Sean Sherk is so compulsive about his health, if he sees a person smoking a cigarette in a car in front of him, he pulls into another lane to be as far away from the second-hand smoke as possible.
The former UFC lightweight champion chuckles and admits his behavior might seem odd to most people, even those who have never smoked.
"I'm a different person when it comes to that kind of stuff," Sherk says. "My health is very, very important to me. I'm goofy that way."
But, he admits softly, his reputation is also tainted, perhaps irreparably so. The anabolic steroid nandrolone turned up in Sherk's urine in a routine postfight urinalysis following his successful title defense against Hermes Franca at UFC 73 on July 7 in Sacramento, Calif.
Sherk proclaimed his innocence early and often and said he spent more than $20,000 in what turned out to be a futile effort to clear his name. In December, the California State Athletic Commission upheld the decision, though it reduced the suspension executive officer Armando Garcia had given him from a year to six months.
Garcia said Friday he doesn't know how the steroids got into Sherk's body, but said he is convinced that they were there and that the commission treated Sherk fairly during the appeals process.
"The one thing I am absolutely convinced about is that he had nandrolone in his body when he fought Hermes Franca," Garcia said.
But in a telephone interview Friday, Sherk angrily denied he'd taken a steroid. He couldn't account for the commission's tests, which three times showed him positive for nandrolone.
He and attorney Howard Jacobs presented a packet of evidence to the commission which they hoped would exonerate him. Sherk said there was evidence of carryover from previous tests on the machines used to analyze his urine.
"The three tests that were done before mine all tested positive (for steroids)," Sherk said. "They are supposed to clean the machine, which they did, but there was still carryover. That's documented."
He said Jacobs' investigation found contamination in a supplement he'd been taking and he passed a blood test, which he said is more accurate than a urine test at discovering steroids.
Plus, he said, he passed several polygraph examinations.
"I worked extremely hard to get to this point in my career and now I have this attached to my name, even though I'm 100 percent innocent," Sherk said.
He said a glucosamine supplement he took was later found to be contaminated with a testosterone booster. But he said if that's how the steroid got into his body, he can't understand how he should be held responsible for it.
"Even if it was a tainted supplement, I had no intentions of taking it and it was somebody else's error," Sherk said. "I think they should be at fault rather than me. Contamination of supplements is an issue. There have been people who have tested positive in the past for that reason, but I don't think the fighter should be held responsible. It's not the fighter's fault."
But that's where the supplement game becomes tricky for fighters. States put the onus on the athlete for knowing what they ingest, so every pill a fighter pops presents a risk.
Though Garcia said Sherk demonstrated "zero proof" that he ingested a tainted supplement, he said it wouldn't have mattered had he proved it.
"We put the responsibility on you for knowing what you put into your body," Garcia said.
This is one of those rare cases where both sides are likely correct. Sherk almost certainly didn't knowingly take steroids, but probably took a tainted supplement that caused him to test positive.
The problem for the fighter when that happens is that there is no recourse. It's like when you get one of those tickets in the mail for running a red light. The camera caught the license plate of a car registered in your name, but it turned out to be driven by a friend. The state still expects you to pay the traffic ticket.
Similarly, the state presumes the athlete guilty whenever banned substances show up in his body regardless of how it got there.
The bad pill came with a big price to Sherk. In addition to the $20,000 he spent preparing his defense, Sherk estimates he lost more than $500,000 in fight purses and sponsorships and was stripped of his title, albeit very reluctantly, by UFC president Dana White.
White has known Sherk for seven years and said he believed Sherk without hesitation when Sherk denied taking the steroid. White admitted it was blind faith, since he never saw a shred of scientific evidence that would exonerate Sherk.
White said he looked at Sherk, who is nicknamed "Muscle Shark" and knew he was telling the truth.
"I'm 38 years old and I've seen a lot of guys use steroids in my time," White said Friday. "When guys are doing steroids, you can see the difference. Before they start, they have a certain body type. It looks a certain way. Then they take the stuff and there are changes and the body looks a different way. Then, when they get off, it changes again and looks a different way again.
"With Sean Sherk, his body looked the same since the day I met him. There's never been one change. This guy is a maniac when it comes to how he treats his body and what he puts in it. I totally, totally, totally believed what he told me."
Because of White's faith in him, Sherk will be back fighting for the title soon. He said Sherk would meet the winner of the B.J. Penn-Joe Stevenson match at UFC 80, which is Jan. 19 in Newcastle Upon Tyne, England, for the title sometime in either April or May.
Sherk said it will be hard to watch Penn and Stevenson compete for a belt he fought hard to win and retain. But he wanted to be there to see it, so he'll be ringside to work on the UFC's pay-per-view television broadcast of the bout.
Penn said Thursday that he didn't feel badly fighting for a vacant title, because, "He was found guilty and when you do the crime, you have to do the time."
That's why Sherk asked White to be part of the television crew.
"I know if B.J. wins, he's going to get in there and talk crap about me," Sherk said. "I wanted to be there so I could get in there and defend myself.
"I told Dana I'd love to be a part of this thing. I still feel like I'm the champion until someone beats me. They may give a belt to whoever wins that fight, but the people will know who the real champion really is."
- Sean Sherk