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Dunham: Changing of the Guard?

“I’m taking him very serious, just as I take everybody, and I’m sure [Sherk]’s been working on becoming a more well-rounded fighter. I’m not looking past him. He’s a tough guy and that’s what I’m expecting, and I’m training my ass off so I can match that level.”

When Evan Dunham first stepped into the Octagon at UFC 95 against Per Eklund, it would have come off as a fool’s notion to think that just a year-and-a-half later the up-and-comer would be talking about Sean Sherk as a worthy opponent for him. It’s nothing cocky, it’s just the nature of mixed martial arts—put together a four-fight winning streak in the UFC en-route to an overall 11-0 professional record and suddenly former champions are turned into challengers in this sport.

It doesn’t help that Sherk hasn’t fought since a loss to Frankie Edgar in May of 2009—a length of time that stretches back further than Dunham’s entire time as a lightweight in the UFC—but still. It’s funny how quick a one-time cable guy from the Northwest can gain status over a battle-tested star in the game.   

“In Sean Sherk I see a former champion, someone who likes to push the pace and a very strong guy,” says the 29-year-old Dunham, whose first pro bout was three years ago. “But I also see a guy that hasn’t maybe evolved as much as other people in this sport. Not to take anything away from him, because what he does works. His only losses are to champs and former champs.”

When the two square off at UFC 119 on September 25 in Indianapolis, the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt Dunham hopes to add a new category to Sherk’s “L” column—losses to future champs. If he keeps on beating the guys put in front of him, Dunham’s chance for that lightweight strap may occur sooner rather than later. The scary thing is not so much his unblemished record, but how he’s doing it.

Want to talk about well rounded? How’s this: Dunham knocked out Eklund in the first round in London, then decisioned Marcus Aurelio, then submitted the favorite Efrain Escudero at UFC Fight Night 20 this past January (armbar), before outworking his Xtreme Couture training partner Tyson Griffin for a split decision at UFC 115 in Vancouver. He has proven to be a durable grappler who can dictate a fight, a very good, rangy striker (courtesy of his coach, Shawn Yarborough) and a very experienced Jiu-Jitsu guy. Wherever the fight goes, Dunham is solid.

He also draws up and executes game plans very well. For that last fight against Griffin, it was just about as he and his camp drew it up.

“I feel like I did everything I needed to do right,” he says. “Basically I tried to stand up with him, stick and move and when the opportunity arrived get him down and into a dominant position. Everything went exactly as planned, except for being able to finish him. But he’s a really tough dude, and he’s got great defense. Before then nobody had been able to finish him in all of his fights, so I don’t let it get to me too much.”

As 5-foot-10 Dunham begins to pop up on people’s radars at 155, each fight attracts that much more attention. He hears his name being mentioned as a real threat in the division, but then again—founded or not—he isn’t about to feed into that kind of talk.

“I don’t think about that stuff,” says the Eugene, Oregon native now fighting out of Las Vegas. “I look at it like one thing at a time, and Sherk is somebody you don’t look past. All I’m thinking about right now is training my ass off to beat Sherk. Where everybody wants to put me, let them put me there. I’m not trying to think about that or deal with that now.

However, Dunham adds, “you always want to win. I wouldn’t say there’s more pressure, but the stakes are higher. You’ve got to win, and every fight is your biggest fight. I am kind of getting used to that idea now, that your upcoming fight is the biggest fight of your life, so train that way.”

He says he doesn’t have any apprehension fighting Sherk in the Midwest, where the fans will likely be rallying behind their regional guy from Minnesota. That sort of thing is better left to sentimentalists.

“Yeah, it’s no big deal, you know,” he says. “I honestly don’t hear the crowd once I get in there. I am going to focus on what I need to do and what I need to do is win. If they want to boo me or whatever, that’s cool.”

Though he didn’t wrestle beyond high school, the southpaw Dunham thinks he has a good wrestling antidote because of his high-powered partners at Couture’s (Gray Maynard, Griffin, et al). Then there’s his strength and conditioning coach, Norm Turner at Throwdown Training Center, who has helped with his takedown defense and offensive explosiveness.

Both things that he’ll need against a proven warrior like Sherk, whom Dunham expects to find in vintage form.

“I keep hearing about ring rust and all that, well, the guy’s been in the game for how long now?” he says. “I don’t think we’re going to see much of a different Sherk—he’s as dangerous as he’s always been and just as tough.

“I’m taking him very serious, just as I take everybody, and I’m sure [Sherk]’s been working on becoming a more well-rounded fighter. I’m not looking past him. He’s a tough guy and that’s what I’m expecting, and I’m training my ass off so I can match that level.”

As for how Dunham sees things playing out, Dunham won’t be surprised if things go to the ground or if the fight is spent in bulk on the feet.

“Just like every fight, I see it being three rounds of pure scrapping,” he says. “A lot of people say in his last couple of fights he’s been boxing more, but I have a feeling he’ll kind of go back to his roots. So I think he’s going to come in, throw some combinations and look to take me down, and I plan on stuffing those and keeping it standing, or countering and getting him on his back and grinding him out.

“If everything goes well, I hope to submit him—but I’m not counting on anything. I’m just planning for a three-round war, and being able to grind him out.”

Dunham knows if he does that, he’ll have successfully crossed off his biggest challenge to date—the changing of the guard.