It’s no joke: Herschel Walker in a Strikeforce bout


Herschel Walker used to tell friends at the University of Georgia that he aspired to be considered one of the greatest athletes in history.

“And not just in football,” Walker recalled this week.

Since running the Bulldogs to the 1980 national championship and winning the Heisman Trophy in 1982, Walker rushed for more than 13,000 yards in the USFL and NFL, then retired in 1997 with the second-most all-purpose yards in NFL history. During his pro football career, he also earned a spot on the 1992 Olympic two-man bobsled team, and won television’s “Superstars” event three times. Now, at 47, Walker will try mixed martial arts fighting. He will be on tonight’s undercard of a Strikeforce event in Florida (Showtime, 10 p.m. PST, delayed).

“Stepping into MMA now is more of an athletic challenge than anything I’ve ever done, including football,” Walker said in a phone interview from Miami. Skeptics decry Walker’s MMA debut as another novelty act in a sport still striving for mainstream sports fans.


Former baseball slugger Jose Canseco went to Japan last year for an MMA bout and was pounded by Hong Man Choi. Street fighter and YouTube sensation Kimbo Slice has fought with mixed results in MMA bouts. Veteran heavyweight boxer Ray Mercer tried MMA and knocked out Tim Sylvia, a former Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight champ. And former collegiate and pro wrestling star Brock Lesnar won the UFC heavyweight championship in his fifth pro bout.

What to make of Walker, who’ll fight 26-year-old Greg Nagy in a heavyweight bout?

“Far from Brock or Kimbo,” UFC President Dana White, who has both under contract, told The Times in a text message. “This guy [Walker] is 50 years old and has never fought a day in his life. It’s a joke.”

White later somewhat softened his reaction, adding, “That’s what a place like Strikeforce is for: lower-level fights for up-and-coming guys, but Walker is way too old. . . . I guess if he wants to try one fight just to do it, that’s the right way and the right place.”

Walker concedes he began his training humbly.

Twelve weeks ago, he urged his trainer Javier Mendez, of San Jose’s prestigious American Kickboxing Academy, to be candid. “I told Javier before I started that if he didn’t think I had it after about three weeks, to tell me,” Walker said. “I’d swallow my pride and move on.”

In a gym that counts current UFC heavyweight contender Cain Velasquez and talented welterweights Josh Koscheck and Jon Fitch as members, Mendez found Walker had skills to build upon.

Walker is a fifth-degree black belt in taekwondo who has studied the craft more than 30 years, while religiously exercising and eating well. His former routine of 5,000 daily sit-ups and push-ups has been decreased, but he still does 1,500 push-ups and 2,500 sit-ups daily.


“It’s a serious business, and these guys who don’t take it serious, like Jose [Canseco], pay the price,” Walker said. “You’ve got to ask the people who know me, and the people who coach me how seriously I’ve taken this. Nothing I’ve ever done has been a novelty, or a circus act.”

Mendez, who’ll be in Walker’s corner tonight, calls him “the best student I’ve ever had.”

“He never lost a sparring session and was outdoing the younger guys. He loves to compete. And I’m not concerned about his age. At the beginning, I was skeptical myself, but this guy’s still a phenomenal athlete and still has the explosiveness, the cardio and desire to be the best. He’s a great athlete who still has some of that greatness in him.”

Walker expects a tough bout from Nagy. “A guy like that can be dangerous, I’ve been working with Cain and Bobby [Lashley, a wrestler and MMA fighter] to make sure I’m keeping my hands up right, so I don’t get hit,” Walker said.

When Strikeforce announced its Sunrise card, it hyped Walker’s appearance prominently. If Walker piles up a string of victories, it would make perfect business sense to stage Walker against Strikeforce’s star, Fedor Emelianenko.

Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker described Walker’s appearance “as more of a personal goal than to become the next Fedor.” Coker added Walker is donating nearly his entire “hefty” purse to a charity.

“We’ll see where he is after this fight,” Coker said. “He wants to see how he likes it. When the gate closes and he’s in that cage before the bright lights, he’ll test himself.”


Neither Walker nor his trainer is rushing things.

“Herschel needs the right type of fights; we’ll be taking it step by step,” Mendez said. “Right now, he doesn’t have the quality of wrestling experience to handle the fast track. It could be two or three years.”

Fighting at 50?

“I don’t know how far I can go,” Walker said. “I live with the realization I’m getting older.”