I’ve heard Jordan Breen say that UFC 17 is the first MMA card where the action in the cage starts to resemble modern day MMA and, while I agree with that assessment for the most part, it is certainly the first UFC event that feels that way. Up until that point, the UFC was still the domain of stylists, practitioners of particular martial arts, completing against each other. At UFC 17 we start to see a style that resembles what you see today. When you watch UFC 1, you might be able to squint your eyes at Ken Shamrock and see some traces of Jon Jones, but at UFC 17 you don’t have to squint, this is MMA. It’s still rough around the edges, guys are still mostly defined by one singular trait and one glaring weakness, Tank Abbott is still there, but it is undeniably MMA.
Recently, when writing about where the conversation on great fighters should begin, I mentioned the Frank Shamrock title defense from UFC 17 against Jeremy Horn as the first great fight in UFC history, which isn’t a belief I would have espoused a couple years ago. At some point a few years ago, I started watching the Fight Pass archives pretty heavily. My first big project was re-watching the first 40 UFC events, and while doing so I was entirely struck by this fight. So much of my early MMA fandom was searching out individual fights on message boards and file sharing platforms. Whole shows were hard to track down, the early UFC events were basically out of print in North America, individual fights were basically all that was available. What viewing MMA through that particular lens does, is that it removes so much of the context. Watching an individual fight, without watching the fights that surrounded it on the card and the fights that came before it, is entirely different. Watching events in chronological order, you get a greater sense of what level different fighters and fights are on. In a vacuum, Shamrock/Horn might not seem like much, certainly compared to fights of today it pales, but at the time it was almost an aberration, in much the same way that UFC 17 was. It was the start of a new wave. So, it is fitting that we look at the main event of the card that night, at least for the fans in the arena, and see what the future of MMA, or more appropriately NHB, could be in 1998.
Frank Shamrock fought Jeremy Horn at UFC 17, but not really. The fight wasn’t aired on the live Pay-Per-View, and to my knowledge it wasn’t included on the DVD release, instead it was taped and added to a “Best of the UFC” event that aired at the end of 1998 produced to fulfill the UFC’s contract with PPV providers. The UFC was committed to doing a certain number of events per year, and with dwindling audiences, both on PPV and in the arenas, they needed a cheap way to produce another show. Thus, Night of Champions, a card filled with previously aired fights, and this Shamrock/Horn fight.
Shamrock was hesitant to fight on the card, regardless of the opponent. Shamrock had been planning on fighting on the next show, UFC 18, and given the sparse calendar of events the UFC ran at that point, he wouldn’t be able to get in any reasonable kind of training camp. Desperate to get Shamrock on the card, then-UFC Matchmaker John Perretti gave Frank a list of opponents to choose from. The name Perretti had earmarked on that list was Jeremy Horn, who he described to Shamrock as “tough, but not very good.” Looking back on this comment, it couldn’t be more wrong. As much as Jeremy Horn was an MMA also-ran, he was incredibly tough, and for 1998 about as good as you could find. There are conflicting views on the motivations behind this suggestion by Perretti. Some think that he wanted Frank to lose, and set him up thinking that Horn was a lot worse than he actual was. Perretti wasn’t shy about the grudges he had with some of his fighters. If you think Dana White dislikes fighters, listen to Perretti talk about Ken Shamrock. The less conspiratorial view is that Perretti just underestimated Horn, at that point he’d only had a handful of fights, and it was 1998, so realistically how many fights could Perretti have seen? Also, John Perretti, during his time as UFC matchmaker thought Tim Lajcik was a great heavyweight. It’s not like he was batting 1.000. Regardless of the motivations behind the fight, Shamrock, in many ways saving the company, stepped in and took the fight with Horn on short notice.
The UFC in 1998 had two divisions, Heavyweight, everything above 200lbs, and Middleweight, everything under 200lbs. Shamrock came into the fight at 192, well under the limit, and presumably with no weight cutting and a minimal training camp. Horn came into the fight at 199 and cut to get to that weight. As with much of his career, Shamrock was giving up a sizable size advantage to his opponent, but this was still an era heavily colored by the Gracies, no one thought size mattered all that much, especially at a lower weight. UFC commentators Mike Goldberg and Jeff Blatnick write off the size difference immediately, nothing that Shamrock looks bigger than Horn, so the weight advantage will, more than likely, mean nothing.
The fight starts, one 15 minute round followed by two 3 minute overtimes if there isn’t a finish. Shamrock comes out throwing kicks to Horn’s outside leg and then follows up with a lazy front kick that Horn grabs and uses to take Frank down with a big single-leg.
Horn works from North-South position for a while before he transitions to side mount. He isn’t throwing many strikes from the top, focusing instead on position, while occasionally looking for a head-and-arm choke. Horn gets a bit lazy on top, which gives Shamrock enough space to bridge out, but Horn quickly reacts and scrambles his way to full mount.
Horn, again, doesn’t throw many strikes from the full mount, and when he does, it opens up enough space for Shamrock to roll out and briefly get top position, mere seconds later, Shamrock goes for a leg lock that Horn defends, and seconds after escaping mount, Shamrock is back under Horn, but this time inside his guard.
From his back, Frank is the more active striker, mixing in punches and elbows, while Horn is content just to maintain position, only rarely throwing an ineffective punch. Perhaps tired of Shamrock’s strikes, Horn repositions, pinning Shamrock up against the fence. Frank is able to get some space and resumes striking off his back, meanwhile Horn is content to play the top position game, not mounting much in a way of offense. The next couple minutes are much of the same, Shamrock throwing elbows to the side of Horn’s heads, threatening with kimuras, looking for space to get a sweep or a way to roll out. All the while, Horn is doggedly maintaining top position, throwing an intermittent strike to the body. At around the 7 minute mark of the fight, referee Big John McCarthy stands both fighters up.
Back on the feet, Horn is suddenly more aggressive, throwing a flurry of punches and a couple well timed kicks. Following a well timed kick to the body of Shamrock, Horn closes the distances and attempts to take down Shamrock. Shamrock counters with an inside leg sweep, but ends up mounted.
From the full mount, Jeremy Horn goes for what Jeff Blatnick calls a “home run punch,” a single left hand, delivered from a postured up position, but it misses. After this, Horn goes for an occasional punch, much more regularly than before, but none are entirely effective. He remains content to keep top position and it seems to be working. While the earlier parts of the fight are mostly characterized by Shamrock striking off of his back and looking for ways to creates space, Frank seems happy to just hold on to Horn from the bottom now. After about a minute of doing next to nothing, Shamrock bridges, rolls and hits an exceptional escape from mount.
For the first time in the fight, Frank Shamrock has more than a few seconds in top position, this time in Horn’s full guard. Shamrock lands some strikes, but Horn, in a reversal of roles, is the more active striker from the bottom. After a particularly heavy elbow shot to the top of Shamrock’s head, Frank sits back from an ankle lock, Horn counters with an ankle lock attempt of his own, the two men scramble for a bit and both end up back on their feet.
Back on their feet, the crowd roars. The two exchange some inconsequential strikes before Horn shoots in lazily on Shamrock’s legs. Frank grabs a guillotine and falls to his back, but Horn is able to spin to the side and end up out of the choke and in an advantageous position for a brief second before Shamrock bridges over into side mount. Shamrock still has a hold of Horn’s head and attempts to finish the choke from the mount, but Horn pops his head out and regains guard. Mike Goldberg compares Horn to Gumby, and thus Horn’s nickname of some 20 years is born.
Shamrock is still working from Horn’s guard. Shamrock lands a few punches, but Horn is doing a good job of keeping Frank’s body trapped. Frank rolls for a heel hook and starts off a fun exchange of scrambles with each fighter going for various based leg submissions until Shamrock ends up in a modified knee-on-belly position and lands some of the heaviest blows of the fight.
Uncomfortable with such a tenuous position, Frank decides to stand up. Frank is swinging for the fences now, first with a right and then a left. Sensing the pressure, Horn shoots for a takedown, but Shamrock sprawls on top. Horn still has hold of a single-leg, and while Shamrock peppers his ribs with shots, Horn finished the takedown and ends up on top. Horn transitions to half guard before Shamrock threatens with another Kimura, Horn uses the opening to scramble and eventually end up in full mount.
Even in full mount, Horn isn’t interested in doing much of anything, just holding position. Big John realizes this and stands both fighters up. Back on the feet, Horn flashed a highkick that Shamrock blocks, but this portion of the striking belongs mostly to Shamrock. Horn, decides to take the fight back to the ground and shoots for a single-leg. Shamrock defends the shot, but Horn rolls with it and ends up in side mount.
With roughly 20 seconds left in the fight, Horn lands his best strikes of the fights, some knees to the head and body of Shamrock. Horn lands one more, less effective knee, and the horn sounds, ending the 15 minute round.
Today, a fight like this would, hopefully anyway, get scored for Shamrock. He did the most to win the round, but in 1998 it was a different case. Horn spent much of the fight in top position, controlling the fight, and so it seemed likely that he was up on the scorecards, if there were scorecards. At this time, fights were judged on their entirety, when it was over, you just held up a card of who you thought won. Dave Meltzer, self proclaimed best friend of Frank Shamrock, along with about 13 other best friends, was in the building the night of the fight. He remembers seeing Bob Meyrowitz, the owner of the UFC at the time, steaming at ringside, loudly complaining in full earshot of the judges that you couldn’t beat a champion in this way, so at the very least UFC management was pretty sure that Horn was winning.
The first overtime starts, and the fighters circle, throwing sparse strikes, before Shamrock attempts a big knee, but Horn sees it coming and shoots for a takedown. Horn grabs a single-leg and pushes Shamrock up against the fence. Shamrock is fighting the takedown and throwing elbows to Horn’s kidney region. Horn is really going for the takedown, and in perhaps the most 1998 thing in this entire fight, Shamrock grabs two fistfuls of the fence to fight off the takedown, and it is perfectly legal.
Horn eventually pulls Shamrock off the fence and grabs his back from a standing position, he attempts to drag Shamrock down to the ground, but leaves his leg hanging out for Shamrock to grab. Shamrock grabs a kneebar and submits Jeremy Horn at 16:28.
Shamrock is visibly relived at having dispatched such a tough challenger, while the crowd shows their appreciation for his opponent by chanting “Horn.” In the post-fight interview Shamrock says that he watched Horn’s tape, and he didn’t see anything like what Horn showed tonight, perhaps lending some credence to the theory that Perretti simply underestimate Horn. Nevertheless, the fight ends with Shamrock on top, having dispatched a tough challenger in what, at the time, was perhaps the best fight anyone had ever seen.
The strategy, the scrambles, the drama, the finish, they all combine to make this fight exceptional, especially given the time period. This is absolute state-of-the-art stuff. It stands head and shoulders above all of the other fights before it, not as a moment, on this same card, right before this fight actually, Pete Williams headkicked Mark Coleman into the annals of history, but as a fight, Shamrock/Horn was peerless. Williams/Coleman will live forever as a gif, and so we can forget that Mark Coleman spends a good chunk of that fight with his hands on his knees sucking wind. And because Shamrock/Horn doesn’t have that moment, that singular defining sequence, because it isn’t even really on a real UFC card, it doesn’t have the same staying power. But, that doesn’t mean that we can forget it. Up until this point, there had been incredible moments, but never had there been a fight that combined this kind of skill, this kind of action, this kind of story. That’s why Shamrock/Horn matters, that’s why you should seek it out, because no one is going to do anything to memorialize it in any meaningful kind of way if you don’t go watch it, and remember it. This isn’t a fight for highlight reels and compilations, it is self-contained, where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. A fight like this should be remembered because it changed the game, even if nobody realized it.