Sherk's shifting fortunes

CHICAGO – Sean Sherk has won 32 mixed martial arts fights. He's lost three: to Georges St. Pierre, Matt Hughes and B.J. Penn, each an all-time great in the sport.

"The best of the best of the best," Sherk said.

At 35 he is an MMA stalwart himself, one of the pioneers of the game who first joined the Ultimate Fighting Championship for UFC 30, when he was "just some farm kid from Minnesota."

Yet he enters UFC 90 in nearby Rosemont on Saturday at the crossroads of his career, dealing with questions about his past successes as much as his potential for future ones.

On the humble undercard this time, he'll fight up-and-coming Tyson Griffin, 24, a guy who could rightfully be called a young Sean Sherk. Griffin even modeled some of his wrestling game from watching Sherk fights back when he was just a fan.

Sherk is well aware of the stakes. He was on top of the world 15 months ago, when he outlasted Hermes Franca in a 25-minute test of wills to defend his UFC lightweight championship.

He was gaining widespread acclaim for his likable personality and fanatical workout and diet regime. He had done television specials showing his grueling training, flipping giant tires and taking on two-a-day death sessions six days a week. He preached eating only organic, clean foods – practically bark and dirt.

"Food isn't about taste for me," he said.

He was so nuts that he claimed if he was stuck in traffic and saw a guy a couple cars ahead smoking a cigarette, he'd pull into another lane.

One of his advantages was his ability to cut a jaw-dropping 22 pounds in four and a half days and then getting most of it back in 30 hours.

He'd weigh 177 pounds on Monday of fight week, drop to 155 at the Friday afternoon weigh-in and yo-yo back up by Saturday night. These were the accepted reasons he kept overpowering opponents.

Then he failed a drug test.

The California State Athletic Commission said tests following the July 2007 Franca fight showed elevated levels of the anabolic steroid nandrolone (Franca also was caught, for what it's worth). Sherk was fined, suspended for a year (later reduced to six months on appeal) and was stripped of his title.

More than anything, his reputation was gone.

Sherk calls the incident "the accusations," although it's more than that. The CSAC upheld the decision on appeal and is just as adamant that Sherk did have steroids in his system as Sherk is that he didn't.

And he's adamant. A fighter fights and he fought this charge completely. He had blood work tested, claimed he took three polygraph tests and passed them all and put out all the information he could to prove his innocence.

"It is what it is. I proved to the best of my ability I didn't take anything. If they won't listen to me then there's nothing I can do about it."

At this point, it is over. The war is either won or lost. Sherk finally returned to the octagon in May to face Penn, who had assumed his title, and was knocked out in a brutal stand-up fight.

Penn moved on – he'll take on welterweight champion St. Pierre in a January superfight. Sherk is healed up and trying to avoid a quick fade from the sport's elite. He is well aware that Griffin is positioned to use a victory to catapult his career to where Sherk's used to be.

"It's my chance to move up," Griffin said.

Sherk's been in the game long enough to know how shifting fortunes work. He talks about how this fight might move him back into title contention. He also knows a loss could be crippling.

If nothing else, fans want to see what Sherk can be without steroids, assuming he's not crazy enough to be dirty again (if he ever was). The scientific back and forth – tests here, tests there – can spin people's heads. After years of Barry Bonds and Marion Jones and Mark McGwire, denials mean virtually nothing in the court of public opinion.

What Sherk can't afford Saturday is to look like anything but his old self. He knows the deal. A baseball player slugs 50 homers, gets caught in a drug test, proclaims his innocence and then returns the next season and can't hit 20.

"Something's changed," he nodded.

"I understand," he continued. "I think [returning to dominance] is another statement I can make. Everyone is going to look for something. Some people want the scientific facts. Some people want physical proof. They want to look at you and say, 'Yeah, yeah, he looks the same.'

"Some people want to look at your performance."

At Wednesday's workout, Sherk looked the same. He was all muscle, a bulging neck despite being in the process of dropping nearly two dozen pounds. He was relaxed and confident, a veteran ready for another challenge. He claims nothing has changed, not his appearance, not the workout regime, not the diet, not his mindset.

A little more than a year ago his meteoric career stopped in an instant. A dirty test. A knock out loss. A ton of questions.

Now he fights for his career, trying to silence not just doubts about his future but doubts about his past.