When Herschel Walker first announced he was getting into mixed martial arts last September, the MMA community was very openly against it. Afterall, they had seen the joke that was Jose Canseco fighting in a freak show match against 7′2″ Hong Man Choi at Dream 9 in May. Hell, Walker was even two years older (47) and he had never fought professionally. No one was going to take this seriously. An even better example would be NFL veteran Marcus Jones who appeared on season 10 of The Ultimate Fighter this past year. Jones was only 35 at the time of the show’s taping, 12 years younger than Walker, and he looked completely worn down from his time in the NFL. Jones officially retired from MMA after a second round knockout loss on the TUF 10 Finale. How could Walker possibly fare any better?
Possibly the biggest detractor to Walker’s signing with Strikeforce was UFC president Dana White. He had more than a few nasty things to say about Walker starting MMA at age 47:
I think it’s ridiculous. People think we’re anti-competition? We’re anti-dumb competition. Putting a 50-year-old guy in the Octagon for the first time and then putting out a press release like it’s a big deal. Are you serious?
Would you say that Herschel Walker was a great football player? Absolutely, right. Now, why did he retire from football? He was too *%^#ing old. So now you think you’re young enough to fight and in good enough shape?
I’ll admit that I was in that majority when it was first announced, but I’m beginning to come around on the subject. Walker, a former Heisman trophy winner and 2 time NFL pro bowler is an exceptional athlete and he has stayed in very good shape despite being retired for 12+ years. The Florida state athletic commission put him through some very rigorous testing to sanction him for a fight with Strikeforce and he passed with flying colors.
Walker has used martial arts training to stay in shape since he was very young, and he joined the prestigious American Kickboxing Academy to train for his MMA debut alongside MMA standouts like Josh Koshcheck, Cain Velasquez and Josh Thomson.
Honestly, what really matters to me is if he can be a good ambassador for the sport, and he has certainly done that. Most traditional media still look down their noses at mixed martial arts. These media outlets actually know and are curious about Walker, who has a solid and proven history of success in elite athletics. Walker has been doing press interview after press interview, and he has gained the attention of many reporters that have ignored MMA for years.
Today was a great example. If you have ever watched Pardon the Interruption on ESPN, Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon constantly mock mixed martial arts and spew ignorance about the sport in general. When they started grilling Walker about why he would want to do this, he very carefully explained why he loved the sport, compared it’s safety to boxing and football and even discussed the advances MMA has made in fighter safety over the past 15 years. His knowledge of the sport impressed me and certainly impressed both hosts.
Kornheiser and Wilbon may not give a crap about MMA, but just like most sports journalists, they have a ton of respect for Herschel Walker. After the interview, both hosts agreed to watch the event this Saturday, which completely shocked me. This kind of promotion is exactly why Strikeforce signed Walker. He is yet another link for new fans to take a look at the growing sport, and I’m sure tons of curious observers will tune in this Saturday to see how he performs, count me in.