Herschel Walker needs no introduction, but I'll give him one anyway, in case you've forgotten about all he's done in sports or aren't old enough to fully grasp his legacy. That second possibility is certainly feasible for some in the youngish fan base of mixed martial arts, considering that the 48-year-old won his Heisman Trophy 29 years ago and had his Pro Bowl seasons way back in 1987 and 1988, which may or may not have been during the NFL's leather-helmet era.
And it's not like the former running back's pursuit of MMA is his second career in sports. It's more like his fourth or fifth. In the 1992 Winter Olympics, he represented the United States in the two-man bobsled, finishing seventh. Before that, he tried to win a spot on the U.S. track team for the Summer Games, running sprint relays. He's also trained in Tae Kwon Do for 33 years, and is a fifth-degree black belt in that discipline. It was that practice that led to Walker's latest career, which he will continue on Saturday night when he fights Scott Carson in a heavyweight bout on the undercard of Strikeforce: Diaz vs. Cyborg in San Jose, Calif.
Although it's just the second pro fight for Walker, his high-profile past makes him the biggest drawing card even for an event featuring two title fights. Hard-core MMA fans are probably more interested in seeing Nick Diaz defend his welterweight title against Evangelista "Cyborg" Santos and middleweight champ Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza put his belt on the line against Robbie Lawler. Others are more intrigued by another relative Strikeforce newcomer, Roger Gracie, a member of the first family of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, who has transitioned from a much-decorated career in submission grappling to a 3-0 start in MMA. But for the mass mainstream audience that Strikeforce and Showtime hope to attract to the 10 p.m. ET telecast, Walker is the man.
Because of that, some call Walker's MMA career a sideshow. In fact, just last Friday a sports columnist for The Oregonian likened Walker to Eddie Gaedel, baseball's 3-foot-7 walking publicity stunt from the 1950s, as well as the insufferable Tonya Harding and her money-grabbing jab at celebrity boxing. These are foolish comparisons. Mainstream sports are littered with self-serving sideshows, from LeBron James' The Decision to Mark McGwire and his steroid-era baseball brethren denying everything to, well, every moment of every day in Terrell Owens' daily life. Herschel Walker is no attention junkie. You might think his MMA career is a joke, but he isn't laughing.
"If you think I'm a gimmick, you can come to A.K.A. and roll with me any time," Walker said during a Strikeforce media conference call on Monday, ostensibly speaking to any fighters who doubt he's in this game for the right reasons. "I'm not afraid to roll with anyone."
The A.K.A. he refers to, of course, is American Kickboxing Academy, one of the elite camps in the MMA world, home base of the best heavyweight in the world, Cain Velasquez. When Walker rolls, he rolls with the best. That alone is justification for Strikeforce and Showtime putting a spotlight on him. True, he wouldn't be fighting on national TV if his name wasn't Herschel Walker. But that's not his fault. He puts in the work.
"I'm in better shape now," he said, "than I was in my early 20s playing football."
Ah, football. Walker never quite escapes from his glorious past, especially at this time of year, with the NFL playoffs reaching their climax. Who does he like in the Super Bowl?
"I'm going to pick Pittsburgh," he said. "I think it's going to be a great game. Both teams are playing great."
Perhaps Walker will break down some X's and O's when he's on this week's Inside the NFL on Showtime (premieres Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET).
Walker would love to be a trail blazer for NFL players.
"I've always tried to tell players that they should be training in some kind of MMA during the offseason," he said. "It would help them a great deal." From a running back's stiff-arm to a lineman's hand-to-hand battling, he said, "everything you do in MMA is almost correlated to what you do in football."
Any chance of him following his own advice, then, and using this MMA training to buff the tarnish off his own football skills?
"Who knows? At 50 I may try for football again to show people I can do that," said Walker. "I want to be the George Foreman of football."
There were some exciting exchanges during the UFC Fight for the Troops 2 event on Saturday night, but the most heart-stirring moments of the Spike telecast were the short features on soldiers who've sustained traumatic brain injuries while serving their country. We'll soon know how effective those touching profiles were in prompting viewers to go to fightforthetroops.com and make a contribution to the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, which supports soldiers severely injured in combat and the families of those lost to the war.
The last time the UFC held a Fight for the Troops fundraising event, it generated $4 million. MMAFighting.com reported that $600,000 was donated during Saturday's fights, but as of Monday, donations were still coming in.
The online auction is over, however, and it got the fundraising effort off to a nice start, raising more than $150,000. The bulk of that came in bidding for a UFC custom Camaro, which after 14 bids was won for $101,000.
That might seem like a lot to pay for a car, even a Camaro souped up with a 650-horsepower engine and 2,000-watt sound system, but it's actually a bargain. The only other time the UFC auctioned off a custom Camaro for charity, it sold for $350,000.
Still, looking at a picture of the sleek, black car online, I saw an opportunity missed. Instead of customizing the ride with subtle touches such as seats fashioned from the same leather as UFC fight gloves, they should have just splashed a big UFC logo on the hood. Sure, it's tacky. But what guy wouldn't pay a bundle for the assurance that no matter what he does behind the wheel, he never, ever has to worry about being the victim of road rage? ("I know that car just cut me off, honey, but did you see that logo? It could be Cain Velasquez or Mauricio 'Shogun' Rua driving that Camaro! No way I'm honking the horn.")
Also, I had to wonder if another prized auction item, a private training session with Randy Couture and Forrest Griffin, might have generated more than the wonderful $11,100 it did if Spike hadn't aired, as part of its Saturday afternoon pre-fight programming, a UFC Unleashed episode featuring Griffin being schooled, toyed with and KO'd by Anderson Silva. Couldn't Spike have instead aired Forrest's first fight with Stephan Bonnar or his big wins over Quinton "Rampage" Jackson or Rua, in the name of charity?
Thumbing through my local newspaper on Saturday morning after breakfast, I came to USA Weekend, the Parade-like weekly magazine supplement that's stuffed into hundreds of daily papers around the country along with the Target circular and supermarket coupons. I opened to a regular feature called "Birthday Buzz," and listed right there with Neil Diamond (who was 70 years old on Monday), Wayne Gretzky (50 on Wednesday) and Oprah Winfrey (57 on Saturday) was none other than Tito Ortiz, who turned 36 on Sunday.
A sign that MMA has made it to the mainstream? Perhaps.
Then again, the next thing I did was grab the same newspaper's sports section to take look at the weekend TV listings. For Saturday, I found a Celtics game and Bruins game (I live in New England), around 10,000 college basketball games, Australian Open tennis, two minor golf tournaments, HBO boxing, English Premier League soccer, even a rad snowboarding/freestyle skiing event. What I didn't find was UFC Fight for the Troops 2.
Now, I understand why the UFC is nowhere to be found in newspaper listings when the event is on pay-per-view. But Saturday's fights were on Spike. I've seen Strikeforce cards on Showtime and even CBS similarly ignored. What, Evan Dunham vs. Melvin Guillard wasn't as worthy of a listing as the crucial Arkansas-Little Rock vs. Florida Atlantic hoops game?
• Nick Diaz met with reporters in a conference call last week, and while he spoke a little about Cyborg Santos and their fight on Saturday, he also had much to say about topics ranging from his triathlon training ("It helps me get into shape for five rounds") to his vegan diet ("What I don't understand is that there are people who have gone to college and they eat like [expletive]").
The topic that really got him on a roll, though, was Jason "Mayhem" Miller, with whom he's waged a war of words ever since they were at the epicenter of an embarrassing brawl during the CBS telecast of the Jake Shields-Dan Henderson bout last April. There has been much talk about a Diaz-Miller grudge match, but nothing has come of it because Diaz is a welterweight and Miller a middleweight.
"I wouldn't mind moving up," said Diaz. "I'd just like to get paid for it, you know? I don't like when I hear people say I didn't accept the fight with Miller because I was too small. I never said anything about that. I said if I'm going to go off track and screw with my whole season and it's going to screw with my whole year and screw with my capabilities fighting at 170, then I'm going to have to get paid in full. I'd like to have a reason for doing that. I'd like to get paid double or triple to do something that crazy."
Then he turned his attention to Miller: "That [expletive] doesn't want to fight me. Talking about how he wants to fight me every chance he gets. I'll fight him anyway. I just want to get paid. [Manny] Pacquaio's making 40 [expletive] million dollars. He's making a couple million dollars. I'm over here [expletive] driving a Honda because my [expletive] is breaking down. [Expletive] all you [expletives]." Hey, Nick, if you're looking for more money, you ought to look into a Honda endorsement deal.
• Roy Nelson had an interesting take on one of the coaches for the upcoming season of Spike's The Ultimate Fighter when he spoke to BloodyElbow.com's Duane Finley: "I think Brock Lesnar is done. I think Brock doing TUF is one way to basically take a situation and make it win-win for him. I think Lesnar doing the show is a way to introduce Junior Dos Santos to the American fan base in the way the show does. TUF introduces 'stars in the making' to the casual UFC fan, and while JDS is the No. 1 contender, he still needs some help with the American fan base. So the conspiracy basically comes down to the fact that Shane Carwin has no one to fight in June. I think Brock Lesnar will walk off the TUF set and then Carwin will take his spot or Frank Mir will come in to 'save the day' and fight JDS for title contention. The reason I believe Frank would be the guy is because Mir is coming off a win and I was already supposed to fight Shane, so fans were already hyped to see it. Or Carwin could move in to face JDS and I could still face Frank. But it doesn't really matter to me as to who fights who because all that really matters is the fans want to see me fight somebody."
• Vitor Belfort worked with striking coach Shawn Tompkins in preparation for his last three fights, and he won all three by KO or TKO. Now comes word that Belfort, who a week from Saturday at UFC 126 challenges Anderson Silva for the middleweight title, is no longer with Tompkins and apparently has done some gym work with retired boxing great Mike Tyson.
And Tompkins didn't sound too pleased with his ex-student when he was a guest on Mauro Ranallo's radio show on Sirius last week, saying: "Well, you know, Vitor's done this before. Vitor, sometimes he gets a little clouded in his head. It's not that he brought in Mike Tyson or anything like that. Vitor just wanders, you know, and he goes where what's happening, what's famous, what's popular, and he'll go over there. Mike Tyson isn't teaching him anything. Neither is the other eight gyms that he's training at."