by Damon Martin – MMAWeekly.com
The UFC lightweight division has cemented itself as one of the deepest and most exciting weight classes in the sport lately with almost every event showcasing a fight between two 155 lb. fighters showing off their skill and seemingly always stealing the show. UFC 73 should be no exception, except this time it will be for the lightweight title as Sean Sherk makes his return to the Octagon to defend his championship against #1 contender, Hermes Franca.

For Sherk this marks his return after a long layoff forced by a shoulder surgery that kept him from defending his title, but now he is back and ready to prove that he deserves to be the lightweight champion.

“Defending this belt is going to be even better than winning it because now I’ve got the belt and everything’s on the line Saturday night,” said Sherk recently when appearing on MMAWeekly Radio. “If I lose this fight, I’m losing something I’ve worked my entire life for. I really, really want to make sure I come home with this belt and defending it is going to mean the world to me.”

While Sherk looks to defend his title, Hermes Franca looks to cap a career in the UFC that saw some ups and downs that almost forced him out of the sport in 2005. Franca returned to the sport he loves and is now on an eight-fight win streak, the last of which earned him the first shot at Sean Sherk’s title.

“In 2005, I was so sad and I said I was going to quit,” said Franca. “I’m not going to fight anymore and all the other fighters were like come on Hermes fight, come on don’t give it up, do what I have to do and do it well and that’s what I did. I put my head up and keep fighting and fighting and look at what I am.”

Both fighters have been training non-stop in preparation for this bout. Sherk has continued his rigorous campaign of training as always and believes his cardio conditioning could be the difference in this fight.

“I’m banking on the fact that I’m going to be in better shape than him,” Sherk said with confidence. “I’ve trained so hard for this fight and I have a conditioning coach now. I’ve never had a conditioning coach before and now I’ve got a conditioning coach yelling and screaming at me and putting me through routines that are second to none. I think my conditioning is going to be better than you guys have ever seen. I’m going to come out and I’m going to push the pace really hard. I hope he can hang and I’m banking on the fact that he’s going to get tired.”

Sherk’s conditioning has never come into question, but for Franca this could be the biggest test his cardio has ever taken. This fight could end up being five rounds, but Franca sounded confident when speaking to MMAWeekly Radio hosts Damon Martin and Jeff Cain about his preparation for this fight.

“My conditioning in my mind is always fine,” said Franca. “I think its my style, sometimes I feel tired, because maybe too much adrenaline, sometimes you go for something you think you can get too hard. But I’ve had eight fights in ten months and all my fights ended with submissions or TKO’s so you know sometimes I don’t have as much cardio because I work on technique. But now, I’m working with Rob Kamen and we do like two hours straight of Muay Thai. It’s a lot of cardio, it’s a lot of cardio.”

One of the biggest factors that always seems to come up when Sherk is fighting is his opponent’s ability to submit him, but that is a subject that the champion feels very strong about. In all of his previous fights, Sherk has never been finished by submission, but almost every time he fights a submission fighter the question gets asked and Sherk has an adamant answer to anyone who questions his ground skills.

“I’ve been doing jiu-jitsu for 13 years. I’ve just never taken the time to actually get a belt. I don’t care about belts, I don’t care about rankings, there’s only one thing I want. I want to be the best fighter in the world,” Sherk stated. “Black belt to me doesn’t mean squat. I’ve been training jiu-jitsu for 13 years. I’ve been doing jiu-jitsu longer than Franca! I’m not scared of jiu-jitsu at all.”

Finishing Sherk as previously mentioned has been next to impossible, but Franca loves to prove people wrong much like he did in his last fight against Spencer Fisher and seems ready to finish Sherk.

“Before I fought against Spencer Fisher everybody said nobody can knock him out and I did,” said Franca. “He’s an excellent fighter, but I finished him by TKO and nobody did it before. I think in my mind I believe in myself and I think I can finish him.”

Coming off an injury that kept Sherk out since October, he says that his shoulder is ready to go and he wanted to make sure that he was absolutely ready to go before stepping in against a fighter the caliber of Franca.

“I just wanted to make sure I was going to be 100%,” said Sherk. “I didn’t want to start my training and then be like oh man, my shoulder’s not ready and push the fight back. I wanted to be sure before I committed to anything that my shoulder was going to be 100%”

Sherk is confident in his chances against Franca on Saturday night, but his opponent sounds just the same and wants the UFC lightweight title that Sherk owns.

“I hope to submit or knock him out in the first or second round, take my belt and go home,” said Franca when asked about how the fight with Sherk will end.

Both fighters will try to prove themselves right on Saturday night at UFC 73: Stacked live from Sacramento, California’s Arco Arena.