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The only blemish on Sherk's record was a draw against Japanese fighter Kiuma Kunioku at an event put on by Pancrase in Tokyo—a decision that still rankles him. "There's no doubt I beat him," he says. "He hit me once in 15 minutes. But if you're going to fight the king of Pancrase on Japanese turf, you're going to have to finish him. You can't win a decision."
Sherk's first crack at the most prestigious American fight circuit came at UFC 30: Battle on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City. The bright lights didn't faze him. He forced Tiki Ghosn to submit after dislocating his shoulder late in the second period.
In Sherk's second bout for the UFC, he won a unanimous decision over veteran Japanese fighter Jutaro Nakao. Sherk slammed his overwhelmed opponent to the mat multiple times, then pounded him on the ground.
Next Sherk faced off against Benji Radach, a skilled wrestler who towered over Sherk by six inches. Radach stung Sherk early with a strong right jab. But three minutes in, Sherk hoisted his taller opponent into the air and slammed him to the mat, unleashing a flurry of forearms to the head. Blood gushed from Radach's nose and seeped into his eyes. After examining the carnage, the doctor stopped the fight 4:16 into the first round.
With just three UFC fights under his belt, Sherk had quickly established himself as one of the most dangerous competitors in the 170-pound division.
Sherk badly wanted a shot at the title, but there was a problem: The belt was held by Matt Hughes, who was also represented by Cox, who had no desire to watch his two prime properties bludgeon each other into submission. "If they're going to lose, that's fine," Cox says. "I just didn't want to see one of my guys beat one of my guys."
Sherk was left with a dilemma. He could bide his time with Cox and hope to eventually get a title fight. Or he could drop his manager and take his shot at the belt. Ultimately, his desire to fight Hughes won out.
"It was really disappointing," Cox says. "He was the first fighter that I had managed that ever left. I traveled all over the world with Sean."
It was a huge gamble for Sherk. Heading into the title fight, he had no additional fights scheduled in the UFC. Attempts to negotiate a contract extension had failed. Hughes, a wrestler who had been beaten just three times in 35 bouts, was considered the most dominant welterweight ever to fight in the UFC and was essentially a bigger version of Sherk.
The five-round welterweight title bout was the headline event of UFC 42: Sudden Impact in April 2003 at American Airlines Arena in Miami. "Sean Sherk looks hungry," the commentator announced at the start of the bout. "He looks like a juggernaut. He's a beast."
But Hughes was no pushover either. He drove Sherk onto his back just 20 seconds into the first round. From that dominant position, he attacked Sherk's face with forearms, elbows, and fists. Midway through the round, Hughes opened a nasty cut above Sherk's right eye, then burrowed into the laceration with his elbow.
The second period was more of the same. Twice more Hughes tossed Sherk to the mat, and the challenger spent most of the five-minute round fending off blows from his back.
Sherk opened the third period with renewed aggression. He took Hughes to the mat and drove him against the fence, punishing him with vicious elbows to the face. Back up on their feet, Sherk staggered Hughes with a left uppercut before taking him to the mat once again. The champ was on notice.
But any hope sparked by Sherk's mid-fight flourish proved false. Hughes controlled the final two rounds, offering the challenger few opportunities to inflict damage. The three judges awarded the defending champ a unanimous decision.
Despite the loss, Sherk had earned the respect of fans. "Sean was the first guy to really go all five rounds with Matt Hughes," says TJ De Santis, an Excelsior resident who co-hosts "Beatdown Radio" on Sherdog.com, a website devoted MMA fighting.
Sherk found little solace in this moral victory. Despite being ranked second in the welterweight division, the UFC dropped him from its roster. UFC president Dana White says he was angry because Sherk's manager had essentially tried to blackmail the league into a bigger payday just three days before the Hughes fight by threatening to no-show. "I said, Are you fucking kidding me right now?" White recalls. "We're three days away from the fight. That pissed me off. That made me not too happy."
Cox believes Sherk was led astray by his new advisor. "I watched his career basically get ruined by a guy that thought he knew everything," he says. "When Sean got dropped, he kind of got lost."
Cut off from the biggest MMA circuit, Sherk struggled to find a fight. In November 2003, he was scheduled to headline a card at Spiker's Grille & Beach Club in Spring Lake Park. He'd been promised $10,000 for the appearance and worked hard to promote the event, selling more than 150 tickets to friends and family. But one day before the show, Sherk found out the promoter had canceled it. Sherk went to Spiker's and told them the bad news.