The Ballad of the Muscle Shark

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

With two minutes left in the epic battle, Sherk put an exclamation point on his performance. He scooped up Florian, staggered momentarily, then slammed him to the mat, bouncing Ken-Flo's head off the canvas.

The judges awarded Sherk a unanimous decision. UFC president Dana White fastened the title belt around Sherk's waist. During his post-fight interview, Sherk told the adoring crowd: "It was just a bloody war."

Just two weeks after winning the UFC lightweight title, Sherk underwent surgery on his torn shoulder. A doctor inserted three bolts into his upper arm. They'll stay there for six years.

Nick Vlcek

Now Sherk is focusing on the next fight. On July 7, he's slated to defend his title against Hermes Franca at UFC 73: Stacked in Las Vegas. A veteran Brazilian jujitsu specialist and powerful striker with a freewheeling style, Franca owns an impressive 18-5 record. "He throws weird, crazy, looping shots," De Santis says. "These shots don't even necessarily look like they would hurt, but they rock people."

On a recent Tuesday morning at the Minnesota Martial Arts Academy, Sherk spars for the first time in nearly six months. He's 11 weeks out from the fight and ramping into full training mode. Over the next 10 days, he'll shed 25 pounds, a trial run for the July weigh-in. The goal is to get his body acclimated to 155 pounds. "You've got to get used to it so your body's not going to go into shock," Sherk explains.

The first 20 pounds he'll shed through dieting and hard work. The final five he'll sweat off in the sauna. After the July weigh-in, he'll have 30 hours to rebuild his strength. By the time the bout begins, he'll be back up to 175 pounds.

Today's sparring session is mostly about getting comfortable back on the mat. Sherk dons boxing gloves and trades combinations with Nate Homme, a veteran fighter with a 16-1 record.

Jab, jab, double leg. Jab, overhand right, double leg. Clinch, jab, jab, double leg.

At the end of the nearly hour-long session, Sherk is sprawled on his back, bathed in sweat. His elbow popped out of joint and is throbbing with pain. The injured shoulder is constantly on his mind. "I've never had to be conservative because I've never been hurt before," Sherk says. "I kind of thought I was invincible."

Not that he's complaining. At 33, Sherk figures he's got at least four more years of peak fighting form.

"I'm still in my prime," he says. "I'm faster than I've ever been. I'm more explosive than I've ever been. I'm just as strong as I was 10 years ago."

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