From his shredded abdomen to his massive trapezius to his cauliflower ears, Sean Sherk looks every bit the wrestler. He's built like a guy who could pick you up and drive you repeatedly into the mat for the sheer joy of it.
It's pretty much what he did to Kenny Florian when he won the Ultimate Fighting Championship lightweight title at UFC 64 in Las Vegas on Oct. 14, 2006. That raw power is what has helped him to become one of the world's elite mixed martial artists.
It's been a different Sherk in the cage in his last two outings, however. The Sherk who dropped a title fight in Las Vegas to B.J. Penn at UFC 84 on May 24, 2008, and the one who claimed an exciting unanimous decision from Tyson Griffin at UFC 90 in Chicago on Oct. 25 was far more willing to fire his hands and trade punches.
He not only was willing to box, but also actually made the conscious decision to eschew wrestling and rely upon his standup. He's worked on his boxing since he was a boy, but he built his professional reputation as a powerful and hard-nosed wrestler.
He's showing other aspects of his game more frequently now, though, all part of a desire to become the most complete fighter he can. He's been working on a slew of new submission moves as well, though it's unlikely he'll be taking part in a black belt ceremony any time soon.
But when he meets Frankie Edgar in an important lightweight bout at the MGM Grand Garden in Las Vegas on May 23 as part of UFC 98, he'll be a lot more versatile than he was just a few short years ago.
"The great thing about this sport is that, even after all these years as a pro fighter and 40 fights, I'm still learning and still adding a lot to my game," he said. "I relied on my wrestling for a long time in my career, but the way this sport has evolved, you really can't be one-dimensional and compete at the highest level."
Sherk is 37-3-1 and his only losses have come to three of the best fighters ever to compete in the UFC: Matt Hughes, Georges St. Pierre and Penn, all of whom at one point or another have held the welterweight title.
He's clearly one of the game's top talents, though his name in rarely mentioned is such talk.
And he's still has to prove that his gaudy record is the result of genetics, talent and hard work more so than from chemistry.
He failed a post-fight urinalysis following his victory over Hermes Franca in a lightweight title bout at UFC 73 in Sacramento, Calif., on July 7, 2007. He was suspended for a year by the California State Athletic Commission.
Sherk, though, was incensed by the charge and vehemently denied the allegations. He hired an attorney to prove his innocence and presented a compelling case.
The problem from his standpoint is that it was the media that heard his entire presentation, not the commissioners who would decide his fate.
"Guys who are accused of murder were given more rights than I was in this particular situation," Sherk said.
He ultimately managed to get the penalty reduced to six months, though the damage to his career, his finances and, most importantly, his personal reputation, was anything but reduced. He lost significant money in sponsorships, money he hasn't regained nearly two years later.
He looked no less ripped and appeared no less powerful than he did before, and he passed every test he was given, yet many of his sponsors simply wanted nothing to do with him.
"I lost tons of sponsors," Sherk said. "Basically, I can't get a nutrition company to sponsor me. None of them want to touch me. I've had people straight up tell me they don't want anything to do with me because of the steroid stuff."
Keith Kizer, the executive director of the Nevada Athletic Commission, said Sherk just passed yet another test. He was tested randomly prior to his UFC 98 bout, along with Hughes, Edgar and Matt Serra.
He also was clean both prior to and after his bout at UFC 84, Kizer said.
That's of no surprise to Sherk, who said he's at least gratified that California has revamped its testing procedures since his case.
He wants to move on and be recognized for his accomplishments and not for having been tagged as a steroids user.
He's not so naive, however, to think that's a simple task. He passed polygraph tests, blood tests and urine tests in an attempt to prove his own veracity, yet to no avail.
With the passage of time, he believes he may finally be vindicated. He was chosen randomly by Kizer for prefight testing this time, but he's going to be the most-tested fighter in MMA by the time he's through.
"I'm becoming a better fighter all the time and I'm becoming more well-versed in all aspects," Sherk said. "That's usually not what people want to talk to me about, though. It's not what some of these sponsors think. I understand where they're coming from, but it's frustrating for me because I'm an innocent party who has done nothing but work as hard as I possibly could to become as good as I possibly can."
If he keeps defeating the best the UFC throws at him, he believes that sooner or later his reputation will be restored.
And then, he'll be judged by the ability he shows in the cage and not by the thought that he became better through artificial means.
"The way our sport is evolving is incredible," Sherk said. "The next group of guys coming in are a lot more well-rounded than the group of guys they're replacing. It's a constant improvement process. I want people to look at me and say, 'This guy did everything he could to be a complete fighter,' and not look at me and think of me as a guy who cheated and took a shortcut."
As Sherk well knows, however, that is much easier said than done.
- Sean Sherk