SAN JOSE, Calif. — Herschel Walker could have rested easy after his football career – the 1982 Heisman Trophy winner locked up a got a spot in the College Football Hall of Fame and owned multi-million dollar meat company. But he’s taking the opposite route, choosing to compete in a sport that didn’t exist two decades ago when the 47-year-old former running back was in his athletic prime.
On Jan. 30, Walker will step into the Strikeforce cage in Sunrise, Fla. to face Greg Nagy (1-1). To prepare for his MMA debut the Georgia Bulldog immersed himself in training at the American Kickboxing Academy for nearly three months. A lifelong martial artist, Walker has always challenged himself athletically, like when he made the 1992 Olympic bobsled team mid-way through his NFL career, but men his age tend to focus more on how good they used to be than how much they still have left to achieve.
“I’ve talked to a lot of fighters. They’ve said how hard it is, how difficult it is and I know that. I know this is not something easy,” says Walker. “That’s why when I first came into the gym left all the football, all the Tae Kwon Do, all the belts that I had before I got here, I left it outside—because it really didn’t matter. What matters is what I learn in this gym here.”
A two-time NFL Pro Bowl selection known for doing thousands of push-ups and sit-ups every morning to this day, Walker has flirted with the idea of competing in MMA since Nov. 2007. The former USFL star made allusions to a fighting reality show that never materialized, and a photo circulated of him in an EliteXC rash guard around the same time. Then in September 2009 he signed with Strikeforce and did media rounds; however, he didn’t arrive at AKA until November.
“Doing interviews is great—its wonderful, great publicity—but you got to fight. I needed to get in the gym and start working,” he says. “I am here full time for this camp,” continued Walker, who lived at the five-star Fairmont Hotel a short drive from the gym.
Shark tanks like AKA can be intimidating to even veteran fighters. His age and Tae Kwon Do black belt—a martial art with tenuous connections to MMA —in a room full of mean wrestlers who develop unforgiving striking should have sent Walker for the hills. But he arrived early everyday and kept undefeated UFC heavyweight Cain Velasquez, a fighter so vicious he makes teammates crawl out of the ring after sparring, as his main training partner.
“My first day walking in here I didn’t know what to expect. You see all the guys that you see on TV that are fighting, that you know are good fighters,” says the three-time collegiate All-American. “I knew Cain from watching in his last fight. The guy’s got a gas tank that doesn’t stop. I knew he was going to be the next world heavyweight UFC champion.
“So now working with this guy that’s absolutely incredible and working with Josh [Thomson] and Luke [Rockhold] and all these guys and these guys are doing all these things, [I thought]. ‘What in the world did I get myself into?’”
Walker insists he wasn’t intimidated on his first day and confidence came as his skills progressed rapidly, according to his trainers, whom he gave final say to on whether or not he’d fight.
“That’s the way you got to become a fighter,” he says. “You can’t do it by being in some prissy gym, looking good, by being on TV. You have to get in the gym and work.”
Despite fighting his way onto Sports Illustrated’s NCAA Football All-Century Team and no. 3 rank on ESPN’s list of the greatest college football players, Walker’s athletic achievements hold little, if any weight, in this entirely new world of mixed martial arts. In fact, he feels the mental and physical toughness required is greater than what’s needed in the NFL.
“It’s not like you going out and running a couple of wind sprints and watch film,” he explains. “You gotta get into it either on the mat or in the ring and start punching and doing different things.”
With his debut looming, Walker expects success unlike other crossover athletes such as fellow college football standout in Johnnie Morton or baseball “Bash Brother” Jose Canseco—both were stopped in the first round in their lone MMA contests in under two minutes combined.
“I don’t worry about that. And the reason I don’t worry about that is we’re totally different athletes. People that know Herschel Walker, know they’re nothing like me,” he declares. “I’m an athlete that when I say I’m gonna do something I’mma do it. Most of all, I go out and win. I wouldn’t come to this gym to embarrass this gym and embarrass myself and embarrass Strikeforce.”
He tells everyone who will listen—and that’s a lot of people – that this isn’t a gimmick. Walker will have his chance to prove that when he enters the cage at the BankAtlanic Center in Sunrise, Fla. on Saturday night.
“I came in here into this gym to be a fighter,” says Walker. “And that’s what I’m going to become.”