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One Win Away

April 1st, 2003 · No Comments · News

One Win Away
By Loretta Hunt

Sean Sherk UFC welterweight contender Sean Sherk has had much to be happy about in the past two years. Not only has his aspirations of being a fighter become a firm reality, his solid performance with the UFC in his last three outings has brought the talented wrestler one win away from earning a title. Outside of the Octagon, Sherk thrives as well. He lives tranquilly with his fiancee in his native “Land of a 1,000 Lakes,” (Minnesota to us foreigners) with not much to worry about besides the routine snow storms (blizzards to us foreigners) that fall there during the winter. He plans to get married by next summer and despite a broken TIVO system that has currently stopped recording his favorite shows, things are looking rosy for this reserved, down-to-earth fighter.
Of course, there is always a flip side to paradise. For starters, his upcoming title shot will be his sole televised pay-per-view bout to date (all three of his prior appearances have been in the preliminaries), making it literally “first impression” time for thousands of fans. “If I’m not doing well in the fight for some reason,” Sherk comments, “that’s all they’re going to see. Nobody’s seen all of the fights I’ve won, so it adds pressure to put on a great show and give fans something to remember me by.”
If that added stress were not enough, Sherk’s coach and mentor of seven years, Greg Nelson has had to bow out of training his star pupil for the last year to take on a deadly adversary of his own. “He’s making some really good progress now, ” comments Sherk on Nelson’s bout with cancer, “but he’s had a lot of ups and downs for the last year pretty hard core.” Currently receiving treatment at the famed Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, Nelson will be unable to attend Sherk’s opportunity to wrest the belt from champion Matt Hughes’s hands this Friday at UFC 42: Sudden Impact, a fact that has notably resonated with the 29-year old fighter. “It’s affected me a lot. That’s my leader. I take a lot of direction from him and he’s always got something real smart to say. He’s influenced me a lot, so not having him there has hurt me.”
The show has gone on though for the subdued competitor, who started wrestling at the age of seven and has amassed a respectable professional record of 22-0-1 over the last three years. Training out of the Minnesota Martial Arts Academy, Sherk has taken his humble beginnings as a high school wrestler that placed every year at states (“That’s just small stuff compared to all these other guys,” he says) to impressive heights. Without the benefit of wrestling in college (he never attended), Sherk made a name for himself on the local MMA circuit with shows like Dangerzone and the Midwest MMA Championships. A stint with Ultimate Wrestling Minnesota led to an opportunity to fight in the Extreme Challenge Trials, a regular breeding ground for young up-and-comers eyed closely by fight promoter and manager Monte Cox. Under Cox’s lead, Sherk’s career quickly progressed to his UFC 30 debut (after only twelve pro fights), where an aggressively dismantled Team Punishment opponent Tiki Ghosn in the second round. Following fights in both King Of The Cage and Pancrase (where Sherk suffered his only career draw to Kiuma Kunioki), Sherk’s second UFC appearance was a dominant display of “ground and pound” power against Japanese submission artist Jutaro Nakao. In his most recent UFC fight in Connecticut, Sherk was quickly able to stop opponent Benji Radach in his tracks in the first round, when a cut opened on “the Razor’s” head caused a doctor’s stoppage.
The last time Sean Sherk visited Florida was Spring Break Daytona 1993, a trip he recalls was marred by him just being under the age of 21. This second time around, he hopes to “score,” and what better way than to win the UFC welterweight title. It won’t be easy by any means, as champion Matt Hughes is well-versed in the ways of the Octagon and on a roll with his fourth title defense. In addition, All-American Hughes sports some formidable wrestling skills of his own. “We have pretty much the same fighting style,” noted Sherk. “Wrestling and ground and pound. It’s not like [I’m fighting] a jiu-jitsu guy [where] I can just walk out and take him down because he’s not fighting it so hard. It’s going to be a lot of work.”
Work is something Sherk is evidently not afraid of. In the past fourteen weeks, he has enlisted the skills of his Minnesota academy teammates in preparation. “I have some pretty good wrestlers that I’ve been training with a couple of times a week–guys who are really going to fight that takedown and really try to get off their back. That’s what Hughes is going to do.”
Though common sense would dictate that the match-up of wrestler versus wrestler will inevitably go to the ground, Sherk is preparing himself for anything. “I know Matt works a lot of stand-up, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he wanted to try and keep it up on the feet, which is fine with me.” In fact, Sherk admits he was disappointed with the way his UFC 39 victory went against heavy-handed Benji Radach, when despite months of boxing training, his instincts got the better of him. The Minnesotan is hoping this Friday he’ll get the chance to show just what his grueling sparring sessions three times a week can actually do. “”I don’t plan on shooting in on the first round, unless I do it without thinking,” he boldly predicts. “I’m definitely hitting harder than I’ve ever hit before. My stand-up feels great,” he confidently beams.
Confidence can come a bit easier when one has never had to suffer the consequences of a stiff left hook or a paralyzing right cross. However, Sherk says it will take a lot to knock this rock steady fighter out for the first time ever in his career. “I have a real hard head,” he laughs. “When I spar with people and they hit me real clean and hard, usually their hands hurt worse afterwards.”
Fighting styles are not the only attributes Hughes and Sherk have in common. At one point, both men were under the same management of Monte Cox and his Team Extreme army of MMA standouts. Sherk was even scheduled to train at the Miletich Martial Arts gym in Iowa (where champ Hughes currently hangs his sparring gloves), but a sprained ankle canceled his trip at the last minute. Hughes did corner Sherk for one of his fights in St. Louis, Missouri almost two and half years ago, but the 5’6″ powerhouse confirms that Hughes and himself are nothing more than “acquaintances.”
Ironically, it was Sherk’s choice to leave Cox’s winning team that indirectly led him to a shot at Hughes’s welterweight title. When Zuffa Sports Entertainment took over the reigns of the UFC a little over two years ago, they initially stipulated that two fighters of the same team/management could not represent in a single weight class at the same time. With then-welterweight champion Pat Miletich speaking for Team Extreme, Sherk was left with the decision to stay with Cox or not fight in the UFC at all. It wasn’t a difficult choice for Sherk to make. “For what I wanted,” he says, “that was not a scary move. I knew as soon as I left I had a contract waiting for me with the UFC.”
Sherk teamed up with Duane Zinkin, a California-based lawyer and former wrestler whose recent ties with the American Kickboxing Academy team have assisted many a fighter there as well. And even though it seems the original “one team fighter/one weight class” rule has fallen to the wayside (Hughes and teammate Robbie Lawler both fight actively in the same weight class, among other examples), Sherk has no regrets. Under Zinkin’s management, Sherk says he has been able to breathe easy knowing that his interests are in capable hands. “I’m his number one focus,” he explains. “He doesn’t have thirty other fighters. He has me and [Mike] VanArsdale. If anything comes up, we’re there right away.”
What readily lends itself to the theory that these two fighters are more similar than not are their shared wholesome, clean cut images. Like Hughes, Sherk is a true Midwesterner at heart, a “salt of the Earth” -type of guy content to embrace the strict fighter’s lifestyle of training, eating, sleeping and rising in the morning to start the process all over again. At the shows, Sherk is notably kind and courteous to all he comes into contact with, and is just as gratified to be in the spotlight among the fans as he is to stay in the shadows. In his spare time, he’s just as obliged to catch a good movie on TV and looks forward to his recent subscription to the cable network HBO (Ah, the little pleasures in life!). When his schedule has permitted (and when the work was available), he has served as a machinist in a factory among other occupations. “The machine that I worked on can pretty much make anything out of metal,” he explains with the genuine excitement of a little boy with his prized toy. “Half the parts we’ve made I don’t even know what they’re for!” he laughs, “But it’s never the same thing twice.” When his time as a fighter is through, Sherk says he would be equally satisfied to go into the family business. “Plumbers make good money,” he says matter-of-factly. “It’s definitely not a bad trade.” For now though, the Minnesotan relishes his job as ultimate fighter. “I get free clothes [FCF proudly sponsors Mr. Sherk] and I get to fight for a living and travel. What more do I need?”
So, for two guys with so many seemingly notable parallels inside and outside the ring, just what does Sherk possess that champion Hughes does not? “I think I’m faster and more explosive than Matt,” he calmly reports. Those are tough words to stand by bringing to mind Hughes mind-blowing track record of 2002, yet Sherk seems somewhat unfazed by the difficult task ahead of him. Of course, he is humbled by Hughes’s domination of the welterweight division thus far in his year-plus at top. “He’s the number one welterweight in the world,” Sherk readily admits. “He’s beaten everybody in the top five, except for me.” Yet there’s also a quiet confidence there for this competitor–an almost comforting vibe that fans might just respond to if given the chance. “I know he’s well-spoken and popular, but I think I can do the same thing he’s done. I think I can fill the shoes just as well as he can. I want that title and nothing’s going to get in the way of me going on out and trying to get it–not even Matt Hughes.”



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