The July issue of Fight! Magazine (featuring a cover story by a dashing young writer who shall remain nameless) introduces the first four members of the magazine’s newly-created Hall of Fame. This is great to see, since it gives us an honest, legitimate MMA Hall of Fame instead of the incredibly limited and necessarily biased UFC Hall of Fame. It’s also voted on by MMA journalists and not event promoters. You know, like the real Hall of Fames do it. Also like the real Hall of Fames for baseball and football and sports mascots, you can’t help but look at some of the inductees and wonder whether they could really compete with the talent of today.
For instance, in addition to Kazushi Sakuraba and Bas Rutten, both Royce Gracie and Ken Shamrock made the first class of inductees, and for obvious reasons. Both were pioneers of the sport and helped shape our early concept of what MMA was all about.
But when you look at someone like Royce Gracie you can’t escape the fact that he mostly earned his spot by submitting a bunch of guys who didn’t know a wristlock from a wristwatch. That’s not necessarily his fault. He beat the guys who were around at the time, and that included dudes like Shamrock and Dan Severn, but it also included guys like Art Jimmerson and “The Black Dragon” Ron van Clief.
Looking at Gracie now is a little like looking at the guys who were the kings of pro baseball back when it was a small, insular world of white guys in floppy caps. Could they compete against today’s athletes? Probably not (except maybe Ty Cobb, although he would certainly be locked up for life these days). Does that mean they don’t deserve a spot in the Hall of Fame? No. They still belong, because even if it was a different sport back then, they were still the best at it and that’s all you can really ask for.
Then there’s Shamrock, who’s gone out of his way in recent years to tarnish his own image. Between positive steroid tests (okay, Royce rode that train as well) and sad, freakish fights that served no purpose at all, and even to his somewhat suspicious exit from the Kimbo Slice fight, it’s hard to defend Shamrock’s reputation. It brings up the same question other sports Hall of Fames have been battling for years: does character count?
The answer most of them come up with is, only sometimes. Pete Rose, who is banned for betting on baseball while coaching the Cincinnati Reds, still can’t get into the Hall of Fame. Other players who were drug addicts and wife beaters and just generally bad people? Yeah, they’re there.
So do we give Shamrock a pass on the last four years just because of the first twelve? Kind of seems like we have to. Even if a guy insists on embarrassing himself in the twilight of his career by refusing to let go, it doesn’t erase what he did in his prime. Just ask Brett Favre. And Rickey Henderson. And Willie Mays. And…you get the point.