Pioneers of MMA: The Lion's Den


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"Marine boot camp is not fun. It is not pretty. That's because they are preparing you for war. I am preparing my fighters for war."

-Ken Shamrock

Survival of the strongest.

The art of a gym and its team has always been a very poignant part of mixed martial arts (MMA), specifically the bonding between teammate helping teammate against any oncoming opposition.

Jackson's MMA in Albuquerque is the most notable of all camps for its high level of talent. American Top Team (ATT), American Kickboxing Academy (AKA), Team Blackhouse, Wolfslair and Cesar Gracie's Jiu-Jitsu also round out the notable elite teams.

But before the rise of these "super camps" were teams like Hammer House, Chute Box and Gracie Jiu-Jitsu which graced early Pride Fighting Championship and Ultimate Fighting Championship events alike.

The most dominant camp during those early stages was "The Lion's Den."

A closer look after the jump.


 The Lion's Den was truly a place where weak men would never last. It didn't matter how much brawn you had but what your brain could take before it broke.


Based out of little known town named Susanville in California, it would become either a fighter's worst nightmare or place to bloom. Established in 1994 by UFC and Pancrase legend Ken Shamrock, the Lion's Den was based upon toughness rather than any pure set of skills.

Shamrock believed that the stronger fighter was the one who was strongest mentally. The way to get in and prove yourself was that of myth and to some, sadistic.

Here's a description of a typical tryout by its leader:

  • 500 squats
  • 200 push ups
  • 200 sit ups
  • 1.5-mile (2.4 km) run
  • Repeated runs up and down bleacher steps
  • Bear-crawls up steep hills
  • Lugging heavy barrels of water and sand bags up steep hills
  • The candidates who were still left at this point would then go on to do as many pull-ups as they can without stopping.
  • Candidates then went to the actual Lion's Den facility for several hours of sparring.

If a person desired acceptance into the Lion's Den house, he would be given shelter and food while he endured the hellacious training.

Shamrock used this course to see which fighters would not quit even though their bodies had failed them. He wanted the ones practically willing to die to overcome adversity.

Lion's Den fighter Jerry Bohlander says that most of the stories of the camp initiation were urban myths and even if he wanted to share a story he won't because you'd have to experience it. He also notes that some people passed the test but were never good enough to be an actual pro fighter.

When in the house, things were not even close to cozy.

Shamrock who had grown up in combat sports in Japan was accustomed to new joiners being used like young boys. The "young boys" were what us westerners call "errand boys" in that they do all the running around jobs to make the boss's life easier.

When the "young boys" would finally get rest, Shamrock would sneak beside their ear and whisper '"I'm going to kill you tonight." The poor unsuspecting newbie would awake to the very intimidating Shamrock smiling after whispering a terrifying sweet nothing.

Frank Shamrock, the younger step-brother of Ken would assist Bohlander in sinking in rear naked chokes on the "young boys" at any given point. When the choked out victim would awake, Shamrock or Bohlander would have the barrel of a shotgun in their face and advise them to "never let their guard down again or they'd be dead."

In recent years, the rigorous training and hazing has dimmed down quite a bit. Shamrock now has wannabe joiners engage in tests of skills and live competition.

The Lion's Den was not just a place of horror it was a place of champions.


The Lion's Den was flying high until Ken and Frank could no longer stand each other. While Ken was getting his first big payday in the World Wrestling Federation (WWF), Frank was training the guys at the Lion's Den.

Ken returned and no longer had the support of his guys due to the new advanced cross training that Frank brought.

A huge argument broke out and near fists were thrown before Ken chucked an air conditioning unit at Frank. Frank Shamrock left and began doing exclusive training with former UFC Heavyweight Champion Maurice Smith.

The last big showcase by the Lion's Den was their formation of a team for the now defunct International Fight League (IFL). The team did not win any season championships but had secured the heavyweight title with Roy "Big Country" Nelson winning and defending it twice.

The IFL almost hosted a Ken Shamrock vs. Frank Shamrock fight due to both being coaches but like so many other times, it never materialized.

So Maniacs, whatcha think of the Lion's Den as MMA pioneers? Or any other camps from year's past?

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