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SAN JOSE, Calif. – The time is drawing near for Herschel Walker, one of the greatest college football players of all-time, to step into a mixed martial arts cage, some 27 years after he won the Heisman Trophy as a running back at the University of Georgia.
"He's a freak, but this is not a freak show," said Luke Rockhold, one of his main training partners at San Jose's American Kickboxing Academy and a rising star with the Strikeforce organization. "He put in three months of training at one of the best gyms in the world. He's legitimate."
Every discussion of Walker's foray into the sport, with his debut fight Jan. 30 on a Showtime-aired Strikeforce card against unknown heavyweight Greg Nagy (1-1) at the Bank Atlantic Center in Sunrise, Fla., begins with the question of age.
But according to trainer Javier Mendez, as illogical as it sounds for a man who turns 48 in less than six weeks, the number doesn't apply to Walker. And while inexperience is most definitely an issue, age is not.
Unless your name is Randy Couture, who won the last of his five UFC titles at 43, the cage is not the kind of place for men on the wrong side of 40. Some of the saddest sights in recent years have been legends from MMA's early days going in as shells of their former selves and being dominated by men barely half their age who aren't even top guys.
So having someone walk into the cage who had never even trained for the sport until November, who is more than a year older than Couture and has never trained in boxing or wrestling at any kind of a high level before, on the surface sounds ridiculous.
"I don't know how he does it, but just throw the age thing out the window," said Mendez, who noted that unlike most older fighters who start training differently because their bodies need more recuperation time between workout sessions, Walker's training has made zero concessions for the age. "He is the best student I've ever had. Every day he comes to practice 10 to 15 minutes early. He's never late. Every day he gets better. For a normal 47-year-old, it would be a big disaster."
Mendez said he's the second-best conditioned heavyweight he's trained, behind only Cain Velasquez, who is generally considered the hardest trainer and best-conditioned heavyweight in the sport.
"And he keeps right up with Cain," Mendez said.
While that may sound like coaching hyperbole, the Florida Boxing Commission made Walker undergo extensive testing to get licensed due to his age and lack of fighting experience. Commission head physician Dr. Allan Fields, who oversaw the stress test on Walker's heart, said that Walker's heart functions better than any individual tested at the cardiac institution that handled the testing. "He's in as fine a shape as [a prime] Muhammad Ali or any of these people we've had under our care," said Fields, who has been a physician with the U.S. Olympic boxing team. "This guy is 47 going on 22, as far as his physical fitness goes."
Rockhold, who spent several days with Walker last week on a media blitz in New York, said that what was most amazing to him is Walker's ability to train so hard without any food, confirming the legend of Walker's eating habits.
"He eats one meal a day, at night," he said. "He has salad, soup, maybe chicken soup, and bread, and he's not afraid to put butter on it. He eats no meat and no fish."
Walker, who said he never sleeps more than four hours a night, doesn't make any claims about finding a secret diet that keeps his body looking like a remarkably fit 217-pound competitive athlete in his 20s, even though his last high-level sports competition was the 1997 NFL season. He doesn't lift weights but still does a ridiculous amount of pushups and sit-ups every day.
"It's just what my body has gotten used to," Walker said. "I just started eating this way in college. I was going to class. I was a very good student, ran track and played football. I was always doing something so it didn't have time to eat until the evening."
Mendez said that if Walker started in the sport at 23, he would have become the single greatest mixed martial arts fighter of all-time. But on the flip side, he warns people about having high expectations.
"I've only had him for seven weeks," Mendez said. "When he started, he didn't even know how to throw a punch correctly. He had terrible footwork for boxing. But he picked it up that quick. It would take a normal pro fighter one year to two years to progress as fast as he has.
"He's not an elite fighter," Mendez said. "When he spars, right now he can just edge out guys who have had about six fights. But if I had three years with him, he could be an elite fighter."
Under normal circumstances, Mendez said he wouldn't even have him spar this early in his training, but with a fight coming up, everything had to be accelerated.
He said he considers Nagy, 26, who is 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds and has been training for about two years, as a fair first fight.
"Greg Nagy is bigger. He's had three fights. His record says two but they've told us it's really three. He's been fighting for two years. He has the experience. Herschel is the better athlete. I think Herschel's in better shape and stronger, but anyone can get clipped. There's no guarantees in an MMA fight. We can't say something can't happen to anyone because it does."
Rockhold noted that Walker has taken some solid shots in training and has yet to be knocked down. He said in terms of grappling, Walker is freakishly strong and he has shown surprisingly good takedown ability. He's not at the level of a top wrestler, but Rockhold said he could probably take anyone down who doesn't have a good wrestling background.
Walker, who has trained wrestling with Velasquez and Daniel Cormier, a two-time Olympian, has no concrete plans after the fight. He is the sole owner of Renaissance Man Food Services Inc., a meat-processing business specializing in chicken based in Savannah, Ga., with more than 100 employees, and he also co-owns a chicken processing plant in Silaom Springs, Ark.
Walker is also quick to point out that he is no Jose Canseco, who went into the ring in Japan last year with no training in the sport and lost quickly, or Johnnie Morton, a former NFL star who was knocked cold just seconds in his lone pro fight in 2007. Canseco and Morton were approached by Japanese promoters (Morton's match took place in Los Angeles but was promoted by the Japanese-based K-1 organization) to be novelty drawing cards.
"I approached them," Walker said. "If this sport was around 20 years ago, I may not have played football as long as I did."
He noted when he talked with Strikeforce promoter Scott Coker, Coker told him he'd only be interested if he went through three months of hard training at Mendez's camp.
"I gave up Christmas and New Year's for this," Walker said. "This is not a gimmick."