The Ballad of the Muscle Shark

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

Three minutes into the match, St. Pierre surprised Sherk by shooting in for a double-leg takedown of his own. From the dominant top position, St. Pierre punished the smaller fighter with elbows to the face.

The fight only got worse for Sherk in the second round. St. Pierre easily took him to the mat, then went to work on his already bloodied face. St. Pierre busted open Sherk's nose, sending bolts of pain radiating through his face. With Sherk powerless to defend himself, the ref pulled St. Pierre off and called an end to the fight.

It was a textbook example of the difficulties Sherk would continue to face fighting at 170 pounds. Most of the elite fighters in the welterweight division had a considerable size advantage over him. "Sean's solid at 170," says De Santis. "He's got a lot of muscle and not a lot of fat, but he's not tall enough to be 170 pounds—and St. Pierre exposed that."

Nick Vlcek

Luckily for Sherk, he wouldn't be fighting at 170 for long. With the explosion in popularity of the UFC, the league had decided to reintroduce the 155-pound weight class. The lightweight belt had been vacant since 2002, when then-champ Jens Pulver left the UFC due to a contract dispute. Now the UFC was going to give Sherk a chance to fight for it.

"The kid was a stud at 170 pounds," White says. "If he could make 155 pounds, we figured he'd dominate the world."

Sherk was matched against Kenny Florian, a product of The Ultimate Fighter and a seasoned jujitsu specialist. Although "Ken-Flo" looked about as menacing as a college professor, he had proven himself a crafty fighter with lethal elbows. Most recently, he had choked out Sam Stout in less than two minutes. The five-round title fight was slated for UFC 64: Unstoppable.

Then disaster struck. Less than two weeks before Sherk's title fight, he was sparring with Rick Noyes at the Minnesota Martial Arts Academy. Sherk shot in for one of his patented double-leg takedowns, but Noyes sprawled, and the full force of his 200-plus-pound frame fell on Sherk's right shoulder, tearing his slat.

Sherk would need surgery to repair the damage. The pain was so bad he couldn't sleep at night. Five days before the championship bout, Sherk received a cortisone shot to quell the pain. But the doctor pumped the fluid into the wrong spot, and the treatment proved worthless. At one point, Sherk considered dropping out of the fight, but he knew it might be his final shot at a belt.

"I've been waiting my whole life to win a world title and everything's on the line," he says. "I figured if I'm going to have surgery, I'd be better off having surgery with a world title wrapped around my waist."

Sherk certainly didn't look like a one-armed fighter when the fight got underway at Mandalay Bay. Just five seconds into the match, he ducked into a double-leg takedown and drove Florian to the mat. Sherk remained in control throughout the five-minute round, delivering elbows and punches to Florian's head.

The second period started exactly like the first. Seconds in, Sherk burrowed in on a double-leg takedown and planted Florian on his back.

But then the Muscle Shark let down his guard. Attempting to free his body from Florian's grasp, Sherk left his head exposed. From his back, Florian directed a sharp elbow at Sherk's head, opening a one-inch cut.

The ref brought the fight to a halt to check the damage. Luckily for Sherk, the cut was high enough on his forehead that it wasn't impeding his vision. The ringside doctor concluded that it was safe for Sherk to continue.

In between rounds, a cut man worked feverishly to stanch the bleeding with Q-tips and Vaseline. But the gash had opened a vein and there was no stopping the flow.

The advice in Ken-Flo's corner was to seize the advantage: "Work that cut. Work that cut."

The spectacle grew more gruesome as it proceeded. By the third round, the octagon looked like a slaughterhouse, the floor awash in gore.

"It gets in your head, just knowing that blood's all over you," Florian says. "It's kind of a disgusting feeling. That blood becomes like a red oil. As far as trying to execute certain techniques, it becomes damn near impossible. For me, it was worse, because that blood was dripping directly into my eyes, my ears, my mouth. I couldn't see out there. I'm gargling on Sherk's blood."

By the end of the fourth round, it was clear to both corners that Sherk would win if the fight went to the judges for a decision. Florian's best hope was to open the cut so that the doctor would have to stop the fight.

In Sherk's corner, Nelson counseled caution. "Hands up," he said. "He's gonna go for broke."

Just 15 seconds into the final round, Florian found himself in a familiar spot—on his back. The desperate fighter worked for a submission hold. He tried an arm bar; then a guillotine. But the blood and sweat made Sherk as slippery as a greased pig.

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