Sherk views UFC 84 bout vs. Penn as career-defining opportunity

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What a difference a year makes. At this time last year, Sean Sherk was the UFC lightweight champion and was preparing to fight Hermes Franca. While he did defeat Franca, his celebrations were cut short after receiving news that he tested positive for Nandrolone, an anabolic steroid. Due to his positive test, Sherk was subsequently fined and suspended for one year.

This news came as a complete surprise to him, as well as the Ultimate Fighting Championship. In the months following the accusation, Sherk worked tirelessly to prove his innocence. Evidence was produced to try to clear the Minnesota native, but the California State Athletic Commission ruled he was still guilty, but with a reduced sentence of six months.

Following the CSAC ruling, the UFC was forced to strip Sherk of the title. At UFC 80, B.J. Penn and Joe Stevenson fought for the vacant strap. Penn defeated Stevenson soundly, hurting him early and finishing him with a rear naked choke. In Penn's post-fight interview, he called out Sherk, saying that he was "dead."

Since then, everyone knew that it was a matter of time until these two faced off. The war of words has escalated during the build-up to UFC 84 on May 24. Penn has called Sherk a "cheater" and claimed that he has "just enough cardio" to defeat the former champion.

Those words don't seem to have an effect on the former lightweight champion. "People are telling me that he is talking a bunch of trash. He's the kind of guy that likes to stir things up," replied Sherk. "It probably hypes him up. I could really care less. I know what I need to do to win this fight and that's what I'm focusing on."

He hasn't fought in over ten months, but that doesn't mean Sherk hasn't been working hard in the gym. "I'm definitely ready. It's been a long layoff. I've been training real hard. This is a big fight. I have a lot riding on this. I'm excited about it."

Since the "Muscle Shark" has had so much time off, he decided to expand his training camp. "I started my training camp for this about 14 weeks out. My conditioning is seriously better than it's ever been. My conditioning coach pushed my conditioning to a whole different level this time. I feel good. I think everything's on track for this thing."

Going five, five-minute rounds has never been a problem for the former champ, and it's doubtful that it will be a problem this time around, considering he's been training for seven-minute rounds. "We're doing seven-minute rounds with a 30-second break with a 15-pound weight vest. Those five-minute rounds sound pretty good right now and a whole minute break, too. I don't know what I'm going to do with myself during that minute break."

Sherk may have an advantage in the cardio department, but many people believe that Penn has a distinct advantage in flexibility. However, this doesn't seem to bother Sherk at all. "The flexibility definitely changes things," he commented. "You don't see that a whole lot. Fortunately for me, I got University of Minnesota right here. I got the best wrestlers in the world here. As far as him being flexible, I'm not worried about it. I don't think that will be a problem."

Another position where many fans believe that Penn has a distinct advantage is in the ground game. He is well known for his dangerous jiu-jitsu.

While Sherk may not have a black belt, he is convinced that he can hang with Penn on the ground. "I'm really comfortable. I have been doing submission wrestling since 1994. My ground game is real comfortable for me. That's my home. I got no problem with it. He's a black belt and won a world championship. I don't have a belt because I never tested for one. Belts don't mean anything to me. I fought and trained with a lot of black belts. I think it's more about the experience. The gold one that says UFC is the only belt I care about."

Sherk believes that he can break Penn down if he follows his game plan. "He's not unbreakable by any means. He's human like anybody else. If I execute my game plan properly, then I'll come home with the W."

Feeling very confident in his game plan, Sherk believes that he has a perfect style to defeat the charismatic Penn. "I don't think I'm a good match up for B.J. If you look at guys who beat him in the past, they are guys who are similar to what I have to offer. I can't say too much about game plan and everything else like that. I'm ready and I think it'll be a great fight either way," said the challenger.

Although Penn is known for his aggressive style, Sherk feels that he is well prepared to deal with the onslaught. "I expect the first couple rounds to be pretty hectic. He said he plans on finishing me early. I'm coming out guns blazing and he's coming out guns blazing, so I think it's going to be a phenomenal fight. Probably one of the fights of the year."

And he's not the only one who believes this fight could be a fight that people talk about for a long time to come. UFC president Dana White believes this fight has "legendary" status. "I don't think anybody is wondering if it will be an exciting fight or not. When you got two great athletes, two great fighters get to square off and fight in their prime. This is about history," he explained. "People will be talking about this 50 years from now. Would this lightweight today beat this lightweight from yesterday? This is seriously going to be a legendary fight."

The trash talking is winding down and the fight is almost here. Two of the best fighters in the world will finally clash Saturday night, in one of the most compelling bouts the UFC has ever put on.

"I can finish him early. He can finish me early. That's the great thing about two of the best lightweights in the world. Everyone wants to see this fight because anything can happen. If either of us makes a mistake, the fight's over. I'm not afraid of five rounds. I've done it plenty of times. I'm ready for a long night. I would like to get out early though. I'm kind of getting sick of these five-round fights."

This fight means a lot to Sherk, and could put behind the tumultuous damage that has been done to his reputation and solidify him as one of the best lightweights of all time. "There is a lot on the line. This is probably the biggest fight of my career here."