Ageless Walker does sport, self proud

Kevin Iole
Yahoo! Sports

You can follow Kevin Iole on Twitter at @KevinI

SUNRISE, Fla. – He didn't look remotely ready to face an elite mixed martial arts fighter. He didn't even seem nearly ready, to be honest, to face an MMA neophyte like Bobby Lashley.

But for all the flaws in his game, real and imagined, that were on display Saturday at the BankAtlantic Center, Herschel Walker did himself proud.

There aren't too many 47-year-olds this side of Randy Couture who could do what the 1982 Heisman Trophy winner did Saturday in stopping Greg Nagy at 2:17 of the third round in his MMA debut.

Walker's conditioning was superb and he was barely breathing hard when he got off Nagy after referee Troy Waugh had seen enough and stopped the bout. Contrast that with the performance of about half the cast of Season 10 of "The Ultimate Fighter," heavyweights who seemed to gas literally 30 or 45 seconds into the fight.

Walker was stiff and wooden in his standup and was clearly uncertain what to do when the fight went to the ground. He had at least a half-dozen opportunities for submissions that he was unable to convert.

Those who want to criticize him will point to those failings as reasons why he should not have been featured on the televised portion of the card.

That, though, is short-sighted thinking and misses the point of what Walker was able to accomplish Saturday. Walker has long been a martial artist – he has a sixth-degree black belt in taekwondo – and decided to try to fight in MMA as a way to challenge himself.

He treated the sport, his opponent, the media and the fans with the utmost respect. He prepared at the American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, Calif., one of the elite camps in the country, and worked as hard or harder than any of the camp's many MMA stars he worked alongside.

The promotion for the fight card – which featured three quality matches – was nearly all about Walker. He was on "The Howard Stern Show" and SportsCenter and in newspapers across the country.

Nearly all of those outlets would have ignored the card had Walker not been a part of it.

Walker brought much attention to the skills of Strikeforce welterweight champion Nick Diaz, who stopped Marius Zaromskis in the first round for the belt in Saturday's main event. He provided a platform for Cris "Cyborg" Santos and Marloes Coenen, who waged a terrific three-round battle that Santos won for the women's lightweight belt.

And he brought eyeballs to Robbie Lawler's stunning first-round knockout of Melvin Manhoef.

More people watched the Showtime broadcast because of Walker. You can go to the bank on that.

And while Walker didn't cover himself in glory if you insist on comparing him to accomplished MMA fighters like Fedor Emelianenko or even the Ultimate Fighting Championship's 46-year-old Couture, his effort needs to be put in context.

Walker didn't train in MMA for the first time until November. If you expected him to look polished and complete, you are either naive or a fool.

"He was well-schooled, which you could tell," promoter Scott Coker said. "He got out of the transitions well. He did some good standup, some good leg kicks. He wrestled well. He controlled the guy well. And he didn't gas. His conditioning was unbelievable."

His trainer, Javier Mendez, was comparing Walker's conditioning to the UFC's Cain Velasquez, who might be the most well-conditioned big man in the sport. Velasquez could probably fight five 10-minute rounds if he needed to, and Mendez put Walker in the same league.

"He said, 'This guy can go as much as Cain in the gym,' " Coker said. "He said, 'His gas tank is as big as Cain's.' This was his journey to test himself and he did it."

Walker picked apart his game, noting more of the mistakes he made than the good things he did. But he was clearly proud. He didn't have the disastrous ending like other former athletes who tried MMA, guys like ex-NFL receiver Johnnie Morton or ex-baseball player Jose Canseco.

He didn't beat a world-class guy. He's not causing Fedor any sleepless nights. But he's 1-0 and if he never fights again, he'll always have that one in the win column.

And despite all the interviews, the short preparation time and the high expectations, Walker was relaxed. He never got tense and he wasn't at all a basket of nerves.

"You're going to be shocked by this, but not at all," Walker said when asked if the pressure bothered him. "There was no pressure and the reason why was I really thought the people at AKA prepared me for it. The fighters at the gym, everyone there, they prepared me for this. What I had to do was just go in the ring and do it.

"I've loved (MMA) for about four years. This isn't something I just decided I wanted to do. It's something I've thought about for over four years. I want to thank Scott Coker and Strikeforce and Showtime for putting it on so my family back home could see it, but this is something I've loved for a long time."

Coker said he didn't sign off on putting Walker onto the card until he watched him train one day. He wanted to make sure it would not be an embarrassment.

Walker wrestled with a former collegiate wrestler and more than held his own, stuffing most of the takedown attempts, Coker said. He grappled with a heavyweight who has a jiu-jitsu background and got submitted several times.

As his teammates and coaches shouted instructions, Walker finally had enough. He put his hands on his opponent's chest and stomach and essentially bench-pressed him.

"I do remember that," Walker said of the practice session that ultimately convinced Coker he was ready. "The guy was about 265 pounds and he was doing some things. What is funny is, we were rolling and working on different things and I was learning and trying to take it easy. But some guys, because they're in there with Herschel Walker, they want to show what they can do.

"At that time I decided, 'If you want to do that, we can do this.' I decided to show what I could do. I bench-pressed him off me and showed him, 'If you want to do this, we can do it.' "

Walker made a similar point on Saturday. Nagy went for a knee bar while they were on the ground and he deftly avoided it. Walker wasn't thrilled with what he said were a few details, but Mendez couldn't have been happier.

If Walker fights again – and that's a big if – Mendez said he'd recommend a three-month camp. And he said if he fought for three years, he could reach a world-class level.

But for a first-timer after just nine weeks, the veteran coach was beside himself with Walker's performance.

"He showed people he has an overall MMA game," Mendez said. "A minus is that he didn't have enough time to adequately prepare him. Nine weeks is not a lot of time to expect someone who has never fought to look like a champion. Honestly, I didn't expect this much.

"MMA is not a sport to be taken lightly by anyone, not even a great athlete. And this guy did it the right way. He came to a serious gym. He could have gone to Hollywood, anywhere he wanted, but he came to San Jose, California. … He showed a lot of respect for the game and he showed what a terrific athlete he is. I'll tell you what, I'd vote for him for president if he decided to run. That's what I think of him."

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