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Herschel Walker isn't stealing the MMA spotlight, he's spreading it


"Shame on you!" began one of the first e-mails I saw on Monday morning. I quickly checked to see if it was from my wife, but no, she would have just nudged me in the ribs in the middle of the night if she had a bone to pick with me. The disapproving note was from a reader.

I suspected I would be hearing such dissatisfaction from the moment I hit "send" after midnight Saturday, filing my piece on the Strikeforce: Diaz vs. Cyborg event. My story focused not on the main event between welterweight champion Nick Diaz and Evangelista "Cyborg" Santos or on the evening's other title bout, between middleweight champ Ronoldo "Jacare" Souza" and Robbie Lawler. No, my piece was almost entirely about Herschel Walker and some poor soul who stepped into the cage with him for the 48-year-old former football star's second MMA fight.

I understand the frustration of MMA fans -- especially on a night when two champions weathered the storms of robust challenges and pulled off slick submission victories. There was some impressive Brazilian jiu-jitsu on display Saturday night in San Jose, Calif., not just by Diaz and Souza but also by Roger Gracie, the virtuoso grappler who ran his MMA record to 4-0 with a heavyweight victory over the formidable Trevor Prangley. Yet my story was all Herschel, all the time.

Now, I will plead guilty to giving the evening's other fighters short shrift. Looking back, I realize that, writing on deadline, I barely touched on the title bouts and completely ignored Gracie. But given an extra hour, I wouldn't have done a whole lot differently. There'd have been more details about the other fights, sure, but Herschel still would have been the story.

That might not have been the case if I were covering the Strikeforce event for MMA Fighting, Sherdog or one of the other fine Web sites devoted to MMA. But writing for, I had the opportunity -- and responsibility -- to address a wider sports readership. Most fans who read Sports Illustrated know of the football exploits of Walker, from his 1982 Heisman Trophy to his two Pro Bowls with the Cowboys. Relatively few SI readers know who Nick Diaz is.

Some resent Walker for stealing the spotlight from more accomplished MMA fighters, and take exception to Strikeforce and Showtime exploiting his fame in order to draw TV ratings and sell tickets. But Herschel isn't stealing the spotlight, he's spreading it. A lot of general sports fans tuned into Showtime on Saturday night curious to watch the Walker fight, and surely at least some of them stuck around. If Jacare-Lawler was their first exposure to high-level MMA, they got a good show. And if that wasn't enough to turn them into fans of the sport, Diaz-Cyborg probably was.

The anti-Herschel backlash is perplexing, as Luke Thomas of and Mike Chiappetta of both opined in eloquent essays in recent days. Isn't it obvious that Walker's presence on the Showtime telecast gave Strikeforce a showcase to make new fans?

Of course, trading on famous names is a fine line to walk. There's no way I'd focus my coverage on Jose Canseco, for instance, if the former major league slugger were on the undercard of a legitimate MMA event. Thankfully, his money-grabbing sideshow act has not brought its stink anywhere near the mainstream of MMA. Walker, on the other hand, is no joke. At 48, he's not about to contend for the heavyweight title, but he trains seriously with an elite team, American Kickboxing Academy. He brings honor to the sport.

And if he can bring new fans, too, more power to him.

• As recently as 2007, Tim Sylvia was on top of the world. He walked into the cage on March 3 of that year as UFC heavyweight champion. The big guy from Maine was riding a six-fight winning streak in his second reign with the belt, and he was considered a heavy favorite over an undersized opponent. But Randy Couture was the better man that night.

It's not been all downhill for "The Main-iac" since then, but it mostly has. He did bounce back to beat Brandon Vera and earn a shot at the interim championship, but in that fight was choked out by "Minotauro" Nogueira. He then left the UFC to take a shot at Fedor Emelianenko, and was knocked down and submitted in 36 seconds. But that was longer than Sylvia lasted against 48-year-old former pro boxer Ray Mercer, who KO'd him with one punch 9 seconds after the opening bell. This against a guy Kimbo Slice easily beat up.

From that lowest of low points, Sylvia went on to win four fights in a row, although his only formidable opponent was Paul Buentello. Beating up the world's strongest man, Mariusz Pudzianowski, earned Sylvia some headlines but little cache in resuscitating his career. Still, four wins are four wins, so he went into last Saturday's Titan Fighting Championship 16 in Kansas City, Kan., on a relatively high note.

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And at a high weight. Sylvia weighed in at 311 pounds for his main event fight against Abe Wagner, last seen losing in the first round of Season 10 of The Ultimate Fighter. Oh, what a thud it made on the mat when the fleshy Sylvia was beaten down in 32 seconds.

More humiliating than the loss, though, was the way Sylvia responded, telling Brendhan Conlan of "It was stopped way too early. It was [expletive]. The sad part is the ref told the promoter and my corner he was sorry because he knew he made a mistake and stopped it a little early."

No, that's not the sad part, Tim. The sad part is that you'd waddle into the cage at 311 pounds, get dropped in half a minute, then blame somebody else.

• Then there's the rapid demise of Mike Brown, who a little over a year ago was the WEC featherweight champ. But he lost his belt to Jose Aldo in November 2009, and that started a slide in which Brown has dropped three of his last five bouts, including two just last month.

I'm not sure what possessed Brown to jump right back into action just three weeks after his split-decision loss to the formidable Diego Nunes on New Year's night. But when an injury to Chan Sung Jung left Rani Yahya without an opponent for the UFC Fight for the Troops 2 event at Fort Hood, Texas, Brown stepped up. And lost by unanimous decision.

Brown's valor may have paid off, anyway, as American Top Team general manager Richie Guerriero told's Mike Chiappetta last week that the UFC has retained Brown on its fighter roster. Good to see that Dana White & Co. know how to show gratitude when a guy does them a favor.

Brown won't be back in the octagon for a while, though. He tore a ligament in his left hand in the Jan. 22 fight, requiring surgery.

• Why can't all fighters age like Dan Severn?

The man who earned the nickname "The Beast" back when he was beating up three guys in one night to win UFC 5 is 52 years old now -- and still competing. And winning.

Last Saturday night at a casino in Moncton, New Brunswick, the UFC Hall of Famer beat a 22-year-old local named Scott Fraser in a fight under the Elite-1 banner.

It's a far cry from the UFC, where Severn also won the Ultimate Ultimate one-night tourney in 1995 and a "superfight" over Ken Shamrock the next year. In fact, you wouldn't recognize most of the names that have been added to Severn's 97-16-7 record over the past few years. But the guy still loves to compete, and he understands what level of competition is appropriate for him at this point. In less than three weeks, he'll step in against a fellow long-ago UFC fighter, Cal Worsham, at a Gladeiators Challenge event in Calfornia. It likely won't be the last time we'll see "The Beast."

• Last week we heard Roy Nelson theorize on Brock Lesnar -- that the former UFC heavyweight champ no longer wants to fight, and will find a way to bow out of The Ultimate Fighter, triggering a domino effect that'll coincidentally result in Nelson getting a prominent fight. (Nice self-serving theory, Roy.) Well, on last Thursday's MMA Live on ESPN2, Lesnar himself weighed in on his TUF experience: "I've got one thing in mind for this whole thing. It's to help these kids, you know, to improve their lives. But more importantly, it's for me to be able to get down here and train. It's an opportunity for me to get my title back sooner than later, where I, you know ... if I . . when I beat Dos Santos, then I get a rematch with Velasquez and I get my [expletive] belt back. That's the way I'm looking at this." Actually, Brock, if what you say is true, that means you have two things on your mind, not one. But maybe Lesnar had his number right, after all. I have my doubts whether he's going to put much focus on helping the reality show's young fighters. I suspect he took on the coaching job simply as a quid pro quo for getting the No. 1 contender shot against Junior Dos Santos. But we'll soon see.

• Paul Daley, who could have had his shot at Nick Diaz and the Strikeforce welterweight title last weekend but instead chose to take time off around Christmas, was not so impressed by Diaz's submission win over Evangelista "Cyborg" Santos. And he's even less impressed by Diaz's professed desire to fight Fernando Vargas in a boxing match. Daley told Ariel Helwani of the online radio show The MMA Hour:"I think he'll get his ass whooped if he fights Vargas. Competing in MMA and boxing with these guys is one thing. Fighting a professional boxer at his game is another thing, and I know because I spar regularly with boxers, as he does. So he's gaining confidence sparring with Andre Ward and guys like that, but they're probably just playing around with him."

• Don King participated in an online chat with boxing fans last week on AOL Fanhouse, which is pretty damn modern of the guy. I bet Bob Arum doesn't even know what the Internet is. And also unlike Arum, King gave some respect to MMA, even offering his theory why the new combat sport on the block has been taking over the turf: "Boxing doesn't have any heroes. ... Dana White and Lorenzo Fertitta have done a great job with the UFC, and people like what they do. But boxing needs some more Muhammad Alis, George Foremans, Ken Nortons, Roberto Durans, fighters who would capture the imagination. I think the UFC has done magnificent because they bring people together. That's what I am really very appreciative of. I think they can complement boxing. I have no problem with them. The more the merrier. Both sports go together -- no reason not to be a fan of both sports." Nice conciliatory tone by King. But he wants more Alis, Foremans, Nortons and Durans? Good luck with that, Don.