Remembering Shawn Tompkins — Kenny Rice


–Kenny Rice
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His smile was electric, his grip was crushingly strong if he wanted it to be, and the aura around him was filled with positive energy. If you ever had the privilege of meeting Shawn Tompkins, you already know this.

But what I learned about my friend in the last six months brought an even better understanding as to why he was one of the top coaches in MMA. It had nothing to do with watching one of his fighters in action or being in his Tapout gym. It was meeting a tattoo artist and country rock guitar player that offered insight as to how he was so successful dealing with people, essential for a coach of any sport.

Waiting for the arena doors to open in Louisville for UFC Live in March, I saw Shawn and his wife Emilie on the plaza outside the venue talking with another couple. He introduced me to Tommy Ray Cornett, owner of Bleed Blue Tattoo in Lexington, Kentucky. Within minutes Shawn explained the intricacies of the ink that made Cornett one of the best in the country. He had seen it on a fighter years earlier and asked who did it, got in touch with Cornett and had been regularly flying from Las Vegas to Lexington when another tattoo was warranted. They had struck up a great friendship and Shawn had come in earlier in the week for an addition to his sculpted arm and to take time to tour some of the famous horse farms.

He was always curious, not only about another way to set up a punch but about the life people lead, what was their world like, how did they get so good to make a career out of something special.

Two policemen friends had seen me talking to Shawn and asked to meet him. Both are  MMA fans, walking around at a muscular 250 pounds or so, obviously they can handle any situation. As usual Shawn with his infectious personality had them talking about their training for work and invited them to come by the gym when they were in Vegas. Always wanting to learn as well as teach.

It is surreal now given his untimely departure and the uncertainty at this writing as to the cause, but just five days ago on a plane I was having a conversation about Shawn with two of my friends, Eddie Montgomery of the award winning, multi-million selling band Montgomery Gentry and his guitar player Bo Garrett.

Garrett from the eastern Kentucky town of Prestonsburg, met Shawn from the slightly larger town of Tillsonburg, Ontario during a tattoo session at Cornett’s Bleed Blue. When Shawn found out it was Garrett’s hot licks he had heard on several Montgomery Gentry hits, he told him that growing up in Canada he had an appreciation for country music mixed in with rock, he was a fan of the group. And typical of Shawn, he wanted to talk music, find out about the chemistry needed of a successful band. Shawn had planned on coming to a music festival they are headlining next month.

I had relayed this chance meeting with producer Bo Vongsakoun in the studio before our last Inside MMA. I wanted to cover Shawn at the event to show his personable, interesting side beyond the gym. I wasn’t really surprised by Shawn and his seeking out a great tattoo artist or digging some Southern rockers because he was always a fascinating man who was fascinated with knowing something about you.

I learned this when we first met in our great friend Bas Rutten’s gym near Los Angeles in 2006 during the inaugural International Fight League season, Shawn was Bas’ assistant coach for the Anacondas team. He was giving of his time in detailing the strengths and weaknesses of the fighters for broadcast background and then wanted to know my sports background.

When he later took over as head coach of the Anacondas, I remember reading a terribly ill informed web story about Shawn being 0-4 in his professional fighting career. Obviously from a writer with limited information and awareness of great coaches. If the criteria for excelling as a coach was a direct correlation to a great personal career, then Ted Williams should have been one of the top baseball managers ever not Tommy Lasorda and Larry Bird should have been a championship coach not Pat Riley.

Shawn possessed everything necessary for being a great coach. From the experience of failing he understood the focus needed to overcome deficiencies for a fighter. From not having many of the natural gifts required of great fighters he valued the work ethic required to overcome it. From not being a main event fighter himself, being overlooked in the gym, he took extra time with those non-stars to learn about their needs. He was like almost every great coach or manager, a man who became successful by being a student not just of the sport but of life. What might work in one profession just might also work in the cage in terms of preparation, mental toughness, discipline. He had done wonders in helping launch careers and was moving toward veteran fighters, title shots, career establishing moments. He was just moving into his prime. .

And he never quit studying from working under legends Bas and Randy Couture to friendships with a tattoo parlor owner, a guitar player and a sportscaster crossing over to MMA, Shawn Tompkins had a genuine appreciation for learning about people and sharing stories about life lessons.

At 37 years old, there was so much more to glean about making his fighters better; so much more to share with others not just about MMA; so much more fun to have and places to see. Because with Shawn there was so much more than just being one of the top instructors in his profession.

Watch Inside MMA this Friday at 9PM ET as we remember a driving force in the MMA community, Shawn Tompkins.

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