LAS VEGAS – Sean Sherk has two big fights on his hands Saturday.
He's going to fight B.J. Penn, arguably the most physically gifted mixed martial artist in the world, for the UFC lightweight title in the main event of UFC 84 at the MGM Grand Garden.
But Sherk's more difficult fight will come before Penn ever throws a punch or a kick. That battle will occur when Bruce Buffer, the UFC's suave ring announcer, introduces him to the sellout crowd as the former champion.
"That's a tough word for me to hear, 'former,' " Sherk said, shaking his head.
Indeed, he never lost the belt he won by defeating Kenny Florian in the cage. He was stripped of his title by UFC president Dana White.
But Sherk is the former champion because a drug test he took after defeating Hermes Franca at UFC 73 on July 7, 2007, in Sacramento, Calif., showed elevated levels of the anabolic steroid nandrolone.
He was initially suspended for a year by the California Athletic Commission, which has been aggressively trying to drum steroid usage out of both MMA and boxing under the leadership of executive director Armando Garcia.
Sherk vehemently denied knowingly using steroids and was successful in having his suspension decreased from 12 months to six.
"The commission knows I didn't do anything," Sherk said.
Garcia vehemently disputes that contention. When a fighter tests positive, it's Garcia's job to issue a temporary suspension. If the fighter appeals, the entire commission hears the case and makes the decision, as it did in this situation.
The commission heard Sherk's appeal, Garcia said, and upheld the test result.
"The fact that his sample's positive finding was upheld and he was fined $2,500 and suspended for six months clearly illustrates the commissioners' thought that the substance was in his body," Garcia said.
Sherk's biggest fight will be the one to regain the trust of the public. He's not sure what to expect when Buffer introduces him Saturday, but he knows a percentage of the fans are going to react negatively toward him.
"You have to earn (the fans' trust), and it's not something you can ask for," said Sherk, whose nickname is the Muscle Shark. "I have to earn it over time. Given what has happened in California, it's going to take a lot more time to earn that trust back. Really, I've been the same fighter and I've been the same guy for years and years and years. I'm not going to change at this point in my career.
"Hopefully, I can get (their respect) back, but there are going to be a lot of people who aren't going to believe me regardless because of the way I look. That's fine."
Nearly all of the anecdotal evidence points to Sherk's guilt. His level of nandrolone was 12 nanograms per milliliter, six times the acceptable threshold. Sherk at one point argued that he naturally produces high levels of nandrolone.
But when he submitted a sample March 18 at the request of the Nevada Athletic Commission as a condition of being licensed to fight Penn on Saturday, his result came back under 2.0 ng/ml.
Garcia pointed to a study done of 621 athletes at the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics. Only five athletes produced levels higher than 0.1 ng/ml and all five of those were women.
"All of those," Garcia pointed out, "were women on the (birth control) pill."
Sherk also suggested he may have taken a contaminated legal supplement or had a result tainted by microbial contamination.
Keith Kizer, the executive director of the Nevada Athletic Commission, said he has never been presented with evidence that supplement contamination has occurred.
"If someone tells us they have taken a contaminated substance, they could take the batch number and get an unopened sample from the same lot and have that tested," Kizer said. "If they did that, it should produce the same results when that new lot was tested."
Kizer said that has never been done, which both Kizer and Garcia said is because there is no credible evidence to support such a theory. Garcia pointed out that the supplement makers stand to lose millions if one of their otherwise legal supplements is tested and found to contain anabolic steroids.
Sherk has a mountain of evidence against him, but he's remained resolute in his denials, in spite of ever-increasing pressure.
And while there is pressure enough facing a dangerous man like Penn, he's faced with the added burden of potential public rejection. Home run king Barry Bonds routinely heard the singsong chants of "Steroids! Steroids!" when he played on the road away from his adoring home fans in San Francisco.
When Buffer introduces Sherk tonight, there could be a similar reaction.
"The fans don't want that in our sport," Penn said. "They know we have a great sport that is growing by the day. The worst thing that could happen to it would be if a fighter was seriously injured or killed and it turned out the guy who did it was on steroids. We have to get rid of that."
Asked if he agreed that steroid usage needs to be driven out of sports, Sherk answered quickly.
"Of course," he said.
To ensure that, the California commission has reached a deal with a WADA-certified lab at UCLA to process its drug test results. It is one of only two WADA-certified labs in the country. The lab in Utah is at capacity and can't handle any more tests.
Additionally, the California commission is in the final days of public comment on a rule that will require a fighter who has had a positive test to provide a clean sample to it as part of the licensing process. As part of the rule, the sample must be given under the supervision of an authorized commission representative. Garcia said the rule is expected to be adopted effective Aug. 1.
Sherk was required to give a pre-fight sample in Nevada but gave it at a lab in his home state of Minnesota, which shipped it to a University of Virginia lab for testing.
Garcia said that having a commission representative supervise the collection of the sample will prevent disputes about the chain of custody and ultimately will provide a more secure result.
Sherk, who has vowed never to fight again in California, said he's willing to abide by any regulations a commission puts forth.
"I have nothing to hide and I never have," Sherk said. "I'm a clean athlete. I just have to prove that to the fans over time. There have been a lot of fans who have been great, who believed in me all the way and who know I wouldn't have done that and that I didn't do that. It's unfortunate. And B.J. has taken advantage of it, for whatever reason, but that's fine.
"It's not going to affect my performance, I can promise you that. I've got a clear conscience. I know I didn't take anything illegal and I got the way I am by working my butt off. If I have to take tests before every fight and after ever fight, that's fine. All those tests will just prove what I've said all along. I'm an innocent man."
For the first time in more than 10 months, the fans will get to give their opinion Saturday night.
And I'm pretty sure Sherk is not going to like what he hears.
- Sean Sherk