Every fighter has a story to share, but few can offer a tale quite as crazy as Shem Rock’s.
The 29-year-old English lightweight is all set to make his promotional debut for Oktagon MMA this weekend at Oktagon 42, but his path to the cage is unlike anything we’ve heard before.
Long before he discovered martial arts, Rock found himself enamored by the status symbols of people riding the streets of his hometown. But, unbeknown to him at the time, the flashy cars, expensive clothes and sparkly jewelry weren’t earned through hard work, as he explained in a feature interview for Oktagon MMA.
“Growing up on council estates, there’s not many positive role models,” he said.
“I’m being surrounded by people who were committing crime – criminals who have got the big car, but didn’t ever work a day in their life. They’ve got the money, the jewelry.
“When you’re young, you don’t truly understand what’s going on. You just see people with nice things and go, ‘I want that.’ So I would always look up to them, and I wanted to be like them. I think that’s where it started.”
What started was a life of dealing marijuana on his council estate, earning money and enjoying life with a little disposable income. Comparing his lot to that of his teachers, he quickly grew disillusioned with education.
“I’m coming to school and I’m thinking, ‘What do I need school for? I’m already making money,’” he said.
“My school teacher pulls up to school in a (Volkswagen) Polo, and I’m thinking, ‘He hasn’t got no money. I’m making more money than he is, and he’s teaching school. Why do I need to listen to him?’
“That was kind of my mentality at that point. ‘I don’t need this. School’s for chumps. School’s for people who go and work in McDonald’s and so on.’”
Rock eventually left school and went to college, where he studied horticulture. He also stopped selling drugs as he attempted to get his life back on track.
“I wanted to do it for my mum more than anything, because I know she didn’t want to see me end up like the rest of my family, who maybe went down the wrong path, like my dad and whatever,” he said.
“I stopped selling weed, I’m getting paid by the government. I’m on welfare, because I’m studying.”
But, just as Rock was trying to settle down, his past came back to haunt him. The police visited his school and accused him of a string of crimes from his past. It cost him his chance at college, and his opportunity to rebuild his life.
“I’m sitting in the classroom, and the teachers are like, ‘Come outside, the principal wants to speak to you.’ And as I’ve come out the classroom, the police just jumped on me. And they’ve all twisted me up, arrested me, gone to the principal’s office and spoke to the principal and the principal’s like, ‘You can’t come here no more. We spoke to the police, and the police said that you’ve been selling Class A drugs to the students. You sell crack, you’re in a gang, you’ve got guns.’
“At that point in my life, I really did try and apply myself. I’d stopped doing everything I was doing (before) and I was going to that college. It was hard, because now I’m not making that same money. Now I’m just living off the government, and I got kicked out of that college. And then I feel like that was like a real big turning point in my life where I thought, ‘Well, if they want me to be that guy, I’ll be that guy’, and I feel that’s when I started doing everything.”
Thrown out of college and with little else to do, Rock returned to crime and made money dealing drugs once again. And, once again, the police caught up with him. This time, though, they had a different charge.
“That’s when I got the main crime that I was wanted for at the time – the aggravated burglary – which, funnily enough, was the crime that I didn’t commit,” he said
“I might have been a drug dealer. I might have been doing no good and having fights in the streets and whatever. But it was never a house robber, I was never a burglar.
“One day I get caught and I’ve been arrested and I’m walking home from the police station. It’s got to be 11 at night. As I’m walking home from the police station, the police pull me over again to stop and search me. I remember I pulled out my letter from the police to say that I’d just been bailed from the police station, and they just drove off.
“As they drove off, my phone rang. I’ve answered it, and it’s my solicitor. I’m thinking, ‘What does she want? I’ve already been bailed.’ She said, ’The police have made a mistake. They weren’t meant to bail you. They want to remand you into custody. Can you come back?’”
Rock thought quickly, and told his solicitor to inform the police it was too late for him to head back, and that he’d return to the station the next morning. But Rock never went back the following morning. Instead, he grabbed his passport and took off.
Rock embarked on a nerve-shredding journey as he took the Eurostar train to France, then flew to Dubai, then on to Bangkok, then Koh Samui. Nine months later, he relocated again, this time to Malaysia, where he would discover the lifeline that would eventually transform his life – martial arts.
“The fact I lasted nine months in Koh Samui, after then I thought, ‘I don’t think they’re coming for me. I think the coast is clear.’ That’s when I decided to go to Malaysia,” he said.
“Walking down the street in Malaysia, I see a sign that says ‘Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu’. So I thought, ‘You know what? I’m gonna try this.’”
Rock stepped onto the mats in that gym confident that he knew enough to be able to handle himself, but he soon discovered that BJJ was a different game to the street fights he’d engaged in earlier in his life.
“I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna smash everyone here,’” he recalled with a smile.
“My coach put me to roll and I’m getting absolutely battered by everyone. I’m getting choked out by women, by kids… I rolled with a 12-year-old and I just remember he was doing all these gi chokes and wrapping his lapel around me. I’m getting choked and I’m like, ‘Give me a second, give me a sec!’
“Then I remember, at the end, the coach was like, ‘Do you wanna roll?’ So I rolled with the coach and straight away he’s put me in a triangle. I didn’t even know what a triangle was. I’m like, ‘What’s this?!’”
After an ill-advised attempt to slam his coach in a bid to escape, the coach then upped his intensity and proceeded to tap Rock time after time to a succession of different holds as he humbled the young Englishman in front of the rest of the class.
“He must have tapped me out, in a five-minute roll, about 40 times!” he said.
“(I thought) ‘I don’t know what that was! I don’t know what the f**k just happened to me, but I need to learn that!” he said.
“Whatever just happened to me, I want to learn how to do that to other people!’ So, from that point, I just started going, every single day, three times a day, non-stop.”
That coach, “Professor Bruno,” became a father figure to Rock as he learned the rudimentary techniques of BJJ, then started to advance to higher-level skills. He entered local tournaments and enjoyed success on the mats. He even represented Great Britain in international competition, despite still being on the run from the UK authorities. Rock was dedicating himself, training hard, competing strongly, and he was winning. Things were starting to look up, but money was still hard to come by, so his coach suggested he made the transition to mixed martial arts.
Rock’s competitive successes continued in MMA as he turned into a surging prospect on the local scene in Malaysia. But, as his MMA career seemed to be gathering momentum, he was thrown out of his gym after repeated stories of his past got back to the owner of the gym. Not for the first time, Rock had found a positive environment, only for his past to see him cast aside. Once again, Rock was left on his own and pondering his next move.
“It was a bit heartbreaking, and now I’ve got nowhere to train” he said.
“I thought, ‘I want to go home, but I can’t. I’ve probably done all I can do in Southeast Asia. Europe is where I need to be. I need to get on shows in Europe.’
“I thought, ‘Where can I go that’s like Liverpool, but isn’t Liverpool, where the people are the same? I’m going to Dublin!’”
Rock was welcomed in by the coaches at Dublin Combat Academy, and his talent took him all the way to a title fight for the Clan Wars promotion in June 2021, but it meant going north of the border to Belfast, Northern Ireland, on UK soil. Despite the risk of being re-arrested, he made the trip, and won the title after submitting his opponent in the first round.
That win then earned him another fight as he was booked to defend his title. But it meant he had to run the gauntlet and fight in Belfast once again. This time, his family flew over to watch. It was a moment when he’d hoped to make his family proud. Instead, everything went wrong.
“I got knocked out, and then I got arrested!” he laughed.
”The Scouse police flew me straight back to Liverpool. I went from training and fighting, straight to jail. They refused to give me bail. When I went to court, they said I’ve traveled the world on fake passports, and that’s why they shouldn’t give me bail, because I’ll run. I traveled the world on my own passport and never needed to use anyone else’s – it’s not my fault they’re stupid! But it is what it is.”
Rock went on to spend six months behind bars during what he described as “the s**ttest time of my life, but it was something I had to go through to get to where I am now.”
But, after six months, his case went back to court and he was found not guilty and subsequently released. Finally a free man, Rock resolved to focus fully on his martial arts career and headed back to his home town of Liverpool, and the city’s most respected MMA gym, Next Generation, where he trained alongside the likes of Paddy Pimblett and Molly McCann under the tutelage of head coach Paul Rimmer.
“I just committed myself to the gym every day,” he said.
”I ended up winning two world titles for the gym, and now ultimately getting signed by Oktagon, and here I am!”
Since joining Next Generation, Rock claimed titles for the Contenders and Full Contact Contender promotions before getting the opportunity to compete on the European stage for fast-rising promotion Oktagon MMA.
His debut takes place this weekend in Bratislava, Slovakia, where Rock will take on Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt Arthur Lima in a 157-pound catchweight bout. Ahead of the matchup, Rock said he’s ready to put on a show with an eye-catching debut performance, before setting his sights on championship gold – in two weight classes.
“I’m gonna run through this fella April 29, first-round submission,” he said.
“I’ll take the lightweight belt, I’ll take the featherweight belt and, trust me, people are going to remember my name.”
After finally getting his chance to shine on the big stage, Rock intends to take the opportunity with both hands. But the 29-year-old’s goals aren’t limited to sporting success. He wants to leave a lasting legacy outside the cage, too.
“My biggest dream one day is to have my own place where maybe I can teach kids from unfortunate backgrounds, bring them in, teach them martial arts (and) keep them off the streets, because I know that’s what I needed,” he explained.
“When I was a kid, I was a little t**t. But I know if I had (martial arts) when I was a kid, I would have loved it. My role models were big gangbangers on the corner (of the street). But now we do have (martial arts), so now it’s our job as those people to represent this city and show that now you don’t need to do that, boys. You can make money doing this. You can better your life doing this. And ultimately, that’s my goal.”
After a life story that’s already packed with enough drama to fill a movie, Rock wants to make the next chapter his biggest, and best, one yet.
“You couldn’t have written a better ending,” he said.
“But, for me, it’s just the beginning. Oktagon’s the platform for me to showcase what I can do.”
Oktagon 42 streams live on DAZN and via Oktagon.tv