Sean Sherk: Over the Hill, Much Maligned, and As Good As Ever
Sean “The Muscle Shark” Sherk is a lot of things to a lot of different people. To some, he’s a potential UFC hall of famer, a former UFC lightweight champion, and grinding, blue-collar animal inside the octagon.
To others, he is past his prime, has a boring fighting style, and is a proven cheater for testing positive for a banned substance in July 2007.
There is no doubt he is one of the most polarizing figures in all of MMA.
Regardless of which side of the fence you fall on Sherk, at the not-so-ripe age of 35, is not going anywhere anytime soon.
His career resume is impressive to say the least. His notable wins include the likes of Karo Parisyan (twice), Nick Diaz, Kenny Florian, Hermes Franca, and most recently Tyson Griffin.
Since June 19, 1999, the date of Sherk’s first professional MMA fight roughly ten years ago, he has accumulated an impressive 33–3–1 overall record.
Keep in mind two of his losses were to welterweights who physically overwhelmed him, including former welterweight champion Matt Hughes at UFC 42 and current welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre at UFC 56.
His third career loss was his only career blemish at the lightweight level coming at the hands of current lightweight champion B.J. Penn at UFC 84.
While other veteran fighters like Chuck Liddell and Wanderlei Silva have had their skills diminish with age, and appear unwilling to reinvent themselves, Sherk remains steadfast in evolving and staying a dangerous title contender.
Sherk, known most notably for his incredible wrestling base, continues to hone his standup skills with each passing fight.
His last two fights against B.J. Penn and Tyson Griffin, a combined 30 minutes of total fight time, has seen Sherk comfortable enough to stand in the pocket for the entire duration of both bouts. That is unparalleled in comparison to his previous 35 fights.
It is his cardio that remains the most important factor in his success this late in his career. His workout regimen, overseen by Greg Nelson and company at the Minnesota Martial Arts Academy, to this day remains second to none.
At this point Sherk still has the skills necessary to be able to compete for another title. Other than B.J. Penn, who is nearing the end of his storied career, there are no lightweights on the current UFC roster that Sherk could not potentially defeat.
What the UFC will not tell you is that this puts them in a quandary, and as a result, has created unnecessary obstacles that Sherk must somehow overcome.
The problem is that the UFC would rather fast track, promote, and crown golden boys Kenny Florian or Diego Sanchez their lightweight champion. They would be more than thrilled if these two ruled the division for the next few years.
After all, Florian and Sanchez are two of the most popular fighters in all of MMA. Both gained huge popularity on The Ultimate Fighter program and are now treasured UFC assets.
Both are much younger than Sherk, more marketable, and have much bigger fan bases.
As a result of his popularity Florian was allowed to leapfrog Sherk and get the next crack at the lightweight belt against Penn, rumored to be at UFC 101.
Should Florian, who was dominated and bloodied by Sherk for five rounds already at UFC 64, have to beat Sherk to get the title shot?
Ideally he should, but there is a great chance Sherk would once again be able to defeat Florian. It was a risk the UFC was simply not willing to take.
Sanchez, on the other hand, will continue down the path blazed by Florian going forward and likely receive the same pardon when the time comes for him to be in title contention.
If Sanchez and Sherk both keep winning expect this matchup to never take place for the same reasons that Florian was ushered to the front of the line.
Sherk has essentially become the kryptonite of the lightweight division and a guy the UFC has no clue what to do with going forward other than pushing him off to the side for the foreseeable future.
With that being said, there is an extremely fine line between making a profit as a private business entity and holding up the integrity of the sport as a whole. It is a tightrope that the UFC is constantly walking and an extremely difficult challenge.
However, as a general rule, if you are consciously protecting fighters like Florian during the scheduling process you have fallen off the wrong side of the tightrope.
Not requiring Florian to fight Sherk for the number one contender spot was a great example of a decision made solely based with the bottom line of the company in mind.
Furthermore, not requiring Sanchez to fight Sherk when the time is right would also be a clear breach and yet another decision that would be frowned upon by the MMA gods.
The good news is that the UFC management still has plenty of time to decide exactly how close Sanchez will come to being exposed to the kryptonite but do not hold your breath.
It will likely be déjà vu all over again.
Sherk simply has to go about taking care of his business and hope when the time comes he once again gets the opportunity to shine.
He cannot control the external circumstances swirling around the lightweight division. He can only control what goes on inside the octagon and that starts with his next opponent Frankie Edgar at UFC 98 in Las Vegas on May 23, 2009.
When the music is queued that evening and Earshot’s “Wait” blares over the speakers inside the MGM Grand Garden Arena, out will walk a man on a persistent mission attempting to claw his way back to the pinnacle.
A man simultaneously waging war not just on lightweight division, but also his critics, father time, and the brazen politics of the UFC.
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