The last time we saw Sean Sherk on the Octagon, he was getting his hand raised following a questionable decision victory against Evan Dunham at UFC 119. In the three years since then, Sherk has been busy rehabbing old injuries and waiting for his next move. That next move never came, and the former lightweight champion steadily faded out of relevance while the lightweight division he helped revive continued to grow deeper and more prominent.
It’s possible that you assumed Sean Sherk — who turned 40 last month — was already retired, but “The Muscle Shark” (man, that nickname) didn’t make it official until yesterday, when he announced his departure from the sport on The MMA Hour. A press release on TrainingMask.com adds that “Sherk plans to maintain his involvement at Training Mask while coaching MMA, and teaching seminars. Sherk is also continuing a successful career in real estate investment.”
Sherk leaves behind a career-record of 36-4-1 dating back to 1999, including wins over Nick Diaz, Kenny Florian, Tyson Griffin, Hermes Franca, and Karo Parisyan, and a UFC lightweight title reign that lasted from October 2006 to December 2007. His only losses came against long-reigning UFC champions: Matt Hughes, Georges St. Pierre, BJ Penn, and Frankie Edgar.
But despite his accomplishments, Sean Sherk was never a fan favorite. Much of that could be blamed on his methodical, slow-grind wrestling approach to fighting — a style that crowds can’t help booing, and which Sherk never really evolved beyond. And unfortunately, his stint as a UFC champion was also the most controversial period of his career.
After going 4-2 in the UFC as a welterweight — and losing a decision to Matt Hughes in a 170-pound title challenge at UFC 42 — Sherk dropped to 155 pounds to compete for the UFC’s re-launched lightweight title, which had laid dormant for over four years. Sherk met Kenny Florian for the vacant belt at UFC 64, and over-powered Ken-Flo to a bloody decision victory.
Then, things got weird. Sherk out-pointed Hermes Franca in his first title defense at UFC 73, but both Sherk and Franca tested positive for steroids following the fight. Though Franca admitted to using the anabolic steroid Drostanolone — explaining that he had suffered an ankle injury in training but didn’t want to withdraw from the fight due to financial desperation — Sherk fought the accusations, suggested that his supplements may have been to blame, took polygraph tests to support his innocence, and appealed the ruling based on a possible mishandling of his urine sample. Eventually, the California State Athletic Commission reduced his suspension from one year to six months.
Let’s imagine, for the sake of argument, that you’re Sean Sherk and you know for certain that you’ve never used an illegal substance in your life. Let’s say that the lab somehow tainted your sample, and it came up positive. Imagining that to be true, what could you possibly do to clear your name now? You know you’re innocent, but here you are walking around with a chiseled physique, a positive steroid test, with a nickname like “The Muscle Shark” and trying to tell people that it’s not what it looks like.
While Sherk rode out his suspension, the UFC stripped him of his title, and let BJ Penn and Joe Stevenson fight for the lightweight belt, which was now vacant once again. Penn tore through Stevenson, and when it was time for Sherk to return at UFC 84, Penn wasted him too. The startling difference in talent-level between Sherk and Penn displayed in that fight made it seem as if Sherk had just been keeping the belt warm for Penn the entire time.
Sherk never came close to title contention again. He won a decision against Tyson Griffin in his next fight at UFC 90, in October 2008, but then lost to Frankie Edgar the following year, and pulled out of three consecutive fights due to injuries. Sherk successfully made it to the cage against Evan Dunham in September 2010, and despite scoring a decision victory, the fight was only memorable for how unpopular the result was. (Fightmetric scored it 29-28 for Dunham, and UFC president Dana White publicly echoed that sentiment.)
Since 2011, Sherk has popped up here and there to discuss his hopes for a comeback, but wasn’t interested in fighting “some chump who needs some fame.” Time passed, and Sherk’s interests never matched up with the UFC’s. By 2013, the Muscle Shark had become a forgotten man. And at some point, he realized that his chances of becoming a champion — or even a top contender — had permanently passed him by.
And so, Sean Sherk’s career ends anti-climatically. There was no “farewell fight,” no dramatic speech in the Octagon thanking the fans for whatever support they spared him. He didn’t go out on top, but he didn’t go out on the bottom either. He was a transitional champion who helped excavate a gold belt from the ruins, then passed it to the next guy. Maybe you didn’t love him, but hopefully you respected him.