SAN JOSE, Calif. – Every day, Herschel Walker – 1980s football legend, business owner and without question the most accomplished athlete to set foot in a mixed martial arts cage – gets up at 4:30 a.m. in his room at the Fairmont Hotel and, before eating, runs 3½-4 miles.
Still without food, Walker then does what seems endless pushups and sit-ups before heading to the American Kickboxing Academy gym in San Jose for his first daily workout.
Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, that means live sparring with people from hungry young prospects to fire-breathing fighting machines – including UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez, back when he was preparing for his fight with Brock Lesnar.
After the first workout, there are phone calls to keep abreast of his business, Renaissance Man Food Services, one of the largest minority-owned food supply companies in the country. Walker has stepped away from being in full-time charge for months because he’s moved to San Jose for most of the past 15 months, and constantly since late July, to get the best training in his new sport.
Finally, Walker eats his one meal of the day, a dinner consisting of bread, soup, and sometimes chicken, but never red meat or fish. Then he does his second training session at AKA.
Before going to bed, usually around 1 a.m., he does more pushups and sit-ups. Then he wakes up and repeats the next day.
But unlike the other fighters in the gym, who live the MMA lifestyle hoping to make their names, secure a financial future, or win championships, it’s a lot harder to figure out what motivates Walker.
If it was the challenge of trying a new sport, one he wished was around when he was younger, or to prove something to himself or critics, or just for a last moment of fame, well, he already did all that last year.
"I love the sport, the training, and these guys train as hard as any athletes in the world," he said after finishing his first workout of his final week of hard preparation for a Jan. 29 fight against Scott Carson (4-1). "I want to help the sport grow. If somebody watches the show to see me fight, they may become new fans of the sport."
Walker’s debut, on Jan. 30 of last year in Miami where he beat unknown Greg Nagy via third-round stoppage, was a success for the promoters. It was the third most watched MMA event on Showtime (which also airs the Jan. 29 fight), even though the show lacked a main event of general interest. Whether seeing Walker’s second fight will result in similar interest remains a question, since clearly much of his appeal was curiosity, and it isn't as if Walker plans a major run at a championship at his age.
If you look at Walker, or watch him train, you may think that he’s found some fountain of youth secret. But he doesn’t recommend his life to anyone.
"It’s just what I started doing a long time ago, I don’t want to say how many years ago," he joked, since every discussion of Walker starts and finishes with age.
Walker turns 49 on March 3, less than five weeks after he becomes the oldest fighter to compete on a major U.S. MMA show since the early days of the sport. Only Ron Van Clief, a martial arts legend of the ’70s and ’80s, who was 51 when he lost to Royce Gracie quickly in his only MMA match back at UFC 4 in 1994, was older.
Walker’s right knee hurts a little, he says from his early-morning runs, although all those years as a running back may be starting to kick in as well. He jokes about getting older, while at the same time noting that he believes due to the level of conditioning MMA requires, that he’s in the best condition of his life. He looks as impressive as anyone in the gym filled with top fighting talent including UFC headliners and Strikeforce stars who are 20-25 years his junior.
"I started (his training lifestyle and only eating once a day) in high school because I wanted to work and make money during lunch,” Walker said. “In college, I was always studying before practice to make grades, and by the time I was in the pros, I just didn’t get hungry."
The routine obviously worked. He never stopped doing the daily pushups and sit-ups, saying he doesn’t believe there’s been a day since he was 17 that he didn’t train. His weight never varied more than 2-4 pounds from his college football days in the early '80s, through the next three decades, until starting in his newest sport.
"This is the hardest sport I’ve ever done," Walker said. "You know how I can tell? I’ve always been right around the same weight, 218-222 pounds, no matter what sport I did. But I was 214 for my first fight."
Walker doesn’t have to tell you about football. He was one of the greatest high school and college players ever. When you look at his statistics, he was a very good pro football running back, but many look at his pro career as a disappointment since he was not one of the greatest running backs in NFL history, a tag he seemed destined for after college.
But he does talk about other accomplishments, being world class in track, going to the Olympics as a bobsled racer, and winning the Superstars competition twice in the late '80s, an ABC produced decathlon of events against some of the most notable athletes in a variety of sports of that era.
Walker makes no pretense that he will ever be world class at this sport. As much as people around him say throw out age when talking about him, and no matter what he physically looks like, age is still the main reason. He started late and his window of opportunity is closing.
"We’re not sitting here calling out the biggest names," said AKA trainer Javier Mendez. "He’s a green fighter looking to challenge himself. We’ve never said he’s anything that he’s not. He’s facing someone better than he faced the last time. If he fights again, he’ll face someone better next time."
Carson, his opponent, is almost a complete unknown. He’s 40, but has only fought once since the summer of 2001, a knockout loss to Lorenz Larkin (a 7-0 prospect) on June 12. They haven’t been able to find any tape of his fights. The only training tape they have, Mendez felt was a deliberate swerve, meant to give them a false sense of security, by putting a training tape together showing so little skill that Walker would let his guard down.
Walker entered MMA as a novelty, but it’s not how he wants to be viewed. You don’t stand across the ring and trade shots with Velasquez, and try and trade takedowns with unbeaten heavyweight Daniel Cormier, and come back for more each day if you aren’t deadly serious.
Mendez said to expect to see improvements in his grappling in particular, although he’s improved from last year in all aspects.
"His grappling has really come along well," Mendez noted. "His striking has not progressed as fast as his grappling has."
Mendez said he has an unorthodox striking game, which probably falls back on decades of training in Tae Kwon Do. Another thing that belies his age is he can make his striking style work because he’s still got a lot of speed and explosiveness.
And Walker notes that he’s got some new techniques that he didn’t show before.
"(Strikeforce fighter) Cung Le told me to not forget about my Tae Kwon Do," he said. "There are some things in that sport that don’t work in an MMA fight, and he said to throw them out. But he said there are things you can use."
And he wants to make a difference in the sport that resonates long after his last match. He talks about ideas such as organizing fighters to get insurance, noting the benefits he had from football. He also wonders about hooking up with ESPN or a major sports carrier to work as an analyst for football, MMA and track.
"These guys need insurance," he said about the plight of his teammates. "Maybe we could organize them. Once you’ve had a certain number of professional fights you can be eligible for an insurance program."
He’s also sympathetic to the plight of fighters who are under contract to a major organization, but then can’t get fights.
"If you’re good enough to get a contract, they need to give you regular fights or let you fight somewhere else."
- Herschel Walker