Photo via UFC.com
Cheater or not, Sean Sherk sort of had a point.
No one had actually beaten "The Muscle Shark" inside the Octagon for the UFC lightweight title but here was B.J. Penn, claiming to be the division's champion.
Sherk was, of course, stripped of the title after testing positive for steroids following his UFC 73 bout with Hermes Franca. He appealed and while the suspension was reduced from 12 months, he was still forced to sit on the sidelines for half a year while the recently resurrected 155-pound division played itself out.
A month prior to that controversial bout in Sacramento, Penn had officially returned to the weight class he once called home. "The Prodigy" was more "prodigal," having spent the previous three and a half years of his career outside the UFC and in any weight but lightweight.
What began in June 2007 was a run that rivals that of any in the sport and at the heart of it was a bout with "The Muscle Shark." Before Penn takes part in his 11th main event at UFC 137 against Nick Diaz, we'll take a closer look at his "unification" bout against Sherk at UFC 84: "Ill Will."
It was the beginning of what will be remembered as Penn's legacy.
Sherk made a name for himself dominating the midwest MMA regional scene. By the time he scored a welterweight title shot against Matt Hughes at UFC 42, he had 20 bouts under his belts and not a single loss.
Unfortunately for him, the Hall of Famer was too much for him and Hughes scored a five-round unanimous decision. Despite taking the long-time champion to the limit, Sherk wasn't invited back to the Octagon. There are rumors that management shenanigans had a part in that but regardless, "The Muscle Shark" didn't return to the UFC for two and a half years.
His comeback was anything but glorious as he was on the business end of a Georges St. Pierre technical knockout (TKO). His next bout fared better for him and he beat UFC 137 headliner Nick Diaz by decision. He then announced his intention to drop down to 155-pounds to vie for the recently reactivated lightweight title.
He dominated both Kenny Florian to win the title and Hermes Franca in his first and only defense. Then came the steroid allegations. When his suspension was upheld -- albeit reduced -- the UFC stripped him of his title.
After failing to win the 155-pound strap on two occasions, "The Prodigy" moved up to welterweight and shocked the mixed martial arts (MMA) world by trouncing Hughes. But after his title win, he bolted from the UFC and fought bouts in just about any weight class that tickled his fancy. Welterweight, middleweight, and even beefing up to 191-pounds to take on light heavyweight Lyoto Machida.
He seemed more eager in testing himself as a martial artist -- and getting paid handsomely for it -- than sticking around in the UFC. This was pre-Ultimate Fighter (TUF) days, before Dana White and company had become a mainstay in sports and pop culture.
When he finally returned, he did so as a welterweight. He dropped consecutive bouts to "GSP" and Hughes before another lightweight runaway -- who Penn had some history with -- came back to the UFC. It was Jens Pulver and a rematch fans had been waiting for for five years was signed.
The two coached opposite each other during the fifth season of TUF and in the season finale, Penn finally got his revenge over the man who handed him his first loss. Penn was back at 155-pounds and with a thrashing of Pulver, had put every other lightweight on notice.
With the title vacant, the UFC booked "The Prodigy" and season two TUF winner Joe Stevenson in the UFC 80 main event to determine a new champion. Much like he had Pulver, Penn steamrolled "Daddy" to finally earn what everyone felt should have been his years ago.
But there was a dissenting voice on commentary during the bout. It was that of Sherk, the former champion who lost his title in a California State Athletic Commission boardroom, not the Octagon. And he was hellbent on getting back what he thought was rightfully his.
UFC 84 was set as the date. In an evening of great fights, the lightweights once again stole the show.
Let's dive right in.
Sherk immediately shoots in, grabbing one of the champ's legs. Penn opens up with some punches as he hops around on one foot, preventing the takedown before Sherk lets go.
They circle around the cage, exchanging punches which Penn seems to be getting the better off. His longer reach allows him to employ his infamous jab against the stouter Sherk. It isn't until 90 seconds in that the challenger is able to get inside. He clinches with "The Prodigy," the two exchanging blows but is quickly shoved off.
"The Prodigy" continues to stick his jab out, slipping out of almost every punch that the wrestler throws. "The Muscle Shark," with less than two minutes left in the round, is already bleeding under his right eye.
The story of the opening round is that of Penn's jab. Seemingly unable to figure out a way past it, Sherk is forced to suffer its wrath.
The next stanza opens with Sherk throwing a leg kick, a strike he connected with a couple times in the first but for some reason abandoned. Penn responds in kind with a brutal body shot that is followed up with an uppercut.
They pounce each other like wild animals before they strike, clinching up with Sherk getting the advantage this time out. "The Muscle Shark," despite having his head shoved down in a Thai clinch, unleashes a flurry of short hooks that forces the champion to retreat.
Halfway through the round, it appears as if the challenger is doing better than he did during the first five minutes but each jab that Penn lands tears apart at Sherk's face. His eye, once showing just a little color, is now a bloody mess. Aside from the opening fight single-leg and a half-hearted attempt late in the second, there hasn't been a sniff of wrestling in the bout.
As the round closes, "The Muscle Shark" is now bleeding underneath both eyes. If Sherk can't figure out how to slip Penn's jab and get inside, his night will be over sooner rather than later.
The third and what would be the final round is rather uneventful for the majority of the time. A couple of minutes in, Penn teases with a takedown. While he doesn't get Sherk on his back, he does press him against the cage and lands a couple of punches.
The two circle around for most of the round -- Penn satisfied in his performance and not at all worried about Sherk's offense and Sherk unable to figure out the riddle of "The Prodigy's" striking -- until the closing seconds.
What commenced was one of the most thrilling finishes to a fight in MMA history: Penn pressures Sherk back, throwing a left, uppercut, left and connecting with the last two. Sherk backpedals into the cage, bouncing off the chain-link. As he comes forward, he's met by a flying Hawaiian and a knee crashes into his chin.
"The Muscle Shark" collapses to the mat and Penn swarms with a barrage of punches as the horn sounds. Penn begins to celebrate -- prematurely it would seem -- until it's officially announced that the fight was over and "The Prodigy" had retained his title.
Penn would go on to defend his title twice more before dropping it to current champion Frankie Edgar at UFC 112. A subsequent attempt to get the title back failed and the Hawaiian moved back up to welterweight where he has found mixed success.
The shine of a knockout win over Hughes was darkened by a draw against Jon Fitch, a fight many felt easily could have gone Fitch's way.
Will Penn return to his winning ways on Saturday (Oct. 29) or will the bad boy from Stockton prove his doubters wrong?
We're around 60 hours away, Maniacs. Who do you got?