The Ballad of the Muscle Shark
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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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