Image is Everything (And Nothing)
by Ryan Hockensmith
In MMA, image is a fickle concept. It wasn’t too long ago that Chuck Liddell was the baddest man on the planet. A few losses later, the consensus is he needs to retire—like, yesterday.
So imagine Sean Sherk’s image in July, 2007. He’d just starred in a UFC Countdown show on Spike, and followed that up with a commanding title defense against top challenger Hermes Franca.
Then he flunked a steroid test. His image as one of the hardest, most dedicated gym rats in the business took an enormous hit. Probably from the juice, fans said.
Sherk pushed back hard. He appealed the suspension and swore he didn’t take any kind of performance-enhancing drugs. He fought and fought and fought—and the California Athletic Commission actually caved a little. His suspension was reduced to six months, and Sherk started fighting again. “I had to get back out there and remind fans who I am,” Sherk says.
Last May he lost to B.J. Penn trying to get his lightweight title back, but followed up with a solid unanimous decision win against Tyson Griffin at UFC 90 in October. For the Griffin war, Sherk won Fight of the Night honors.
Next, he’ll face Frankie Edgar at UFC 98 on May 23. If he wins, he’s right back in the thick of the 155-pound title hunt. If he loses, he’s still a solid contender, with a 33-4-1 career record, who will continue making a good living as a UFC fighter.
But win, lose or draw, that one flunked drug test—which he still wants to eventually clear from his record—haunts Sherk. On the way to the cage for the Griffin fight, Sherk heard boos and steroid chants. “I care about peoples’ perceptions of me,” Sherk says. “I really do. I didn’t take steroids. I know it’s hard to believe, but I didn’t. Unfortunately, some people will only ever hear my name and think about that one drug test.”
How much does Sherk care? Well, when Round 5, a startup MMA figurine manufacturer, approached him about making a “Muscle Shark” toy of Sherk, he took it seriously. He didn’t want it to be ridiculously ripped, for obvious reasons. He wanted his tattoos to be perfectly replicated on the toy. There was even a little back-and-forth about the texture of his hair.
And when it came time to make the most critical decision—his figure’s pose—he thought long and hard about the image he wanted to present. He ultimately decided to go with the first image many fight fans ever saw of him. At UFC 42, Sherk fought legend Matt Hughes for the welterweight title. For the first time, Sherk was asked to appear on the promo poster the UFC puts out before every event. To introduce himself to the world, Sherk stood with two fists closed, one raised, a small smirk on his face. He felt the shot showed him as he is—workmanlike, not flashy, solid.
That’s what he went with for The Muscle Shark figurine, too. For the back of the box, Sherk had to come up with a quote that best sums up him. For example, Wanderlei Silva’s says, “I promise violence.” Sherk thought long and hard throughout the 10-month, intricate process that figurine-making requires, and finally came up with his perfect message.
“There is no substitute for hard work.”