The Ballad of the Muscle Shark

From floor finisher to World Champion: Sean Sherk grapples his way to the top of the UFC

He works silently by himself, shadowboxing in front of a mirror. Jab, jab, overhand right. Jab, jab, uppercut left. Jab, jab, right kick. The punches are compact and powerful, just like his body. Even at half speed, it's clear he can cause serious mayhem.

His name is Sean Sherk, and he is the owner of the massive gold belt in the corner, a gaudy accessory only a world-class fighter could pull off. Seven months ago, Sherk hoisted this belt above his head at the Mandalay Events Center in Las Vegas as the newly crowned 155-pound king of the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

In a blood-soaked brawl that left even veteran fans feeling queasy, the 33-year-old St. Francis native defeated Kenny Florian for the lightweight title.

Nick Vlcek

The fight marked the capstone of more than a decade of sweat equity. In fact, less than two years earlier, Sherk had walked away from mixed martial arts fighting, frustrated with his inability to make a living at the discipline at which he excelled.

"Now that I have the belt, everyone wants to meet you and everyone wants to see you," Sherk says. "I've been around since the beginning."

Sherk began wrestling competitively at age seven. He enjoyed considerable success at St. Francis High School, finishing third in the 1990 state tournament as a sophomore at 103 pounds, then sixth as a senior at 125 pounds. "I lived and breathed wrestling my entire life," he says.

But by the time Sherk finished high school, his enthusiasm for the grueling training the sport requires was tapped out. He spurned any thoughts of collegiate wrestling and began working construction.

Then Sherk witnessed his first mixed martial arts fight. He'd seen commercials for UFC 2: No Way Out on television and was intrigued, so Sherk and some friends ordered the pay-per-view event, which featured 16 fighters from across the martial arts spectrum competing in a no-holds-barred tournament.

The fight card included one of the more gruesome matches in early UFC history. During a quarterfinal bout, Remco "Grizzly" Pardoel punished Orlando Weit with brutal elbows to the skull even after the considerably smaller opponent had been knocked unconscious.

Yet Sherk wasn't turned off by the violence. Instead, UFC 2 inspired him to begin training again. He discovered Minnesota Martial Arts Academy, a Brooklyn Center training facility founded in 1992, and began to expand his fighting skills beyond wrestling. Under the tutelage of Greg Nelson, the gym's founder and a former wrestling standout at the University of Minnesota, Sherk began studying Thai kickboxing, Shooto, and Jujitsu.

Sherk entered his first MMA competition in 1999, an eight-person tournament held in the parking lot of the Shooting Star Casino in Mahnomen. His first fight was against a burly Marine with a strong amateur wrestling background. They traded takedowns. Sherk pinned his opponent to the mat and began raining blows on his face. The ref stopped the fight. Sherk went on to win the 175-pound division. His prize: $50.

"I was happy as hell," Sherk says. "Went and got myself a buffet. Put some gas in my tank."

The next competition took place on an August afternoon in the parking lot of the Pig Pen bar in Clinton, Iowa. The temperature that day was in the mid-90s and the canvas was black. It was like fighting in a sauna.

"They literally hosed down the ring between fights and rounds because the guys' backs were getting burnt," recalls Nelson.

Dehydrated from cutting weight, Sherk nearly passed out with one round left in the championship bout. "I was walking back to my corner and I started to stagger and everything kind of went black," he says.

But Sherk managed to stay upright and win the eight-man tournament. More importantly, he caught the eye of the event's promoter, Monte Cox, a former journalist and boxer who'd fallen hard for MMA.

"He had energy to burn," recalls Cox, who soon signed on to manage the fledgling fighter.

Victories continued to pile up for Sherk, though the purses remained minuscule. A big match might mean a $1,000 check. He paid the bills by working as a machinist at a metal parts factory in Circle Pines. "It wasn't anything glamorous by any means," Sherk says.

In April 2001, his fight career came to a crossroads. Sherk was 15-0, and well on his way to establishing a formidable reputation in MMA. Meanwhile, layoffs loomed at the manufacturing plant, which was losing work orders and cutting jobs.

"It was a union company, so you know exactly where you stand as far as seniority," Sherk says. "You're watching everyone below get picked off. Then all of a sudden, you know you're next."

Sherk had just returned from knocking out Marty Armendarez at a "King of the Cage" event in Williams, California, when his boss summoned him to his office and broke the bad news. Sherk immediately called Cox. "I want to fight every month now," he told the promoter. "I want to make a living out of this."

Over the next two years, Sherk fought his way across the United States, into Canada, and all the way to Japan. He racked up seven straight wins, choking out Claudionor Fontinelle and pummeling Curtis Brigham until his manager threw in the towel.

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