Seemingly chiseled out of stone, a relentless force whose nickname, “The Muscle Shark” was more than accurate, former UFC lightweight champion Sean Sherk was mixed martial arts’ iron man for years, and he took pride in such a reputation.
But eventually, a lifetime of toil took its toll on him.
“The injuries have been piling up for years and I am the iron man, so they kept piling up and I kept running right through ‘em and I don’t slow down, I just keep going and going,” he said. “But at some point in time I had to say okay, these injuries are not gonna go anywhere unless I take some time off and make a smart decision and get my body healed up and get myself healthy. I want to make a legitimate run for a world title and I’m not gonna do that hurt.”
So following his most recent fight, a three round decision loss to future UFC champ Frankie Edgar at UFC 98 in May of 2009, the iron man decided that it was time for a rest.
“I found myself some really good doctors, they fixed me up over the course of a three, four month period, I took some time off, and now I’m ready to get back into it and make a run for a world title.”
It sounds easy now, especially since Sherk is fired up and ready for his return this Saturday night in Indianapolis against unbeaten Evan Dunham. But as he sat out and watched the lightweight division go through its paces without him, nothing could be worse for a man who had known nothing but the gym and competition for much of his life.
“The hard part about sitting out is watching all these other guys fight, knowing that I should be in there fighting too and knowing that I can pretty much beat all these dudes,” he said. “It’s kinda hard to sit on the sidelines and watch other people do stuff that you want to be doing and that you should be doing.”
As the saying goes, all’s well that ends well, and Sherk says that he’s healthier than he’s been in a long time, and you can hear the excitement in his voice when he talks about his return. Or maybe excitement’s not the word. Maybe it’s more of an intensity, a feeling that he’s coming back to take something he feels belongs to him. But before he can return to the title picture and get another shot at the belt he held for nearly a year, he has to turn back the talented upstart in Dunham, a fighter Sherk admits he didn’t even know about when he was offered the bout. But he knows who the Oregon native is now.
“I see a young, hungry kid, somebody who wants to be the best in the world,” said Sherk of Dunham. “He’s winning some big fights, and he looks good in the process. When I called the UFC and told them that I’m ready to fight, whaddya got for me, this is what they offered me and I said okay. I don’t want to run from anybody, even though I really didn’t know who Evan was when they offered me the fight. When I watched video I knew he was gonna be tough and I wanted to take that challenge. This is my first fight in 16 months, I’ve been fighting professionally for 11 years, I wrestled competitively for 13 years before that, and I’ve always been a competitor. And what draws me to this competitive, one on one sport is the challenge, and this is a great challenge for me.”
When Sherk talks about the length of time he’s spent competing, it’s daunting. 37-4-1 in MMA, he fought for years at welterweight, giving up the kind of size his 5 foot 6 frame couldn’t possibly manage, but he still did it and did it successfully, losing at 170 only to Matt Hughes and Georges St-Pierre. The only ones to defeat him at 155 pounds are two more world champions in Edgar and BJ Penn. So when you ask him what it felt like to be at the same unbeaten stage as Dunham’s at now, you can almost hear him chuckling in his mind before he responds.
“11-0 isn’t by any means a far stretch as far as being undefeated,” he said. “11 fights is relatively new to this industry in my opinion. I was 22-0 when I got beat. I don’t know if anyone in this industry has gone 22-0 and fought the level of competition that I fought. I was 22-0 and fighting Matt Hughes, the number one pound for pound fighter in the world, dubbed the best UFC champion of all-time at that point in time, and there was an unbelievable amount of pressure on my shoulders. I don’t know if he feels that pressure or not. This is a big fight for him, I’m definitely gonna be the toughest dude he’s fought, and I’m gonna bring a lot of things that he hasn’t seen before, so this is gonna be a learning experience for both of us.”
Continuing to learn may end up being the key to Sherk’s future success in the Octagon at the age of 37. Once known as strictly being a powerhouse wrestler, Sherk developed an excellent standup attack that has made him dangerous wherever the fight goes. And when you add in his Spartan work ethic and his experience, he’s still one of the top 155-pounders in the world as long as injuries don’t rear their ugly head. But he still believes that to the public at large, he’s an afterthought when it comes to the title picture, an idea that motivates him even more to prove the doubters wrong.
“I’m like the Rodney Dangerfield of mixed martial arts and it’s kinda crazy,” said Sherk. “I bust my ass and everyone knows how hard I work, what I’ve accomplished and what I put into this. It’s no secret. I’ve been very verbal about it, everyone’s seen my All-Access and my youtube videos and my diet and training, and I’m right on the money with that stuff because if I’m not doing everything I can to win a fight, then I’m only cheating myself and I’m not gonna do that. I put everything mentally and physically that I can into this, and I put everything on the line. I wear my heart on my sleeve and I’m out there for a fight. I’ve beaten 10 to 12 guys who have been ranked Top Ten in the world over the years, I fought for world titles in two different weight classes, won a world title, and I’ve accomplished a lot, but people don’t give me any respect for that. And that’s fine because I’m still thriving for that respect just like I was ten years ago. That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning and that’s what makes me want to work my butt off. If people don’t want to respect me, that’s fine; that just motivates me.”
Ultimately, the goal is still a simple one – getting back the lightweight title. It’s what pushes Sherk every day, and while some say that the belt doesn’t mean much in the great scheme of things, the Minnesota native knows and feels otherwise.
“The thing I miss the most is being dubbed the number one fighter in the world, the world champion,” he said. “You’ve got everyone coming after you, everyone nipping at your heels, you’ve got a target on your back, and everyone wants a piece of you whether it be in the cage or outside the cage.”
For most people, being chased and having a target on your back would be a bad thing. Not for Sean Sherk. It’s all he lives for right now, so now’s not the time for looking into the past and patting himself on the back for a job well done over the years. It’s all about the future, and he’s not going to rest until he gets that belt one more time. Then he might relax a bit.
“Maybe when that day comes I’ll be able to take a nice deep breath and sit back and relax on my recliner and really enjoy the ride that I’ve had over the years,” he smiles. “But right now, I’ve got a tough opponent standing in front of me and this guy’s not gonna lay down for me.”
And Sherk has no problem with that.
The Return of The Iron Man
“The hard part about sitting out is watching all these other guys fight, knowing that I should be in there fighting too and knowing that I can pretty much beat all these dudes. It’s kinda hard to sit on the sidelines and watch other people do stuff that you want to be doing and that you should be doing.”