken is at this point in his life and it really showed the wear of the business of fighting, the toll it’s taken on him.”
Snowden added, “We took it backstage at this wrestling show. It was like a tiny little room. It was basically, there was like a little stairwell and that was the only space. There were probably 15 wrestlers in there trying to change clothes. There’s a kind of (garage like) door that pulls down shut. And that was the background. Ryan just set up two lights and he just shot that photograph. I was so nervous that it wasn’t going to turn out because the conditions were so terrible. I should have had more faith in Ryan’s skills. And then he showed me the picture and right away I was like, ‘Wow!’ I knew that we had something there.”
And that’s just the book’s cover. Upon opening the book, the intensity surrounding the life of the pro wrestler and Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighter doesn’t let up. Just nine pages in, I had to pause as Shamrock’s early childhood days are so heartbreaking and relentless. While the book is written with plenty of wit and well researched (Snowden includes 432, yes 432 footnotes!) readers should be prepared to go all in and brace themselves for a brutality comparable to a round in the octagon.
The book came about when Snowden, who is also a senior writer for Bleacher Report and the co-author of The MMA Encyclopedia, was working on a feature story about Shamrock around 2015. At one point during the interview Shamrock remarked to Snowden, that the writer knew more about his career than he did. Fast forward to Snowden later covering a Shamrock fight and while sharing a meal with members of Team Shamrock, his interest was officially piqued.
“They’re telling me all these stories about Ken and his life,” recalled Snowden, who also penned Shooters: The Toughest Men in Professional Wrestling and Total MMA: Inside Ultimate Fighting. “And these are stories that are both crazy, some of which you read in the book, and then, but also more importantly, I think that they were stories that I had never heard before. And I’m somebody who has studied Ken fairly in depth. And so, it dawned on me that a lot of what we think we know about, that we thought we knew about Ken was not really the truth. Or that there’s so much more than we had any idea about.”
Snowden says Shamrock’s management approached him about co-writing an exercise book with Shamrock. Snowden declined their idea and despite Shamrock already having two autobiographies in the book market and according to his official website, a third coming out this year, Snowden decided he wanted to take on writing Shamrock’s biography.
The resulting book is not officially authorized by Shamrock, but he did participate in several hours of interviews with Snowden. During the three-year journey of working on the book, Snowden also conducted more than 100 interviews with various people in Shamrock’s life including Shamrock’s biological father, who Snowden writes was estranged from his children for almost 50 years and Shamrock’s own children. This is an impressive and notable feat as the life of Shamrock is not a fairy tale but instead a gritty account racked with abandonment, violence, addictions, aggression, adultery, ambition, fame and divorce. Snowden undoubtedly faced a plethora of challenges completing the book, but his writing is fearless and he doesn’t shy away from any controversy either.
“So, we started doing the book,” began Snowden. “Obviously, I live in Alabama and Ken lives in Reno, Nevada. So, we started off talking on the phone and initially, we ran into some complications at first. Some problems where Ken was trying to kind of give his standard media interview like you have with a fighter or a celebrity or a wrestler. They get asked similar questions all the time and they kind of have like a stock answer. This is just the answer that they give when they’re asked about a subject.”
He continued, “And for Ken, we were talking about his early wrestling career in Japan. And because those were matches where they attempted to make them look like they were real, he’s always been kind of coy about describing them as wrestling matches. So, he’s talking to me about these early wrestling matches and talking to me about them as if they were real fights. And I remember really clearly having to stop him and say, ‘I’m not doing a book where I pretend your wrestling matches were real fights. That’s just not what I’m interested in.’ So, we had an early snag.”
Snowden says Shamrock did end up agreeing that the project needed to be done in a completely truthful way. But then Shamrock decided he didn’t want to keep doing interviews over the phone. Snowden started a crowdfunding campaign through Indiegogo in order to travel to Reno to continue the interviews with Shamrock.
It must be asked as I’m sure most of you reading this article are also wondering: What is it like to interview Shamrock?
“As you learn later in the book, Ken is definitely suffering from his years in the (pro wrestling) ring and in the cage,” pointed out Snowden. “And so, there are days where he’s kind of grumpy, he doesn’t feel good, he’s got perpetual headaches or his back and his neck hurt. And those days, it’s not easy to talk to or interview him. And then there’s other times where he feels good and you hit on a topic that he’s interested in and he’s very gregarious and outgoing and you’re not having to just pull stuff out. He’s giving things to you. And that’s kind of the back and forth that you have with any person that you interview. It just so happens that I’ve caught Ken in all the various stages. It’s just like you or me, right? Some days you’re having a good day, some days you’re not. And so, I’ve experienced Ken in all kinds of circumstances and moods and some are good and some were not so much fun for me.”
Despite these interview obstacles, Snowden credits Shamrock with helping the process along by telling the other interview subjects, “You can talk to this guy and you can tell him the truth.” The quotations garnered by Snowden, who says he interviewed most of the subjects twice, are indeed candid, sometimes shockingly so.
“Ken’s blessing in that form opened up these guys to tell stories that they normally would not,” observed Snowden. “I definitely got the feeling that like for a lot of these guys, these are stories that they’ve been sitting on and dying to tell someone for 20 or 30 years. And then to be given the go ahead, I did feel like a sense of excitement almost from these guys who are finally able to talk about this stuff.”
Although Ken’s ex-wife and mother of his children, Tina, declined “to do an on the record interview for the book,” Snowden did speak to Shamrock’s children, which ended up being an emotional experience for everyone involved.
“They (the Shamrock children) don’t have the fondest memories especially of their childhood,” stated Snowden. “So, there were tears when I talked to his kids. Those were hard interviews. I remember one of them was in Reno with Ken’s son, Connor, and he was coming off a late shift and we met in a casino. It was early, early in the morning and he talked for probably three hours. I mean just so much to get off his chest. And so yeah, those were difficult and challenging because the emotion was really raw. And I was only going to get one shot with them. As a journalist, it really kind of puts you in a weird situation because I literally just met this person for the first time and you’re asking them questions about your parents having a terrible relationship and what was it like when you dad wasn’t there for you growing up? Were you aware of his drug use around you as a young kid? Not the normal stuff that you would talk to somebody about for the first time you meet them!”
While reading the book, admittedly there were times I felt deeply troubled about the content and would honestly question what redeeming qualities Shamrock has. And I’m someone with empathy to spare, but often I questioned how can people look up to this guy especially in instances where he seemed to squander the money he earned to the detriment of his family or when he viciously beat up his trainees in his infamous Lion’s Den training facility in a disturbed attempt at tough love. While discussing these observations, Snowden points out that “the book is about Ken, but I don’t think that Ken is the hero of the book by any means.”
“(The hero moment) doesn’t come and it still hasn’t come,” revealed Snowden. “And maybe that should tell you something about the industry that he’s in. In professional wrestling, we’re looking for these big heroes and evil villains and most people aren’t really like that.”
He added, “People ask (me), ‘Are you friends with Ken?’ I’m like, ‘No, I don’t think we are. I don’t think we ever really would be. We spent a lot of time together and I know a lot about him and I think he’s an interesting person.’ That’s different than being a good person. I’ll just leave it at that.”
Pro wrestling fans seeking out Snowden’s book should note that while Shamrock’s experiences in the squared circle are covered, the book is heavy on MMA. And for those inquisitive fans who are wondering, yes Snowden does cover Shamrock’s infamous “shoot” with the pro wrestling tag team, The Nasty Boys, which landed Shamrock in the hospital. Oh, and in case some people still need to hear this, Ryan Shamrock, portrayed by Alicia Webb in a World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) storyline, was not Shamrock’s real sister. He doesn’t even have a sister! Webb and Shamrock were actually romantically involved for a time.
To Snowden, Shamrock’s legacy “is definitely tied up in fighting more than anything,” and questions if Shamrock even has a legacy in pro wrestling.
“He (Shamrock) was a short time performer in WWE,” offered Snowden. “A lot of people remember him because he was on television during the height of the wrestling boom. His contemporaries are Stone Cold [Steve Austin] and The Rock [Dwayne Johnson] and people like that. And so, a lot of people watched him wrestle, but if you ask somebody what’s the best Ken Shamrock match, there’s going to be a lot of confused pauses.”
Snowden does point out that “wrestling fans seemed interested in” Shamrock and responded with “a big pop when he came out” to the ring. But while Shamrock “has the physical talent for wrestling,” he wasn’t able to master the art of creating a connection with fans and having them truly care.
“Hopefully what (readers) will walk away from this book is an understanding of who Ken Shamrock is and also why who he is, is so important to what he did and who he was in the combat sports world,” concluded Snowden. “Because I think that as a pioneer of mixed martial arts fighting, you have to be someone like Ken Shamrock. These are kind of like the astronauts of fighting. They went out and no one knew what was going to happen. He (Shamrock) shows up for the first UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) and agrees to be locked into a cage for a fistfight with some other guy that he doesn’t know anything about. Some other guy who thinks that he’s the toughest person in the world. Just imagine what kind of human being would do something like that.”
He added, “I wanted people to know also what goes into these worlds. There are a lot of people who take professional wrestling lightly. Like it’s a joke to a lot of people. (They think it’s) fake fighting and (say), ‘Look at these guys pretending to dance around in their underwear.’ But it’s a very challenging industry and it’s one that take a huge toll on the people that participate in it. And so, I thought for wrestling fans, I wanted them to understand a little bit about what goes into it physically and mentally and emotionally, into being a professional wrestling superstar. And I hope that they got a taste for some of the challenges and some of the good things about it. And also, some of the ways that it can really in Ken’s situation, really kind of ruined his life. And I don’t think he’s alone in that.”