The Ballad of the Muscle Shark

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

"Everyone got pissed off at me even though I had nothing to do with it," he says. "I had to go clean this entire mess up." Instead of fighting, Sherk spent the evening camped at the front door of the bar, explaining to disgruntled fight fans what had happened and refunding their money. Sherk never saw a dime of the $10,000 he was promised.

In the wake of the debacle, Sherk sent a letter to every MMA publication and website that he could find in an attempt to clear his name. "Outside of losing money and other opportunities, I lost face in my own town, and that's something I can never regain," he wrote.

In February 2004, Sherk traveled to Yokohama, Japan, for an event put on by Pride Fighting Championship. At "Bushido 2," he battled Ryuki Ueyama, winning a unanimous decision. In a post-match interview, Sherk learned that Japanese fans had taken to calling him "Muscle Shark." The nickname stuck, but Pride never called him back.

Nick Vlcek

In some ways Sherk was a victim of his own success. As he repeatedly eviscerated opponents, the opportunities to fight began to dry up. The smaller, regional circuits didn't want to pay him big bucks to dominate their inferior combatants.

The Muscle Shark couldn't find a fight. Sherk's career bottomed out near the end of 2004. Within a week, three scheduled bouts were canceled. He wouldn't receive a dime after months of grueling training. And he badly needed money—his wife had just given birth to their first son, Kyler.

"Now I've got no fights scheduled, just had a baby, got bills due, and I've got no income," Sherk recalls. "I had to leave. There was no getting around it. Basically I had to walk away so I could make a living."

Less than two years earlier, Sherk had been on the verge of winning a UFC title. Now, he had a less glamorous ambition: start a business finishing hardwood floors.

In 2001, the UFC was still an underground phenomenon, reviled by polite society as a savage spectacle. Sen. John McCain had labeled the sport "human cockfighting" and led a nationwide crusade to ban it.

Then the UFC was purchased for $2 million by Zuffa, a company owned by casino magnates Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta and run by their childhood friend, former boxer Dana White. In the ensuing years, the company poured some $44 million into rehabilitating the sport's image.

The big breakthrough arrived in 2005 with the launch of The Ultimate Fighter on Spike TV. The reality-TV show, in which 16 contestants vie for a UFC contract, was an immediate hit, drawing some two million viewers, most of them in the demographic sweet spot: male (73 percent) and young (average age: 30).

"All this stuff was just exploding," Sherk recalls, "and meanwhile I'm working a full-time job, watching all these guys with half my ability get all these opportunities to make all this money."

The Ultimate Fighter was just the beginning of a marketing bonanza. Spike now broadcasts UFC programming four nights a week. Pay-per-view events, once quarterly affairs, are produced monthly. Thanks to rules changes that banned the more violent moves, such as soccer kicks to the head, MMA fighting is now legal in 22 states. "The Ultimate Fighter was our Trojan horse," says UFC president White. "It humanized the sport."

As the sport blossomed into a phenomenon, Sherk was at home in Minnesota polishing hardwood floors. "I didn't train," he says. "I didn't do anything. In my mind I was done. I wasn't going to ever return."

But the fact that he'd never won a UFC title gnawed at him. So one afternoon in 2005, Sherk called Cox.

By that time, Cox was pulling the financial strings for practically every UFC titleholder, including Hughes, middleweight champion Rich Franklin, and heavyweight king Tim Sylvia. "He's the biggest manager in MMA," De Santis says of Cox. "You want to get into UFC, you get managed by Monte Cox."

Sherk had a simple question for his former manager: "Do you think there's a future in the sport for me?"

Cox said yes. But there was one piece of unfinished business between the two former partners: Sherk would only return to the fight game if Cox agreed to manage his career. Cox was not the type to forgive and forget—he considered Sherk's decision to change managers an insult. But this time he relented. "I said, you know what, everyone makes a mistake," Cox recalls. "Let's do it again."

Even after a year layoff, Sherk's reputation remained formidable. Most MMA observers still ranked him in the top five among 170-pound fighters. Within a week of agreeing to take Sherk back into the fold, Cox had negotiated a three-fight contract with the UFC.

Sherk returned to the octagon in November 2005 at UFC 56: Full Force, pitted against George St. Pierre, a 24-year-old Canadian and one of the sport's rising stars. St. Pierre and Sherk had one thing in common: Their only previous defeats had come courtesy of Matt Hughes.

Sherk was giving up considerable size to his opponent—St. Pierre was four inches taller and held a five-inch reach advantage. So early on in the bout, Sherk tried to take the fight to the mat. He repeatedly shot in on St. Pierre, who used his greater size to fend off the attacks by sprawling out of the way.

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