Thursday, March 29, 2007

Shamrock's Lions get first real test in IFL

When the International Fight League announced they were adding a Nevada-based team, the Lions, to be coached by Ken Shamrock, no one knew quite what to expect. Shamrock's Lion's Den was one of the first true teams in the sport of mixed martial arts, but his portrayal on Spike TV's The Ultimate Fighter made him out to be a uninterested, if not altogether incompetent, coach.

But Ken Shamrock has no problem pointing out the difference between perception and reality, particularly when that perception is based on a reality TV show.

"People always come up to me now and say, 'They portrayed you in such a bad light on that show,'" Shamrock said. "That's always how they phrase it. 'They portrayed you that way.' I guess that means people really know what I'm like. They wouldn't say that if they thought that was really me."

Shamrock is also quick to point out that it wasn't so long ago that his Lion's Den produced some of the best fighters in the world, with major contenders like Jerry Bohlander and Guy Mezger coming out of his academy.

Now Shamrock has a chance to prove he can still produce top talent when his Lions face the defending IFL champion Silverbacks in Moline, Ill., on April 7.

The Silverbacks are coming off a close 3-2 loss to the undefeated L.A. Anacondas in February, but as long as they wear the championship rings on their fingers, they have to be considered the team to beat. Heavyweight Ben Rothwell has been unstoppable for Pat Miletich's squad, and welterweight Rory Markham returns to action after an eye injury kept him out of the last event.

Without question, this should be the toughest test yet for Shamrock's Lions. Beating the San Jose Razorclaws was one thing, but now that the 'Claws are firmly at the bottom of the pile after being swept by the Anacondas, that win looks even less impressive.

The only way for Shamrock to prove his boys are legitimate contenders is to go into the Silverbacks' home territory and win in the ring. It won't be easy, especially considering that Rothwell and the bunch have their backs against the wall. After their 0-1 start, a loss here virtually eliminates them from playoff contention.

A key fighter for the Lions in Moline will be 155-pounder John Gunderson. One of the few fighters to make the team as a result of his strong performance at the open tryouts in 2006, Gunderson looks to be the brightest young star on Shamrock's roster.

After his first match with the Lions -- a first-round submission victory over Josh Odom -- Gunderson moved his family to Susanville, Calif., Shamrock's hometown. He says that training full time with Shamrock has vastly improved his conditioning and mental readiness for a bout, which he'll likely need when he steps against top lightweight Bart Palaszewski.

"Ken's a great coach," Gunderson said. "You see him on TV and think he's one of these guys who walks around with a chip on his shoulder, but he's not like that at all."

If Gunderson can get the Lions a win in the lightweight class, it could shift the pressure to light heavyweight Vernon "Tiger" White, who is taking on former Ultimate Fighter contestant Sam Hoger.

Hoger is a late replacement for the Mike Ciesnolevicz, who is recovering from a broken nose suffered in his last bout. White is one of the most experienced MMA fighters around, with over 50 professional fights dating back to 1993. Shamrock has said he hopes White can fill a leadership role both in the ring and out. His first chance will be against Hoger, who is no easy mark.

Some might think the Silverbacks have more motivation in this match than Lions, with a loss eliminating the defending champs as playoff contenders. But Shamrock isn't one to back down from a challenge, and in the eyes of many he has yet to prove himself as a coach.

A win over the defending champs in their hometown might finally put those criticisms to rest.

No comments: