The ability to handle pressure can often separate contenders from champions. In a sport like mixed martial arts, great fighters almost welcome it.

UFC lightweight Evan Dunham (11-0) seems to fit into that mold. The stakes will be higher than ever for the Eugene, Ore., native on Sept. 25, when he takes on former champion Sean Sherk (37-4-1) at UFC 119 in Indianapolis, and Dunham wouldn’t want it any other way.

“For sure, Sherk is my biggest test to date and I’m happy for it,” Dunham said. “Always having my next fight be my toughest fight means I’m doing something right.”

Dunham wasn’t exactly a household name when he first burst onto the scene at UFC 95, where he stopped a much more experienced Per Eklund with a first round TKO. Next the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt earned a split decision win over fellow grappling ace Marcus Aurelio at UFC 102. But the fans really started to take notice when he submitted The Ultimate Fighter 8 winner Efrain Escudero this past January via third-round armbar.

Plenty of talented fighters have stepped into the Octagon. However, the win over Escudero gave Dunham a marquee win to go along with his submission acumen and solid striking.

The next step came at UFC 115, with a showdown against longtime contender Tyson Griffin. Sporting a 7-2 mark in the UFC at the time, Griffin has been in with the best of the best, losing close decisions to Sherk and current champion Frankie Edgar, and picking up notable wins over the likes of Clay Guida.

Could Dunham handle one of the UFC’s toughest lightweights in a bout shown on national television? His answer was swift and emphatic. Although the judges only gave Dunham the nod by split decision, he controlled the fight from the beginning and took Griffin’s back on multiple occasions.

In the gym

Dunham currently divides his training time between two Las Vegas gyms — Throwdown Training Center and Xtreme Couture. Fighting Griffin, also an Xtreme Couture member, Dunham had to temporarily forego training at that facility.

These days, many of the sport’s top training camps attract several high-level fighters competing in the same weight class. As a result, people debate whether teammates should have to fight when vying for the same title.

Dunham sparred frequently with Griffin, but they didn’t really interact outside of the gym, he said. Dunham has other teammates that he would prefer not to fight in a professional bout with much more at stake than a friendly training or sparring session.

“I think it just really depends on the two people,” Dunham said about the issue of fighting a training partner.

Styles make fights

Facing Griffin in the Octagon and working with him in the training room could help Dunham against Sherk. Both Griffin and Sherk have a similar physique and style, with strong wrestling and good, crisp striking.

“I think it helps a lot,” Dunham said, adding that his win over Escudero also reinforced his confidence that he can handle strong wrestlers.

So when Dunham hears that Sherk, in a recent interview with, said he expects to beat Dunham in every aspect of their fight, he isn’t worried. In fact, as strange as it might sound, he’s glad Sherk feels that way.

“I don’t read into that sort of stuff a whole lot,” Dunham said. “I’m actually glad he thinks that. Any fighter at this level should think that way. I don’t want to fight someone that doesn’t think they’re better than me.”

He added, “I’d say the same thing he does. I think I train with better wrestlers than him.”

As you might expect, Dunham isn’t interested in joining the growing list of fighters — including Dan Hardy and Shinya Aoki — that lament over how some use wrestling for control rather than to inflict damage.

“Wrestling is a part of MMA,” Dunham said. “You can’t be one-dimensional or two-dimensional. You have to be three-dimensional.”

Sometimes, styles make fights. Looking at the UFC 118 rematch between Edgar and former champ B.J. Penn, Dunham said that Edgar’s speed and style had more to do with the outcome than any perceived decline in Penn’s ability.

“I thought it was a great fight,” Dunham said. “Some people say that maybe that fight shows B.J. is falling off, but I don’t think that’s the case at all.”

For the same reason, as good as Edgar has looked, number one contender Gray Maynard, a powerful, stifling wrestler that handed Edgar his only professional loss, could pose a serious threat, Dunham said.

“I think Edgar’s going to have a really tough time with Gray,” he said.

Rising expectations

Thus far, Dunham has passed all of his UFC tests with flying colors, so a win over Sherk could put him near the front of the line to challenge for the UFC lightweight title.

Even with so much on the line, Dunham doesn’t feel any additional pressure.

“I don’t feel more pressure,” Dunham said. “I always put a lot of pressure on myself.”

Plus, Dunham isn’t making the mistake of looking past a former champion. “Sherk is definitely not someone to look past,” he said.

It was recently announced that George Sotiropoulos would face Joe Lauzon at UFC 123 on Nov. 23, with Sotiropoulos potentially in place to earn a title shot with a victory. You could make the case that Dunham will have earned the opportunity to face the winner of the fight between Edgar and Maynard. Dunham certainly wouldn’t turn down the opportunity, but if UFC executives make Sotiropoulus the next top contender, Dunham will simply face whatever opponent the matchmakers choose.

Asked if a win over Sherk could merit a title shot, Dunham replied, “I’d like to think so, but that’s not my job. Whatever they say goes.”

Besides, as Dunham knows, the lightweight division certainly isn’t short on talent and difficult challenges. If Dunham gets by Sherk and doesn’t get a shot at the belt, someone else will be available to give Dunham his toughest test to date.

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