The following is an article by Brian Piepenbrink:
"Tito, BJ, Vanderlei, Frank, you don't need their full names to instantly recognize these superstars of mixed martial arts. Wouldn't it be interesting, however, to see what these warriors were like in the very beginning, before they even got paid a nickel to throw a punch or a kick. "Rookie Card" is a new series of articles aimed at introducing Sherdog readers to some of the future fighters of MMA as they take their first steps in professional fighting. This time around we visit Lions Den San Diego as Ken and the boys hold one of their infamous tryouts.
May 25th 2000. A warm Saturday morning at the San Diego Martial Arts Arena. I noticed that the doors were closed for business as I approached the huge structure that has served as a morning training facility for many of the Den's fighters. A grinning Rick Slaton, a Den training partner, allowed me entrance as I followed his line of sight to gaze upon a pasty white, slightly pudgy Englishman who was warming himself up with short jogs and stretches. Of course at the time I only assumed he was English, being that a man from Britain had been inquiring about Lions Den tryouts on MMA forums and there was no one else who looked to be getting ready. Now at this point I felt that I was wasting my time. I had been to LD tryouts before and there was no way this flabby Brit was going to make it past the first two exercises let alone the entire day. Just when I was thinking that I may leave the man himself, Ken Shamrock, shows up and the fun begins.
Before we get into the tryout itself, let me give you the context surrounding the day's events. First of all, when reading this you may very well begin to hate Ken and his Lions Den fighters. You see Ken pretty much allows his boys to verbally abuse the participants while the tryouts take place. Let me say this, it's nothing personal and Ken and crew all hang out with every tryout participant and sometimes even go out on the town with the guys after the tryouts are completed. It doesn't matter if you make it or not you will be treated with absolute respect when it's all over. It's nothing that any Marine hasn't been through. Although the tryouts test your cardio and fighting ability the main test is to your willpower. Vernon, Galindo, Shipp they all try to get the prospects to quit and the vast majority of them do. When you think about it this strategy makes sense. I mean you could be the perfect athlete with tons of fighting skill and still find it hard to get up at 5am and run especially when you're fighting someone you think is a scrub for a payday $300. You really have to "want" to be a fighter, and if you don't why should any decent trainer invest time and money into you? The Lions Den tryouts determine how much you want it, and to start with it's $200 in cash up front.
The other thing I want to mention is that there are at lest three versions of the Lions Den tryout that I know of. One that includes a 50 yard hill that goes straight up where… well that's a story for another day. One that Ken rarely does anymore has prospects actually fighting Lions Den members. This almost happened this time since English was thought to be the only turnout. However, I could see Ken's hesitation at letting a sadistic Tony Galindo have his way with a non-pro. And there is the last version of the tryouts that is reserved for very small groups. It is this version that I got to witness that day. By the way, of all the different variations I know of this by far is the easiest tryout the Den offers.
English, whose real name is Henry stated that he was ready to begin. Ken nodded and Tony simply stated "200 jumping-jacks, go". Henry had a hard time with the jumping-jacks and looked as if he had never done them before. Vernon and Tony even had to give instruction on how to properly perform one. At number 90 Henry looked on the verge of collapse. "You've got to be kidding me" I thought as I began to put my camera away and search for my sunglasses. Surprisingly Henry managed to squeak his way to 200. As soon as he finished a Ford Ranger pulled up and a latecomer, John, comes running into the gym. John apologizes for being late and Ken allows him to take part. Now John is a friend of Ben Thomson, a Lions Den member who passed the tryouts last year. Unlike Henry, John looked to be in incredible shape and with his inside knowledge of Den tryouts I was sure he would last longer than our boy from Great Britain. Ken tells John to pay up, unfortunately John was so nervous that he locked his keys and money in his truck. Ken calls AAA and allows John to start anyway.
The next routine for Henry is to run in place for ten minutes. He was supposed to do a more complex exercise but he didn't seem to comprehend it. Already gassing Henry begins his run. Meanwhile John is cruising through his 200 jumping-jacks. Henry again surprises everyone by completing his stationary run. Only getting a minute rest Henry must now do 200 squat-thrusts. At this point Henry begins to really struggle. Henry's arms and legs shake like those of a fixless junkie. "He's not going to make it to 30" I tell Shipp. Shipp just shakes his head. "Faster!" Vernon yells at Henry. "Are you listening to me? Do they speak English where you come?". This of course brings a round of laughter throughout the gym. Tony Galindo then makes some comment about how the "Brilliant" English sent their criminals to a country full of sunshine and warmth while they stayed in a rainy, crappy, smaller country. Galindo then stares at John as if to dare him to laugh. Despite the insults against his homeland, or perhaps because of them Henry slowly but surely bangs out all 200 squat-thrusts.
Another minute rest and Henry is off to his next exercise. Henry must now carry another man on his back for five minutes without dropping him or stopping. John is simply doing everything Henry did but faster. Although Henry almost dropped his man on three occasions he manages to hold on for the entire five minutes. At this point I am begin to silently root for the Englishman. I mean he's already gone further than I would have but more importantly he's defying his own body. Henry should have passed out a long time ago. Henry's muscles should be burnt to the level of smoking due to the lactic acid. Yet for some reason he just will not quit. He may move at the rate of an inch per second but he will not quit.
John is blazing through the routines. He looks tired but never in any danger of quitting. Although the Den members don't insult his country or his accent they are extra hard on him due to the fact that he knows a Den member. It appears that the Lions Den fighters expect more of him. John's asset seems to have become a liability as the Den guys threaten to cut him at the slightest hint of him slowing down.
The chest-sweep. One of the most draining calisthenic exercises. It combines the toe-touch, the shoot and a pushup all in one rep. Henry must now do 100 of them. Logic states that he's not going to come anywhere close, but I've given up on betting against this guy.
Henry makes it to 20 but is struggling. In a rare act of compassion (something that I've never witnessed at a Lions Den tryout) the Den members allow Henry to "glide" through the pushup portion of the exercise. Of course this "compassion" could easily be mistaken for torture considering that Henry still must complete 80 reps of an extremely hard routine. But being the trooper that he is, he does them..
To be fair Ken allows John to do his chest sweeps in the same manner. John is quickly catching up to the exhausted Henry.
Now Henry must play the role of the wheelbarrow as another guy holds his legs. Henry must keep in constant forward motion for five minutes. I would try to describe Henry's effort but I doubt that I could do it justice. With shaking arms, and even pushing off the ground with his forehead at times Henry again barely manages to make the cut.
John gets through the wheelbarrow pretty well. The difference between John and Henry is that John seems to be able to regain much of his endurance during his minute rest between routines.
"200 pushups?" I said to Shipp. "Yep" was all I got in return. You would think that the exercises would get a little less intensive as the day went on but I guess that wouldn't be a LD tryout would it? It takes what seems like a week but Henry actually pulls off 200 pushups as does John.
No pushup routine would be considered American if you don't do 200 sit-ups right afterwards. You know, the ones where you come all the way up. Not those sissy crunches. After all we're not trying to build your abs, we're trying to get you to quit. Despite how everything had gone up until this point, the sit-ups seem to be one of Henry's strongest exercises. Although Henry finishes his set first, John has closed the time gap considerably and it is almost as if the two had started the tryout at about the same time.
In typical Lions Den fashion the exercise portion of the tryout ends with squats. 500 squats. Now some of you maybe thinking that with all the reps these guys have to do that the Den must allow them to do half-ass versions of these exercises. Other than the alterations to the chest-sweep, No. As a matter of fact while doing the squats both sets of knuckles on the back of the hand must scrape the mat. If they don't then that squat don't mean squat.
AAA has come and gone and Ken tells John to go get his money. John returns from his truck with $200 in one dollar bills. This of course brings remarks about him working at a gay strip club, followed by some "Full Monte" jokes aimed at Henry who is already struggling to make it to squat 50.
John begins his squats at a very fast pace. Perhaps too fast as his left leg begins to cramp up. Tony Galindo seeing that John's leg is hurt seizes the opportunity to torture him further by forcing him to do 25 straight at an extremely hard count. By repeating this another two times Galindo manages to get John to pass Henry up. John finishes his squats and falls to the ground. Henry finishes awhile later but he does finish. Now on to the fighting.
The fighting portion of the tryout is split into two rounds. The first being kickboxing for five minutes and the second being submission grappling with punches on the ground for ten minutes.
Both guys get a little break as the LD team fits them with boxing gloves and shin guards. However, while John has come prepared with a mouthpiece and cup, Henry doesn't have either. When Vernon looks to Ken as if to ask "what now?" Ken simply says "oh well" and then instructs Henry to keep his mouth closed and to protect his groin. Ken also tells John not to strike to the groin.
The fight begins with John exploding into action with a series of hard right hands followed by some decent leg kicks. Within the first minute of the fight Henry shows just how tired he is by barely moving in the ring. John lands blows at will with Henry only getting off the occasional jab. At one point John had Henry totally helpless against the ropes. John let up a bit and Ken told him if he let up again he'd be "done" as in go home. After that the blows came down on Henry like evil sunlight. THOOM! There's a bruised rib. KRAK! A piece of Henry's tooth goes flying. To Henry's credit he sticks it out even after a brutal knockdown from a vicious right with a minute left. When the round was over Henry had more then a few welts on his legs and of course his newly made smile. He was offered the chance to quit numerous times during the fight but he refused every one of them. Tough kid. Now if he can only survive on the ground he may just pull off the biggest fairytale ending in MMA tryout history.
Off with the boxing gloves and shin guards and on with the grappling gloves. Henry looks over to Ken and says "I don't know how to grapple". Ken politely replies "learn". The round begins and John scores a quick takedown. John feels right at home on the mat, not even hesitating to go for every opening Henry gives up. And Henry gives up a lot. In typical non-grappler, pre-UFC1 fashion Henry rolls to his stomach to avoid getting punched in the face and like a bad joke that everyone's heard but someone still manages to laugh the choke comes right on cue. Henry taps but I know that Ken doesn't allow tapping to chokes at tryouts. Ken instructs them to keep fighting and though Henry attempts to muscle his way out it's only a matter of seconds before he's face down, unconscious, drooling into his left shoulder. Vernon so kindly revives our fallen hero only to lead him back to his corner to await the word to start again. And they do start again with much the same results only this time John decides to pound Henry's face into a saliva, sweat, blood and Ouano gumbo. I found myself yelling at Henry to do something, anything, but he lacked both knowledge and gas. Ken had no choice but to stop the fight.
With a simple handshake Ken tells John "congratulations, welcome aboard". Henry stays on the canvas for a long while with his thoughts to himself.
When Henry was finally ready to talk this is what he had to say
BP: So you came all the way here from England?
BP: What made you decide to try out for the Lions Den?
HS: I got injured one day and I was messing around on the internet. Sometime last October. I was looking on Amazon [.com]. I was always a big fan of pro-wrestling and I was typing in the names of famous wrestlers. "Inside The Lions Den" came up and I bought the book. I read it in a day. Got hooked. I bought UFC5 and it basically just grew from there.
BP: You have a lot of will and determination. You made it through all of the exercises but it seems that you were not prepared for the fighting.
HS: I read a… I spoke to Tony [Galindo] a couple of months ago and I presumed it was all based on running. That's the first time I've ever done squats in my life. And I uh…. What was the question again?
BP: It didn't seem like you were prepared for the actual fighting.
HS: I only got into America on Thursday. I'm just knackered. My legs feel like there's nothing there. [becoming very emotional]. BP: Do you have any martial arts experience?
HS: Just boxing.
BP: So how do you feel right now?
HS: I feel honored to be able to do it, but obviously I'm not happy with my performance.
BP: Are you going to try out again?
HS: Oh yeah!
BP: You almost made it. You just need to get that last ten minutes down [laughs].
HS: In some ways it's like an expensive dress rehearsal. Perhaps it's better for me that I fail now than go in and be playing catch-up all through my training. Now I can go back and spend three months getting back to where I was before I got injured and then come back a better person. Hopefully in the long run I can look back on this and take some good from this.
BP: Well you have a lot of heart and mentally I think you have what it takes.
HS: Well you know if you want something badly you're always prepared to take knockbacks anyway. The only thing is that grappling where I come from… there's a lot of people who have black belts but it looks like they bought them off mail order. There's not that many qualified instructors out there. So I'm going to get back to the best shape I was before I got injured.
BP: Well thanks a lot Henry.
HS: Thanks for your time. You got any tips?
BP: [laughs] Umm… Cardio, learn some grappling. You almost made it.
HS: Thanks. Your Sherdog articles are the best by the way.
BP: Thanks [laughing].