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The Hard Road to Redemption: Sherk ready to defend title

June 27th, 2007 · No Comments · News

By Jason Probst

This wasn’t how it was supposed to be.

And nobody knew it better

than Sean Sherk, who’d seemingly lost his way three years ago, after a career that had seemingly been derailed.

Three years ago, the UFC lightweight champion was a world removed from where he’ll be July 7, when he defends his belt against Hermes Franca at UFC 73. He could only dream about nights like the Saturday after next, when the door to the Octagon closes and he’ll be introduced as a champion, with millions watching to see if he can retain his belt.

It’s because back then, instead of believing he’d get a chance to be the champ, Sherk had given up on getting meaningful fights in MMA, and instead took a job installing floors with his father-in-law to pay the bills. For someone who’d already fought for the UFC welterweight title (he lost a decision to then-champion Matt Hughes), battled assorted tough nuts in small shows and in Japan, it was a shock to the system that this might be where he would end up.

For while every fighter faces his series of crossroads crises and hard knocks, the worst scenario of all might be having your career end because you can’t get fights.

“I was let go by UFC. Pride wasn’t returning phone calls,” said Sherk, whose former management had a falling-out with the UFC after the Hughes defeat in 2003. “The sport wasn’t where it was at right now. There weren’t a lot of outlets for me to fight in. A lot of fighters wouldn’t fight me and there wasn’t much money to be made. I had to walk away from sport for a year, and try to make a living working a regular job. I was installing, sanding, finishing. All that stuff.”

Hey, new guy. You wanna know who the baddest dude here is? Sean Sherk over there. You mighta seen him on TV once. Did that ultimate cage fighting thing. Nice guy. Kinda quiet. Hard worker. Got a family to take care of and couldn’t make the bills fighting, from what I hear. He doesn’t talk about it much. But it’s about the only thing that seems to hurt him. Don’t bring it up ’til you get to know him a little. They say he was pretty good.

But while the veneer of normalcy set in, beneath the surface, Sherk felt the crushing sense of alienation in trying to be something he wasn’t. And when you’re a fighter, that can be the worst kind of beating.

Sean and his wife Heather have two sons, two and half-year-old Kyler, and Tegan, one-and-a-half. With financial security a reality instead of a day-to-day battle, he remembers the comical subterfuge necessary to make the transition back to fighting. It was a tough situation, working with his father-in-law and wondering how he’d break the news to his wife.

You get the feeling that if he were a lone wolf without any responsibilities, Sherk, like many fighters, would’ve been fine with living in a dive apartment somewhere, driving a beater vehicle, training days, working a night job, and blasting out overmatched opponents several times a year to keep knocking on the door until it opened. There are plenty of hard-nosed guys that do it in perpetuity, following the inevitable rise or petering out after the losses, mileage and inviolable reality of the pecking order set in.

But with a wife and familial responsibilities, it’s a lot harder to risk the hard-luck route when their destinies are inextricably tied to your own.

“It was real frustration, I had already been there, I had (several) fights under my belt, was ranked as high as number two in the world. I fought in UFC, fought Matt Hughes, in Japan, on Pride and pay per view and TV. I was everywhere. To have to walk away from the sport was really frustrating. The thought never left my mind. I thought about (fighting) every day. I was miserable. It’s what I was put here to do. When I decided to fight, I couldn’t tell anybody about it. I had everybody pointing me in different directions, and was working with my father-in-law. He knew I would quit the job he didn’t want me to quit. And I couldn’t say anything to my wife. One day when I came home, she said ‘You gotta fight again.’ She actually told me to. Fortunately, the sport took off and gave me an opportunity.”

Between his June 2003 fight against Hughes, and his November 2005 defeat to Georges St-Pierre via TKO, Sherk fought 12 times, winning 11 inside the distance, but without a single name opponent. But back then, he was more like an urban legend, with news of his fights largely spread across chatrooms populated by hardcore MMA fans, and scant television coverage, if any. He was off the radar. Address unknown.

It’s a revelation now, three years removed, to look at how his career has rocketed to new heights now that circumstance and opportunity synced up and gave him the chance to return to MMA. But even the return wasn’t without some obstacles. He was beaten soundly by St-Pierre in a one-sided loss at UFC 56, prior to rebounding with a decision over Nick Diaz in April 2006.

But with the UFC re-establishing the 155-lb. lightweight class, it was a natural move to drop weight for “The Muscle Shark,” who walks around at 175 yet still managed to be effective against naturally larger 170-pounders, many of whom are close to 190 before cutting down.

And with the chance to battle Kenny Florian last October for the vacant UFC 155-lb. title, Sherk, finally, had the championship dream within his grasp. And while virtually all experts made him a heavy favorite to turn the trick over the crafty Florian, a week before the bout, he experienced the worst possible thing that can happen on the tail end of an intense, three-month training camp – serious injury. Sustaining a torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder, Sherk simply buckled down and went through with the fight, dominating Florian in a hard-fought five-round bout that left patches of the Octagon floor covered in his blood, thanks to a Florian elbow which opened up his head early in the bout.

“I tore a slat near where the where the bicep and shoulder connect. It was a full tear, a week before the fight. I have no idea how it happened,” said Sherk. “It hurt real bad. The thought of not fighting might’ve crossed my mind for a couple minutes, but you don’t get a shot for the UFC title every day. I kept training anyway, and that probably made it worse. I was in phenomenal shape, no way I wasn’t going to fight. After the fight I couldn’t more my arm or anything, but I could move it during the fight. It was an awful tear. I saw the doctor the Monday morning afterward and he was pretty impressed.”

After recovering from surgery, Sherk’s excited about making his first title defense at 100 percent. As one of the most intense competitors in the sport, he figures if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it – and that’s why he continues to train at Minnesota Mixed Martial Arts, getting pickled on a daily basis by training partners, many of whom weigh 200 pounds or more.

“I get real edgy near fight time. I’m not a fun guy to hang around with. If I have one bad day in the gym I literally don’t sleep at night. I like to train with big guys, because then when I grab a guy my own size they’re gonna feel small,” Sherk explained. The tactic seems to be paying off, as Sherk, a known muscler at 170, seemed even more impressive with his bulldog style of takedowns and ground mauling against Florian.

Franca, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt with good striking, is on a tear, winning his last eight bouts. Once largely a ground specialist, he has become increasingly dangerous with both hands and feet, committing to standing attacks with aplomb and verve. That kind of confidence makes a guy a handful, especially when he knows he can handle himself off his back. And while this match might be overshadowed among casual fans in the wake of the main event – Tito Ortiz against Rashad Evans – hardcore fans who’ve followed both these lightweights know that Sherk and Franca could make for an explosive bout.

“I think he’s obviously gonna have a game plan. But Franca doesn’t care where the fight ends up. He’s dangerous from every single position,” Sherk said. “He’s just gonna come out and fight. He’s got hard hands. He’s gonna try and knock me out, and probably gonna try and take me down.”

When deciding to drop down to 155, Sherk initially figured it might be a nice rest stop for his career, knowing how effective he could be facing smaller fighters. Ever-methodical in his preparation, he did the weight cut during training for Florian to ensure he could reduce to the limit without excessive strain. So far, he seems to be able to shrink his compact frame down to 155, then rehydrate without losing his trademark fireplug strength

But with the rise of so many good fighters in the division, Sherk knows that anything resembling a lengthy reign is going to mean a slew of tough title defenses. There’s at least a half-dozen contenders that would be fan-friendly title challengers, whoever takes the belt out of the Octagon July 7. And there’s an emerging cast of young talent ranging from rising stars and the recently concluded reality show on SpikeTV, where the lightweight division received a boost of new faces from winner Nate Diaz, Manny Gamburyan and many others.

“I think this division’s phenomenal, probably one of most exciting. Out there at 170 and 155 are the most stacked divisions in the world,” he said. “I was thinking I was gonna get a little bit of a break here, and now I’m like ‘Wow.’ This division’s one of the toughest in the world. I got everyone after me.”

If that weren’t enough, Sherk also dealt with an across-the-tracks challenge from Floyd “Pretty Boy” Mayweather, Jr., as the four-division champ approached his May 5 megamatch against Oscar De La Hoya.

With the recent swell of media attention on MMA, it was inevitable that a boxer would respond. When Mayweather, Jr. dished his pithy two cents on how he’d easily defeat a mixed martial artist on their own turf, the longest-running argument in combat sports was alive and kicking once more.

Perhaps the sweet science’s finest would be willing to step into the cage and settle the argument – it certainly would beat the occasional interlude of a Butterbean and similarly under qualified emissaries trying their luck.

For if baseball aficionados reveled in the schadenfreude of watching Michael Jordan peter out in the minor leagues, MMA followers surely must have felt the same way about seeing Mayweather contemplate crossing over. As the sweet science’s best fighter and a polarizing trash talker, if Mayweather can motivate much of the boxing public to pay money to see him get beat, imagine the prefight frenzy he could create in a boxing vs. MMA showdown. For some reason, there are still boxing aficionados who think that a few months of grappling training would somehow allow them to compete in mixed martial arts. But the delicious comeuppance has yet to be supplied with a big-time, name boxer in his prime. Perhaps this would be the opening.

But it was not to be.

“He was bad mouthing the UFC real bad, talking all kinds of crap about how we’re not real fighters, blah, blah blah,” said Sherk. “Dana White said ‘Put your money where your mouth is. I’ll offer you what you need to get paid to fight Sean Sherk.’ We went to the (Mayweather-De La Hoya) fight.”

Sherk wasn’t going to go WWE on “Pretty Boy” but he did enjoy being at the match, and hoped to meet Mayweather after the bout, where His Floydness took a split decision win over De La Hoya.

“I wanted to meet him. I was like ‘Let’s go to Mayweather’s locker room.’ But as soon as the fight was over, Dana got a text saying Floyd Mayweather’s sorry. He was just trying to build up the show.”

The message came from a member of Mayweather’s camp to a Zuffa executive, who forwarded it to White.

Sherk seemed willing to accept the “promotion defense” behind Mayweather’s dissing MMA fighters, but still can’t help but ponder the thought of taking on the world’s pound-for-pound best boxer.

“That would be awesome. The guy’s probably one of the best pound for pound boxers of all time. I’m sure a lot of MMA fans bought that (De La Hoya-Mayweather) pay per view with all the hype,” Sherk said. “I would submit him. He’s been hit hard. He can take a hit. Why pound him out? He’s not gonna know what to do (on the ground). I’d just take him down and submit him. It’d be a fast fight.”

He isn’t so sure his first title defense will be that easy, though he’d like a fast night against Franca if the opening is there. But however it goes down, Sherk steps in the Octagon with a lot more than a title belt on the line. It’s the memory of knowing what it’s like to not be in there, out of the game, remembering the painful process of trying to reconcile the hard reality of where his life seemed headed, compared to where he’d been. He doesn’t have to see other guys he’s beaten get big fights, or wonder what he’ll tell his family and friends about why he’s giving up the regular life to make an uncertain go at fighting once more. He made it. Now at the top of the mountain, he can only go down if somebody can knock him off. That’s what motivates him.

“It definitely puts a little more pressure on me. I know there’s a lot of people that to go bed every night thinking about taking that title from me,” he said. “I’d been that guy for six or seven years. I daydreamed about it, when I woke up and before I went to bed. Right now there’s ten or fifteen guys that go to bed thinking about that belt. I got guys coming after me. Everybody I fight is gonna be in their best shape of their lives. But I always perform well under pressure.”

And where does he keep the actual belt?

“I’m looking at it right now,” he said. You can hear the smile over the phone line. “It’s sitting above my fireplace.”

For somebody to take that belt, it figures they’ll need to need to be hungry, motivated, and willing to suffer. A guy willing to fight through pain. Willing to bleed and keep coming. Someone a lot like Sean Sherk.



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