Herschel Walker continues MMA crusade in Strikeforce cage Saturday

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Herschel Walker’s effect on mixed martial arts won’t be measured alone by how he does in the cage Saturday at Strikeforce “Diaz vs. Cyborg” at the HP Pavilion in San Jose.

Win or lose, the 48-year-old Walker (1-0) will walk away from his heavyweight bout against Scott Carson (4-1) with little to prove. Just getting in there at his age is a feat on its own.


But the legendary NFL running back has already left a greater mark at the American Kickboxing Academy, one of the country’s preeminent training facilities and home to more than a few of the world’s top-ranked fighters.

Walker, who began training at the San Jose Academy in October 2009, has risen as a leader among a room full of them. On any given day at AKA, after a brutal practice, the drenched athletes gather on the mat to talk about their progress. And though he’s far from the most talented or skilled fighter in the gym, Walker’s experience as a professional athlete is highly valued currency within the gym’s walls. When Walker speaks, everybody listens, his coaches included.

It wasn’t always that way. Javier Mendez, one of AKA’s three main instructors, admits he was skeptical the day the 1982 Heisman Trophy winner walked through the door.

“When they told me he was coming, I thought it was a joke,” Mendez said. “I didn’t take it very seriously. I wasn’t really interested because I thought he was doing it for a gimmick to get attention. He was a great football player, but this is MMA.”

But after training with him the first time, Mendez quickly realized Walker “was special.”

“He was very green, mind you, but his dedication and his learning curve was like nobody I’d ever trained,” Mendez said.

With only three months of training, Walker made a respectable pro debut, stopping Greg Nagy (then 0-1) with strikes in the third round at Strikeforce “Miami” in January 2010.

Walker’s participation garnered Strikeforce and the sport considerable attention, as he hoped it would. Much like the way he used his 2008 memoir “Breaking Free” to shed light on his struggles with dissociative identity disorder, formerly known as multiple personality disorder, Walker wielded his notoriety in support of MMA.

“[Former Dallas Cowboys] Coach [tom] Landry used to say if you take something out, you put something back in,” Walker said. “What I’ve gotten out of MMA is a lot of friendship, a lot of knowledge. I’ve gotten to know some great, great guys and that’s the reason why I want to help them be the best that they can be.”

Walker returned to AKA a month after his victory to continue training. At the time, it was uncertain if he was going to fight again, though the response that his first appearance received made him an appealing commodity for the promotion and Showtime, which broadcasts all of Strikeforce’s events.

“If a fight came about, I said I’d be happy to do it, but it wasn’t something I was looking for, something that I’m about,” Walker said. “I’m about conditioning, I’m about training. I was lucky to get that first fight.”

Walker, who lives in Dallas, took up residence in San Jose’s Fairmont Hotel, where he continued to run his businesses, including his Renaissance Man Food Services company, when he wasn’t training.

“I sell chicken to them and they give me free room and board,” Walker said.

At AKA, Walker quietly earned his keep by being a team player. By summer, he was helping UFC heavyweight contender Cain Velasquez prepare for an October title bout against champion Brock Lesnar.

“I got in the ring a little bit with Cain. I think the only way I helped him was for him to try and figure out how he was going to beat Brock up, so I gave him a chance to beat up on me,” Walker said. “When I got in the cage, I could hear Javier say, ‘Cain, don’t hurt him.’ ”

Like most, the AKA team marveled at Walker’s physical anomalies, including his much-documented practice of only eating a single meal each evening, usually consisting of soup and salad. At one practice, the team crowded around Walker to weigh him in on a scale beforehand, then scratched their heads when he didn’t shed a single pound following a particularly grueling workout.

By the fall, Walker was slated to face the 40-year-old Carson at a Dec. 4 event in St. Louis. However, Walker was forced to withdraw after he collided with a training partner and needed eight stitches for a cut under his left eye. After the injury, Walker told The Times that his biggest concern was that Carson wouldn’t be rescheduled to fight.

Instead of traveling home to Dallas to spend the holidays with his son, Walker stayed in San Jose to see through the final preparations of his teammates who still had bouts, including UFC welterweight contender Josh Koscheck.

Mendez said Walker’s commitment to the squad has bonded them closer together.

“He’s there just not as a physical partner. He’s given a lot of mental guidance to some of the guys,” said Mendez. “He goes out of his way to make a fighter feel better, to see what he can do to help. He’s here more for the team than he is for himself. You can sometimes feel it in the way that he talks.

Walker’s influence has had far-reaching effect at AKA.

“I use Herschel on me,” Mendez said. “Sometimes I need things fixed that are broken and Herschel helps me see things correctly. I bounce my ideas and thoughts off of him because I respect what he has to say. He’s been there and done it.”

Mendez said Walker’s media savvy has been particularly beneficial for the team, especially with the higher profile fighters who’ve been disgruntled or disenchanted with their dealings with the press in the past.

“I’ve noticed a difference in the guys, especially with the ones that get attention, because they watch how Herschel manages to handle all of the media properly,” Mendez said. “He grants every single interview asked of him. I think it’s been extremely helpful for both the young up-and-coming guys, as well as the guys already out there in the spotlight.”

Luke Rockhold, a 26-year-old middleweight prospect rising fast through Strikeforce’s ranks, has grown very close with the four-franchise NFL great. Walker refers to Rockhold as his “little brother.”

“For someone like Herschel to reach the pinnacle and have all the fame that he has, to stay as humble and as cool as he is, it’s pretty refreshing,” Rockhold said. “I’ve traveled with him on PR trips, and he’s always trying to help you with your bags. He’s so down to earth.”

Walker, who turns 49 in March, has no illusions regarding his career. He knows he will never become an MMA champion in the time he has left to compete in the sport. Instead, Walker -- who donated his first purse to charity and plans to dole out at least a portion of his second after Saturday -- said he’ll gauge his own success in improved performances and what positive influence he can bring to the fighters and the sport as it continues its march into mainstream awareness.

“I’m happy that I can be one of the catalysts to help MMA get recognition,” Walker said. “I don’t think this sport has gotten the recognition it deserves. If I can help so the guys can make a little more money, get insurance, I would love that.”

-- Loretta Hunt