Stakes are high in Walker's MMA debut

Kevin Iole
Yahoo! Sports

You can follow Kevin Iole on Twitter at @KevinI

It's a pretty good bet that many people will say, "Too bad," after Herschel Walker makes his mixed martial arts debut on Saturday at Strikeforce: Miami in Sunrise, Fla., when he takes on unheralded Greg Nagy at the BankAtlantic Center.

Most will think of things like, "Yeah, it's too bad he got hurt," or "It's too bad he embarrassed the sport," or even "It's too bad this had to be televised."

But don't expect to see a sports horror story like Willie Mays playing center in the 1973 World Series or Johnny Unitas quarterbacking the San Diego Chargers or Muhammad Ali fighting Larry Holmes. Instead, Walker, the 1982 Heisman Trophy winner, will fulfill a long-time dream on Saturday by fighting professionally for the first time.

More likely, after the fight, most who watch Walker – and rest assured, it will be one of the largest audiences Showtime has ever had for an MMA card – will say "It's too bad the guy wasn't born 25 years later."

He's such a great athlete, if he were born in 1987 instead of in 1962, he could have become the greatest MMA fighter who ever lived.

We'll never know. This is a guy who was born when John F. Kennedy was president for barely a year. The Cuban Missile Crisis was still seven months away.

The headliner on Saturday's card, veteran Nick Diaz, wasn't born until nine months after Walker won the Heisman Trophy as a junior at the University of Georgia. Walker was retired from the NFL for four years before Diaz turned professional.

So there's almost no chance that Walker will become much more than a curiosity in MMA. He simply doesn't have the time.

But he's one of the greatest athletes of all time. He remains in superb physical condition. He might be the physically strongest man on Saturday's card, about a month from his 48th birthday. He's completely dedicated to his craft. His coach, the highly regarded Javier Mendez, said Walker not only hasn't missed any practices, he's been early for most of them.

That doesn't mean he's going to win, or even look good.

I don't know much about Nagy, his opponent, but I'm guessing he's not much simply by virtue of the fact he was chosen in the first place. The folks at Strikeforce and at Showtime would love to air a happy story of Walker winning his pro debut, so they weren't looking for the next Fedor Emelianenko for him to face.

Nagy won't be nearly as strong as Walker nor a tenth as athletic. His only chance to win will be if he has far superior technique. That's definitely possible.

Walker has only had about 10-12 weeks of serious training and it wouldn't shock anyone if his striking technique is poor and he appears lost when he hits the ground.

This isn't about Walker's performance on Saturday, however. It's about proving what is possible, of testing one's limits and striving for excellence.

Importantly, Walker won't be a circus act, like Jose Canseco was when he fought in DREAM. Canseco was fighting for the money. He clearly didn't care about MMA, nor worry that his asinine effort would embarrass himself and the sport. He was out for a paycheck.

Walker is a wealthy man who is going to donate his purse to charity. He reveres the sport. He's competed in traditional martial arts for decades and has been one of MMA's biggest fans since its inception.

In 2006 at a UFC show in Las Vegas, Walker watched the action with wide-eyed wonder and spoke of putting a group of former NFL players together to fight in exhibitions.

The only way he could be harmful to the sport is if he's so badly out of his depth that he looks foolish or, worse, gets seriously injured. Neither, though, is likely.

Like Kimbo Slice, first for Elite XC and later for the UFC, Walker will bring plenty of additional viewers to Saturday's broadcast. It's an exciting card loaded with good fights – Diaz against Marius Zaromskis, Robbie Lawler and Melvin Manhoef, Cris "Cyborg" Santos and Marloes Coenen and Jay Hieron and Joe Riggs are all quality matches – and Walker's appearance will put a bigger spotlight on each of them.

If he wins and looks good while doing it, the mainstream media attention that will generate is nearly incalculable.

Walker's probably not going to fight more than a handful of times. I wouldn't be shocked if Saturday's bout were not only his first, but also his last.

But I see nothing wrong with his foray into MMA. He's been respectful of the sport, of his teammates, his coaches and his opponent. He's worked hard to promote the fight and worked even harder to prepare himself to be the best he can be.

If that's not the kind of person you want in your sport, I'm not sure who is.

Yes, there's a risk that disaster strikes and it hurts the sport significantly. But there's a far greater chance that Walker's appearance will be a boon for MMA and shoves it that much further along toward mainstream acceptance.

It's just too bad Walker didn't have the chance to try MMA when he was 15. The fight game would never have been the same.

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