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A hard road for “The Muscle Shark,” now with a title in his sights

October 13th, 2006 · No Comments · News

by Jason Probst
www.insidefighting.com


In the harsh and unforgiving world of mixed martial arts, for every good scenario to be in, there’s one equally daunting, carrying with it the impending terrors of a plan gone wrong.And in the domain of Sean Sherk, chances are if he’s on top of you, you’re in for a rough immediate future. Equipped with a squat, 5’6 frame, the Minnesotan has built his reputation on a high-energy attack, punctuated with aggressive takedowns and a punishing work rate.

Right now it’s just a few hours before Sherk will step on the scales at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, hoping to hit the magic number of 155, which brings with it the promise of a world championship.

After six months of preparation for his fight with Kenny Florian, Sherk is feeling confident that the drop from 170 will prove worth the risk, especially with the vacant UFC lightweight title on the line. If he hits it — and he should — he’ll hop off, and rehydrate en route to Saturday night’s bout. If you thought he had an imposing style before, just wait until “The Muscle Shark” gets a chance to tangle with Florian, who surely has no illusions about who’ll be the stronger guy. That’s the operative theory, anyways.

“I’ll probably come in fight time at 175,” Sherk told InsideFighting.

The bout ends the long-running vacancy of the UFC lightweight title, and the winner will be the second to hold the crown once worn by Jens Pulver, who vacated it in 2002.

“I haven’t weighed 155 in 15 years,” Sherk, 33, told InsideFighting. “In training camp I’ve done the cut twice, just to see what it was like. The first time it was pretty tough, but the second was a lot easier.”

With weight-cutting an increasingly popular move in the sport, there’s a fine line between dropping a class and magnifying existing strengths (such as was the case with Randy Couture) and shedding too much poundage, so much so that the smaller version of a man barely resembles the bigger original (Joe Riggs). If you’ve never spent a few hours in a sauna in a rubber suit and pumping away on an exercise bike, try it sometime. It’s right up there with spending Christmas at Bas Rutten’s house and trading groin kicks.

But Sherk feels it is worth the effort. Many fans are excited at the prospect of him against the best 155 pounders, because if he can cut the weight properly, he may be one of the most powerful fighters in the game.

Sherk’s powerful wrestling against Florian’s excellent jiu-jitsu and emerging Muay Thai skills makes for a classic mixed martial arts style clash. And like Sherk‘s hoping to do, Florian has resurrected his career after finally getting down in weight and fighting guys his own size.

An alumnus of the first season of “The Ultimate Fighter,” Florian was a natural lightweight himself, but battled the show’s 185-pounders in Chris Leben and Diego Sanchez. After losing to Sanchez via first-round TKO on the finale in April 2005, Florian started fighting lightweights, and knocked off fellow TUF vet Alex Karalexis. Then he submitted world-class kick boxer Kit Cope, and emerging Canadian Sam Stout.

For Sherk, who walks around at a ripped 175 with single-digit body fat, cutting the weight is just another hard sacrifice in a career that’s been trying, to say the least. For while his record of 30-2-1 suggests a lot of successes, hard core fans familiar with his story often look at him as an artist whose body of work has yet to define him.

Exile

Coming into his first title bout, against welterweight boss Matt Hughes at UFC 42 in 2003, at the last minute, Sherk’s management team at the time renegotiated with the organization, demanding and getting more money for their fighter.

After taking a frightful thumping in the first two stanzas, Sherk rallied back and took the champion down a couple times, and made a fight out of it. Those five rounds should have been the vetting process for a new welterweight face, seeing as how Sherk’s twenty five minutes against Hughes were the only time the champ’s been taken the distance in a title bout. It was especially revealing of Sherk’s heart, as there aren’t a lot of people who can survive getting beaten like a gong for ten minutes by Hughes and do much afterward, except maybe take soup through a tube.

But when he lost, the UFC subsequently dropped him from his contract. Boom. Gone. From that 2003 bout until UFC 58 in November, when he was stopped in two by Georges St. Pierre, Sherk beat twelve straight opponents. But chances are fans didn’t see him in many if any of those matches.

“I was on the outs for two and a half years. It was really hard,” he recalled.

Only one bout was on a show of note — a decision in Bushido over Ryuki Ueyama — and Sherk battled the recurring irritation of mulling it over.

What went wrong?

How did I get this close, only to disappear?

Is it even worth continuing?

A Second Chance

Saturday’s title fight is especially meaningful to him considering that exile, when he couldn’t get meaningful fights, most of the time being offered bruised fruit — a couple grand here, a pittance there — against either overmatched opponents he wouldn’t get much credit for beating, or short money if it was a name guy.

There have been times in previous interviews with this writer, during that dark phase, that Sherk seemed disgusted with the fight game itself. At times he sounded like a driver lost in the big city, fatigued by the effort to get back on the main drag after multiple attempts.

He’s a Midwestern type, who never disrespects opponents, an athlete whose credo is underwritten by the unwavering belief that the more he sweats in training, the less he’ll bleed, preparing accordingly. But with a family and growing responsibilities, did he really want to keep beating people up for a couple grand in shows barely anyone would see? Increasingly, the answer seemed to swing toward “no.”

But since joining up again with manager Monte Cox, Sherk’s back in the UFC, and after losing to St. Pierre, he rebounded with a decision over Nick Diaz at UFC 59 in April. The hatchet is buried, and Sherk is back to fighting.

He’s training with his long-time crew at Minnesota Martial Arts Academy. Sherk’s forte of ground and pound hasn’t changed, but his decision win over Diaz showed him increasingly willing to trade on the feet. He figures Florian is overlooking his standup and is banking on the stereotypical Sherk style, the bowling-ball takedown shots, the uber-wrestler whose short arms rarely launched meaningful punches.

“I hope he thinks I’m one-dimensional. I’m going to come out and really push the pace and bring it to him hard,” Sherk said. “Kenny’s a tough guy. I’m sure he’s training with some good guys.”

History is full of talented artists who spent time detoured from the main path — doing something, anything, to get by while hoping for that right combination of circumstance and opportunity. And while there is no precise scale to measure the assorted injustices in life, one of the harshest has to be knowing you are damn good at something and can’t get the opportunity to do it.

Despite coupled with the fact that others far less talented are doing it, and are making a better living at it than you are, stuck in your wrong paradigm, fuming over the internal dialogue of what went wrong, and where.

Albert Collins — one of the greatest bluesman in the modern era — got by doing painting and construction work, sometimes for Eric Clapton. J.K. Rowling, she of the “Harry Potter” series, was homeless before penning her first best seller, which spawned a pop culture. For Sherk, it was running a flooring business. With a growing family — there’s wife Heather, and two sons under the age of two — he had to fall back on something that provided steady work. He’d called the UFC, along with several other organizations, but his inquiries were rarely if ever returned. He was the kind of fighter most managers would keep their guy away from.

But in Sherk’s mind, there’s little question of how important this fight is. He has to win it if he’s going to feel confident that this is how he’s going to roll over the next few years.

No more waiting for the phone to ring. No more doing floors. And with the sport taking off, he can make a better living at it than during his first run. And as a champion, there are all sorts of opportunities, endorsements, and the assorted spoils that await. It’s a lot easier living on a fighter’s wage as a champ. Otherwise, you might have to fall back on getting by, like most of them do, in wildly varying degrees.

With SPIKE T.V.’s “All Access” providing a penetrating look at how top mixed martial artists train, the series offers a sobering dose of what it takes to compete in the sport. The best one so far, in this writer’s opinion, was with Rich Franklin, because it detailed how rough those three-a-day workouts are, a compelling intersection of science and brutality. And if you remember the UFC 42 preflight build-up of Hughes and Sherk, the Minnesotan provided some footage that was borderline frightening. On that score, he might give the Franklin a run for his money in terms of Rocky IV-like training footage.

See Sherk doing sprawl drills. See him lifting a 100-lb. plate in overhead tricep presses, hit the mitts, and then explode across the mats while he‘s bulldogging guys 40 pounds heavier. See Sherk run in the morning, uphill both ways! See Sherk shoot a single leg on a stanchion, bounce off, and keep coming. Watch The Muscle Shark go!

Good stuff.

But he’s got Florian in front of him, a master submission whiz who is always dangerous. And Florian has dreams, too, and has traveled a road that’s gone 180 degrees from a year ago, when people dismissed him as a sport grappler unable to make the transition into MMA.
Sherk is currently a 3-1 favorite, -325 at the books as of Friday morning — though that’s just a number. Anything can happen, anything can go right, or wrong.

Like the 155. Like the two and half years where he drifted off the path. Like the countless sets, reps and rounds he does, thinking of what it’ll feel like to wear that champion’s belt. Win, and he gets deliverance for the hard road, one he nearly gave up on just a couple years ago. Lose, and it’s another case of regroup and see.

Good times, bad times. Happy places, bad places where training kicks in and hopefully you escape, regroup, recover, and get back on the attack.

“I’ve waited a long time for this,” he said. “It’s a dream.”

The UFC lightweights, finally, are back in business.

What are your thoughts? jasonprobst@hotmail.com

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