Sitting on the sideline for 16 months turned out to be a good thing for Sean Sherk (33-4-1 MMA, 7-4 UFC), who meets Evan Dunham (11-0 MMA, 4-0 UFC) on Saturday at UFC 119.
For one, it allowed the former UFC lightweight champion to heal up after a litany of injuries hurt his performances inside the octagon.
But it also allowed Sherk the time to fall back in love with the sport, and he's dying to test himself against the promotion's new stars.
"I'm sitting on the sidelines and watching this sport evolve and everything go on without me," Sherk told MMAjunkie.com Radio (www.mmajunkie.com/radio
). "It really made me not only miss what I was doing, but it gave me that desire and drive to come back. I've got to be a part of this. I've got to get myself healthy. I've got to get better."
Sherk was supposed to come back on three separate occasions. After a heartbreaking loss to now-champion Frankie Edgar at UFC 98, he was scheduled to meet Gleison Tibau at UFC 104 before he suffered a grade two separation of his shoulder in training and couldn't move his arms for a month. He then suffered a five-stich cut prior to a fight with Rafaello Oliveira which forced him off UFC 108. Yet another injury kept him from meeting Clay Guida at UFC on Versus 1.
By the end of that bad run, the writing was on the wall – either he was going to get healthy, or his career would dwindle away.
"The issue was I just never took time to take care of my body," Sherk said. "I always beat my body up, and then after my fights were over, I never really took the time to let myself rehab and recover properly before jumping back in to another training camp.
"People have been telling me for years and years and years – 'Sherk, you've got to slow down. You're overtraining, you're doing too much, you're not taking the proper rest and recovery.' I always blew everybody off."
Sherk sought out doctors who helped him rehab his injuries, and for the first time in 11 years of fighting, he stayed away from the gym. That meant he could actually watch the sport instead of hearing things second hand from inside the bubble of training camp.
What he saw was a rapid evolution.
"Every time I watch fights, I see these lightweights on TV," he said. "I see these guys throwing down, and I'm just like, 'Who in the world is this guy? I've never even heard of this guy.' And the guy just looks tough as nails. These guys are just coming out of the woodworks."
Dunham is one of those lightweights that's exploded onto the scene to become a serious threat in the division.
"He's a solid, three-dimensional fighter," Sherk said. "I think he's a smart fighter in putting together good game plans. So I think he's going to pose some problems all-around. Every area we get into, I don't see any weaknesses, so for me, I think I'm just going to have to impose my will and impose my strengths. That's pretty much how I'm going to approach this thing."
In his rise to lightweight champion, Sherk used a relentless attack of takedowns and ground and pound to smother his opponents, so it's not hard to catch his drift about the strategy he'll employ against the up-and-comer.
Sherk believes Dunham will jumpstart another run at the lightweight belt.
"The road back to a title isn't that far off," he said. "Dunham is a top contender, and should I get by Dunham, I think I'll end up fighting another top contender, and then I should be looking at a title fight."
For perhaps the first time in several years, Sherk said he's free of the injuries that kept him from using his strengths.
He also has a new appreciation for what he's been missing, and what he's in for when he returns to the octagon.
"To be lightweight champion means something," he said. "It means that you're on top of the toughest weight division in the world, and that's where I want to be again."