Jerry Bohlander is one of the original members of the infamous Lions Den camp, the first official UFC Lightweight Champion, and one of the fighters who inspired my involvement with MMA.
I was fortunate enough to get a chance to correspond with Jerry on a number of topics, such as training at "The Den", what he thinks of the evolution of the UFC and MMA, and what it was like being coached by Ken and Frank Shamrock. Jerry also discusses his war with Scott Ferrozzo, which is still one of my all-time favorite fights.Since you were such a prominent figure in MMA during a unique time in the sport’s youth, how do you feel about what the sport has evolved into today?
"I think the growth is great. The potential for a fighter to make a great living is there. I like the fact that there are so many quality clubs right now that offer a variety of techniques, skills, and styles. Of course, just about every McDojo out there offers some kind of MMA class with an expert instructor. Even in the little town that I live in there is a guy claiming to have trained extensively with Ken and frank (Shamrock). By extensively he is referring to the 1 time a week he used to drive out to the Lodi Lions Den back when we used to train there. Anyway, I’m going to get off of my high horse and tell you that I appreciate where the sport is going. It offers a lot for the guy or girl that is willing to put in the time and effort to excel."
You are now a full-time police officer with an entirely different set of goals and responsibilities. Do you miss being an MMA fighter, and have you ever thought about making a comeback? Do you still train?
"Yes, Yes, and Yes. I loved the competition and the challenge of training and competing. What I wouldn’t give to be 20 years old again. I have thought about making a comeback numerous times, but I have a good job with good benefits. I went years without health insurance and sustained more than my share of injuries without a way to pay for treatment. Ill probably never fight again, but you never know; although the clock is ticking.
"I still train and run a gym part time. Sometimes I train more sometimes less. Depends on how my body is feeling. I have a few students that compete in grappling and some of the smaller fights, but for the most part my students train recreationally."
You’ve stated in past interviews that 9/11 was the big trigger that sent you into a career in law enforcement. Explain the emotions that came over you as a result of 9/11 and how that lead you to become a police officer.
"Shock, anger, sickness, etc. I actually thought about enlisting in the military for a short time, but changed my mind for some reason. I thought about it for a while, but realized or felt I might be able to make some kind of difference at home after talking with some friends in law enforcement."
I’m especially honored to do this interview because one of my all-time favorite fights is your match with Scott Ferrozzo back at UFC 8 in ’96. Royce Gracie, with his impressive application of BJJ, had already changed the way we looked at a real fight and how important technique is (especially compared to size and strength). For as legendary as Royce’s performances were, it had a greater impact on me when you beat Ferrozzo, because it seemed to send the message that one didn’t have to be Brazilian or belong to a family that focused on martial arts as a way of life to effectively implement different styles of fighting."Watching Ken and Royce made me a fan."
Walk us through your fight with Scott Ferrozzo: how you felt going into the match with a giant caveman who outweighed you by well over 100 pounds, what kind of training you were doing at the Den to prepare for him, and how the fight eventually unfolded with you making an amazing comeback and securing the choke?
"I was about 180, but I listed my weight as 200. I always wanted to be one of the big guys. I think he was 330 at the time. Surprisingly enough, I was calm. I was confident in my ability, training, and training partners. Long before I started training I’d beaten some pretty big guys in street fights, but not that big. I watched a number of UFC’s and other off brand fights in which smaller guys took out their much larger opponents (Hackney/Yarborough, Ruas/ Varlens, Oleg/Tank, etc.).
I can remember a few moments of frustration when Ferrozo had me pinned against the fence and I couldn’t seem to move, but those quickly passed. If you remember, I had a pretty good line of communication with my corner man, Frank during the fight. As the fight progressed, I started finding a few openings and tried to attack them. I could feel him fading a little as time went by. None of his punches fazed me. The biggest problem was the heat and humidity. As the pinned me on the ground and the cage, the heat and humidity caused some problems. At the end, after he threw me, my training and instinct kicked in. I kind of rode the wave, kneed him as he tried to reestablish his advantage, and sunk the choke. When he went down, I was overjoyed. It was great. I really enjoyed that moment. I’m pretty sure that every fighter there was affected by the heat and humidity. That arena wasn’t air conditioned. It was tough, but a great experience.
I just wish Gary had a tougher fight. My first fight was what, 9 and a half minutes against a much larger opponent and his was 13 seconds against a small guy. Whatever, I think I’ve complained too much. The Ferrozo fight was a tough fight, but I wouldn’t change one second of it. I will carry the memories with me forever."
Another thing that stands out to me about UFC 8 is that it seemed to set the precedent that cross-training was the future. Because you also had a solid stand-up game in addition to your submission wrestling, I’ve always considered you one of the first true American “hybrid” fighters, along with Don Frye, who also debuted at UFC 8. What can you tell me about your decision to start training NHB after being a wrestler, and how you eventually ended up with the Lions Den under Ken Shamrock?
"I wrestled as a kid and really enjoyed it, but never really dedicated myself to the sport. I was decent, but just didn’t have that drive. I had a pretty bad temper as a kid and young man which led me to way too many street fights. Watching the UFC had both positive and negative impact on me. I probably started fighting more, but I also told myself that I could do that (Fight in the UFC). I started practicing with a couple of friends. I found out that Ken’s gym was only about an hour away. After some research, I found Bob Shamrock’s phone number and called. He told me that they had a “Self Defense” class a couple days a week as well as the fighter training. I drove down there for the self defense class and jumped in.
They had a little in class tournament for the students which I ended up winning the first day that I trained. I caught Ken’s best student (not a fighter) in a rear naked choke in the finals after wearing him out. I used my wrestling experience and wore him out while avoiding submissions before the sub. Afterwards, Ken took me to the side and asked if I wanted to fight pro. I told him that I did, but I was working full time while supporting my handicapped mother and younger sisters. He told me that they would have a tryout in 3 months if I wanted in. I trained for those 3 months and got in great shape. I tried out and passed. It was tough, but it wasn’t too hard. Ken offered to loan me some money to cover my family’s bills while I got on my feet. How could I pass? I took him up on the offer and the rest was history.
Ken was great, he barely knew me, but saw something in me and took a chance. I couldn’t have done it any other way. It took me a year and a half to repay him. He never asked for payments, he just waited until he thought I was ready. I repaid him after UFC 12. Ken helped out so many guys in that way. I probably never would have had the chance to fight without his offer."
The shootfighters of the Lions Den was the first American team to incorporate all aspects of fighting into their training at the top echelon of MMA. How was this accomplished at a time when there was no blueprint to follow? What kind of coaches and/or trainers were brought in to accommodate the wide range of fighting styles?
"Mainly, it was just us. Sometimes Pancrase fighters would come and train for a time, guys like Funaki and Kunioku. Maurice Smith spent a considerable amount of time with us. Guy Mezger and Tra Telligman were there. Mikey came in with some serious boxing and wrestling skills. We spent so many hours in the gym that we developed a lot of our skills on our own. We forged a lot of it in competition, not just in the cage or ring, but competition with one another.
We busted our asses and just came up with stuff. We didn’t have some high dollar coaches come in and train us, it was just the Lions Den members pushing one another that took us to that level. We trained hard. I remember times when our goal was to make every effort to train so hard that we would just die on the mat. It wasn’t just Ken pushing us, we would literally push ourselves to the point of getting sick. We actually believed that it would be an honor to train so hard that we would just, die. Ken didn’t torture us. We did that ourselves. He encouraged us, but we pushed ourselves to the next level.
Ken was a very busy guy, we spent a lot of time designing our own training sessions. It wasn’t just Frank, as he would have you believe. We all put the time and effort into the training and instructing. We all bounced ideas off of one another and came up with the style and techniques that we used in the cage and ring."After competing in MMA with no weight classes, you took advantage of the new lightweight restriction (under 200 lbs.) and won the UFC’s first lightweight tournament at UFC 12. You were considered one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world at that time. How did that accomplishment feel then, and how does it feel now that both you and the UFC have changed so much?
"It felt great. That was an exciting moment. I have mixed emotions about the changes in the UFC and myself. As I mentioned before, the popularity of the sport has some great benefits, but I miss watching some of the tournament style fights. It’s probably just nostalgia. It was a different game back then. Fighters had to have some intestinal fortitude, not just technique and skill. I can appreciate the old and new, both have there strong and weak points. As far as changes in me, I don’t know, I don’t really think about it. Too much effort."
Tell me what you feel was the biggest and best win of your career, and also the most disappointing?
"Biggest win: Kevin Jackson. I watched him win the Olympics. He was one of my heroes. To fight him was a great honor and to win was unforgettable. Loss- all of them. I can make excuses for all 4 of my losses, but why? In the end the winners were the better men that day."
Alright, moving on to the Lions Den; the pure brutality of the Den’s try-outs have become legendary. Do you have any stories to share about your participation in these initiations, and/or any stories about the tryouts?
"Most of those stories are like urban myth. Don’t get me wrong, the tryout was hard, but far from impossible. We had a few guys that passed it that would never be good candidates for a pro fight. You had to be in shape and have a great deal of determination. I wish I could give you a good story, but most of them are the type that you would have had to experience in person."I would love to hear some memories you have of the “behind the scenes” at the Lions Den. What can you tell me about the relationship back then between Ken and his brother Frank? They both obviously have a fiercely competitive nature and were even rumored to be open to fighting each other in the recent past—did they get along for the most part, or were there many “heated moments” between the two?
"The only heated moments had Frank wisely backing down. Training was tough, Ken pushed us hard and always dominated. It’s just the way it was. There was no 'fiercely competitive nature' between Ken and Frank in the gym. Ken was the top dog and Frank knew it, we all did. It didn’t mean that we didn’t try to out perform Ken in the gym, it just didn’t happen."
Who were you closer with—Ken or Frank—and why?
"I would have to say Frank. Ken was more like a father figure, not a buddy. At one point in time we (Frank and I) were very close friends. All of us living in the fighter house were, well at least the established ones. The new guys had to earn their keep. I though we were like brothers, but then he worked a deal for the UFC belt behind Guy’s and my back. After that, I was closer to Ken. I and many others felt that we (Guy and I) earned a shot at the belt, but apparently Frank had other ideas. Heck, there was even talk of a fight between Guy and me, but the fight was in Japan and the UFC wanted a known fighter in Japan, so enter Frank."Do you have any interesting stories to share from your early UFC days, either with some of the fighters participating back then, or some of the people associated with sport?
"With the former UFC owners, SEG it was tough. They locked you into long term exclusive contracts and didn’t offer you many fights. They weren’t paying to well so it was hard to make a profit. I probably missed out on some pretty good matches due to their exclusivity contracts. I literally had to strong arm them into allowing me to fight Bustamante, not that it turned out so great for me."
Who or what inspired you to become a fighter?
"Ken and Royce are 'the who.' After their second fight, which I know a lot of people found boring, I preferred Ken’s style. I saw a lot of strategy in that fight that most probably don’t appreciate. A lot of people don’t realize that Ken was training for a fight that might last 3 hours, but they changed the time limit last minute. Months of training for that kind of fight and then they changed it to 30 minutes. That’s hard to compensate for in a short period of time. I’m not sure 'what' did. I liked competition and had a tendency to get in fights. I thought that I could be successful and wanted to test myself."
Do you still follow MMA? If so, who are some of the fighters you respect and/or enjoy watching?
Yes. Fedor. The calm, technique and ability, his personality and beliefs.
Mousasi -for the same reasons.
Eddie Alvarez- puts on some great fights. One of my favorite fighters to watch.
Joaquim Hansen- tough guy with great technique.
Anderson- he is such a phenomenal technician.
Machida- he keeps everyone guessing. Another great technician.
Jon Jones- athleticism and potential.
Dan Henderson- warrior defined.
Nick Diaz- he might be cocky, but that guy backs it up. He FIGHTS every time. No excuses, just fights.
Jeremiah Metcalf- lesser known fighter, but he is damn good.
Ernesto Hoost- he’s mister perfect. I love watching his old fights.
Peter Aerts- that guy will always be dangerous.
Daniel Ghita- every punch and kick he throws looks like it could kill a man.
Sergie Lashchenko- if you know what he has done in a short period of time you would understand.
There are a lot more, those are just a few off the top of my head. I could go on and on. I respect most athletes that step into the cage or ring. There are a few exceptions, but my hat is off to those guys and gals."