It should have been panic time for Evan Dunham. Blood streaming down his face from a cut over his right eye, the lightweight up and comer still had ten minutes to go in the biggest fight of his career against Sean Sherk, the aptly nicknamed “Muscle Shark.”
But dare I say that I saw a smile appear on Dunham’s face when the first round of the UFC 119 bout ended last September?
“One thing that I pride myself on is when the fight gets going and it gets dirty and it gets tough, that’s when I get going,” he explains. “I like tough fights, I like it when you get a little banged up, and sometimes it takes a little bit for me to get warmed up. So when he cut me, I definitely woke up (Laughs) and I figured this fight was just starting.”
It was, and after that rough first stanza, Dunham showed why he’s considered to be one of the top rising stars in the 155-pound division as he roared back in the next two rounds to give the former lightweight champion one of his toughest fights to date, and that’s saying something considering that the only fighters to pin losses on Sherk in over 11 years have been world champions Matt Hughes, Georges St-Pierre, BJ Penn, and Frankie Edgar. Most observers expected Dunham to join that Fab Four, but two of the three judges disagreed, declaring Sherk the winner by a controversial split decision.
Moral victory for Dunham? Not exactly what he wants to hear after suffering the first loss of his pro career, but he’s moved on.
“I’m just ready to get my next fight going and get back in the win column,” he said. “I’m putting that behind me and moving forward.”
That’s not to say the bout was a total loss, as the 29-year old picked up a lot from the wily veteran during their 15 minute battle, including the knowledge that he can hang with anyone in the division.
“Sherk’s tough and really good about playing his gameplan and not deviating from it,” said Dunham. “I definitely think I can take a page from his book when it comes to that. And it was a pleasure to fight him because when you compete against somebody like that and you’re able to do well, it gives you that sense of confidence and lets you know that you’re headed in the right direction and that you can compete at that level.”
Dunham has also been treated as if he didn’t even lose the bout by the UFC, which didn’t hesitate in putting him in a main event slot on this Saturday’s Fight For The Troops 2 event in Texas. But a wrench was thrown into the works early on when Dunham’s original foe, two-time title challenger Kenny Florian, got injured and was forced to withdraw from the bout. In to replace Florian was Melvin Guillard.
“I had mixed emotions on it,” said Dunham of the switch. “Kenny does have the bigger name so it’s a little more of a payoff when you beat him, but honestly I think Melvin’s just as dangerous a fighter as Florian. He’s a different fighter – he’s got lots of power, he’s very athletic, he’s an explosive guy – but in my opinion he’s just as dangerous and I have to train just as hard for him. I do think it’s going to be a more exciting fight for the fans to watch.”
And excitement is what the soft-spoken Oregon native has been injecting into the lightweight division over the last year. After quietly winning his first two UFC bouts in 2009, Dunham had his breakthrough campaign in 2010, submitting Efrain Escudero and decisioning Tyson Griffin before finishing up with the war against Sherk. Suddenly, every fight fan knew who Evan Dunham was, but not surprisingly, he refuses to get caught up in the hype.
“I try to stay humble and try to stay away from the clubs and that sort of stuff,” said Dunham, who now makes his home in Las Vegas. “There hasn’t been a lot of change for me; I still hang out at home with my fiancé and my dog, and go train, whether it’s for a fight or just to get better between fights. I’ve seen it a couple times where guys get a little bit of fame and they kinda go overboard with it and they don’t keep their head on straight. I try to learn from that, recognize that, and keep doing what I’m doing. If I ignore all that and just keep working on getting better and training harder, then things will fall into place.”
It’s hard to see things going off track for Dunham anytime soon, especially when you look at his UFC body of work thus far. In just five fights, he has had to deal with fighting overseas (Per Eklund), handling a barrage of pre-fight trash talk (Eklund again), testing his jiu-jitsu against a world-renowned black belt (Marcus Aurelio), fighting a teammate (Griffin), fighting a former world champion (Sherk), and dealing with adversity (Sherk and Efrain Escudero). If you’re keeping score, Dunham is preparing for life as a champion with each passing bout, but he’s not marking things off on a checklist.
“I’m just taking it one thing at a time, and basically dealing with whatever comes my way,” he said. “There’s not really a checklist in my mind, but I feel I deal well with any situation, and that’s kind of how I approach it all.”
Humble, dedicated, and talented. It’s a deadly mix for Evan Dunham’s opponents, and he plans on upping the ante this year.
“I’m just going to keep doing what I do best, and that’s training and fighting my ass off,” he said. “I’m always training, and as long as I’m improving, my fights are gonna get better and better, so I’m planning on 2011 being a better year than 2010.”
Evan Dunham – Year Three
"In my opinion he (Guillard) is just as dangerous and I have to train just as hard for him. I do think it’s going to be a more exciting fight for the fans to watch.”