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Sean Sherk’s Second Chance

October 12th, 2006 · No Comments · News

www.ufc.com
By Thomas Gerbasi

For a professional mixed martial artist, it’s the toughest opponent they will most likely ever face, the one that could make them cower in fear or slink away, defeated and drained.

The scale.

So when faced with the prospect of cutting weight for an upcoming bout, fighters approach the task with dread but also a faint hope that they only have to do it a single time and that once its done they can get back to the business of winning the fight.

Not Sean Sherk. For this fighter from Oak Grove, Minnesota, the process of moving from the 170-pound welterweight division to 155 pounds to fight for the vacant UFC lightweight title against Kenny Florian this Saturday night at UFC 64 has seen him already make the cut in weight – twice.

Yes, twice, with number three coming up later this week. If it sounds like torture, it probably was, but according to Sherk, it was necessary for his body to acclimate properly to the new weight class.

“I’ve done two trial runs,” said Sherk in the same matter-of-fact tone you would use to say you ran to the store to pick up some groceries. “The first time I cut, I dropped from 180 down to 155 – I did it within a three week timespan and it was real hard. It was relatively hard to get down to 160, but that last five pounds took a lot of work, probably two hours in and out of the sauna just to get that last five pounds off. It’s been 15 years since I weighed 155 pounds, so my body just hadn’t felt it and kinda went into shock a little bit. So the first cut was hard, but I just did another one about a week and a half ago (this interview was conducted in September) and I dropped from 175 and I made it in about four and a half days. The second time was a lot smoother, the weight came off easier and my body recovered a lot faster. I came in the next day and trained really hard and everything felt great so I think 55 is gonna be my weight class.”

But making the cut twice just for practice and three times overall?

“You have to do a trial run because you look at it like training,” said Sherk, who said he got the idea from Rich Franklin when the current UFC middleweight champ made his drop from the light heavyweight division. “You train every day on how to fight, you train your conditioning, your strength, your techniques, and this is just another training regimen. I have to train my body. If my first cut was fight day, I think I might have been screwed because my body was completely in shock. I lost 25 pounds and I’ve got four or five percent body fat, so obviously the second time was easier. Everything you do for a three or four month time period before a fight revolves around one day – fight day. So you want everything to be as smooth as possible, so obviously the biggest thing for me right now is the cut. You break everything down to a science.”

At 33 years old, and with close to 40 fights and seven years in the pro game, there’s little that Sherk hasn’t figured out when it comes to professional fighting. He’s a pro’s pro, a stellar wrestler who through fight experience and hard work became a true mixed martial artist. But one thing has always eluded him, despite his former status as one of the premier welterweights in the game – and that has been a world championship.

“The thought of winning that title belt and being the best in the world is what gets me up in the morning and makes me train three, four times a day,” said Sherk. “It’s what makes me eat the foods I eat, and it’s all I think about all day long. I daydream about it during the day and dream about it at night. That’s what keeps me going all the time, so to wrap that belt around my waist, it would be a dream come true. I’ve spent, literally, thousands and thousands of hours thinking about that title belt. It’s very rare in life that you actually get an opportunity twice, so to have this opportunity again, I feel really fortunate and I’m actually training harder than I’ve trained ever – and I’ve always been known for my work ethic – because I don’t want to lose this opportunity twice. So I’m gonna make sure I win this belt, and then the next goal after that is to hang onto it for as long as I can.”

Sherk’s first shot at UFC gold came in April of 2003 when he faced Matt Hughes in a highly anticipated bout at UFC 42. At the time, Sherk was unbeaten and basically seen as the only threat to the dominant champion. But after extending Hughes the five round championship distance, Sherk wound up on the wrong end of a decision. Given his effort in pushing Hughes to the limit, Sherk should have been set for life in the UFC, but it didn’t work out that way, and he wouldn’t set foot in the Octagon again for another two and a half years.

In the meantime, he kept busy in a variety of venues, from the big (in Japan’s Pride) to the small (Hawaii’s So You Think You’re Tough), but along the way he grew frustrated with the sport and where he was heading in it, so a little over a year after headlining a UFC show against Hughes, Sherk walked away from mixed martial arts.

“The reason for me walking away wasn’t because I didn’t love it,” explains Sherk. “It was heartbreaking for me to leave and I spent a lot of time thinking about it, but unfortunately for me, there wasn’t a living for me in this sport. I couldn’t find fights, a lot of people were refusing to fight me, and the biggest shows didn’t want me back so there wasn’t sponsorship money back in that time. I’ve got a house, I had just had a boy, and I wasn’t able to find any fights, so I had to walk away from the sport.”

Sherk wound up entering the work force to feed his family, but he quickly found out that the 9 to 5 world wasn’t for him. Unfortunately, he had few options as no one was exactly beating down the door to fight a 5-6 wall of muscle who would be a rough night for anybody. What made it worse was that this was a fighter who trained hard, fought hard, kept his nose clean outside of the ring, and was a gentleman to boot.

“After I walked away, I was pretty bitter for a while, just because I felt like the sport had turned its back on me,” he admitted. “I was one of the hardest training athletes in the world, my record was 32-1, I was ranked number two in the world for two and a half years, and it just blew my mind that after all I had achieved that I couldn’t get any big fights or big paydays. So I was really disappointed.”

It was about to get worse for Sherk, as his layoff coincided with the airing of the first season of ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ reality show, which not only gave him his first glance at Florian, but was a dagger in the heart as he saw up and comers getting the nationwide exposure he had fought so long and hard for.

“At that point, I couldn’t even watch that TV show,” said Sherk. “I couldn’t turn it on, I couldn’t even see the commercials, because it was like pouring salt in a wound. I was one of the best fighters in the world, and I couldn’t even get a break, and here are these guys just barely beginning, with a couple of fights under their belts, and now they’ve got this gigantic audience, they’re getting millions of viewers watching the show every week and they’re getting all these opportunities, so yeah, it was really hard for me to deal with at that point in time.”

He’s since softened his stance on ‘The Ultimate Fighter’, saying, “Now, in the time since the first TV show took place, I’m back in the game, I’m getting ready to win a world title and it doesn’t bother me at all. I’m glad these guys are getting some exposure and it brings more exposure to the sport. I am happy that they did this recent show with the veterans because it gives the audience at home a chance to really see what a seasoned UFC fighter will go through to be the best in the world.”

And though he probably didn’t realize it at the time TUF1 was airing on Spike TV, his days in the ‘regular’ work force were numbered, and he was a few months away from returning to his own quest to become the best fighter in the world.

“What drove me to come back to the sport was the fact that I was working a 9 to 5 and that just wasn’t fitting me very well,” he said. “I have a problem taking orders from people (laughs), especially with all I had been through and all I had done. So I ended up scheduling more fights and leaving my job and things have gone from there.”

The return wasn’t exactly smooth sailing though. After coming back to MMA in September of 2005 with submission win over Joel Blanton, Sherk got his call back to the UFC less than two months later and was stopped for the first time in his career by Canadian star George St. Pierre at UFC 56.

“Even when I came back, it was a mental issue for me because my heart wasn’t back in it yet,” he admits. “I still had a lot of anger and frustration towards the sport because of everything that had happened when I walked away. It took about six months for me to mentally and physically get my heart back into the game again. Whereas now, I’ve been back a year and a half and everything’s going so well. I think you tend to appreciate things a lot more when you actually have to work for them. A lot of people, and we’ll use Florian as an example, he’s been handed a lot of stuff that he hasn’t earned, in my opinion. He’s gotten a lot of publicity and things of that nature, and he hasn’t earned it. When I was at his stage, I was making a thousand dollars a fight; I wasn’t headlining a title fight or anything like that. So in my case, I’ve really, really worked to be where I’m at, and you tend to appreciate things a lot more when you have to work for them like that.”

Sherk would re-focus and re-evaluate his career, and when he returned to the Octagon against Nick Diaz five months later at UFC 59 in April, he was the old Sherk again, or should I say an old Sherk with a new twist, as his standup never looked better en route to a shutout three round decision win. But despite beating a quality 170-pound contender, Sherk already knew that it was his welterweight swan song, as the prospect of dropping to 155 pounds and dominating the reinstated lightweight division was too enticing.

“There were a couple of different reasons, and obviously the first one was the fact that the UFC was bringing back the 155 pound division,” said Sherk when asked the reasons for his drop to lightweight. “The 55’s were gone for a long time and there was no reason for me to drop to ’55. That’s why I always stayed at 170. That’s where the title shots were, that’s where the money was, and there was no reason for me to drop to ’55. So they brought the weight class back and that gave me a reason right there. And if you look at the two fights I lost, I walk around at 175; that’s about as big as I get. For me to make 170, all I do is skip breakfast. You see these other guys and they’re dropping 15-20 pounds and everyone I fight is six feet tall. So I’ve given up a lot of size, a lot of reach and a lot of weight in every single one of my fights. And with the losses I had to St. Pierre and Hughes, those guys were just so big, and at an elite level you can’t give up 15-20 pounds to a guy. That could be the difference between a win and a loss. Obviously, I’ve been successful at 170, but my goal is to win a world title and I want to be the best in the world and be a world champion, so that came into play.”

And despite the fact that he has never competed in the UFC at 155 pounds, most observers see Sherk as a huge favorite against the still improving Florian, who is coming off impressive submission wins over Kit Cope and Sam Stout but who is still in search of respect from fight insiders.

“From what I’ve seen, his jiu-jitsu doesn’t look too bad, but he hasn’t been training for as long as I have, so he definitely has some holes in his game,” said Sherk of Florian. “I don’t think his boxing is as good as mine, he’s never wrestled before so his wrestling’s not going to be anywhere near the same caliber. I think he’s more of a natural 155 pounder, where I’m going to be cutting a lot of weight and I’ll be big for the weight class. I think I just need to watch out for his elbows.”

His confidence is obvious, with even a touch of disdain creeping in when the topic of Florian comes up, but despite what the fans and oddsmakers may be saying about Saturday’s fight, Sean Sherk refuses to get caught up in conjecture because he still has a fight to fight this weekend. More importantly, he’s got a second chance and he refuses to let it slip away.

“I don’t want to underestimate anybody,” he said. “I’ve got 37 fights, I fought the best in the world and I fought guys who had no business being in the cage with me, and I never underestimated anybody. Kenny probably thinks I’m underestimating him, but I’m training harder for this fight than when I fought Matt Hughes. I would never underestimate anybody because anything can happen in that cage. I’m not gonna get in there having any doubt in my mind that I’m gonna win this fight. The only thing that takes the doubt out of my mind is that they harder I train, the more confident I get, and that makes me want to train all the time. I want to step in that cage and know that this guy doesn’t have a chance.”

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