December 18, 2012
Eli Manning's ability to step up his game when the big prize is on the line is an attribute that every MMA fighter should be so lucky to have.
Robert Beck/SI

If only Herschel Walker did what he had talked of doing early last year and, at age 48 and 14 years removed from his final pro football game, made a comeback. Then we'd have all of the MMA qualities we need wrapped up in a single NFL player. Keeping it simple, a good recipe for winning.

It doesn't hurt that Walker is one of the greatest all-around athletes the game of football -- or Olympic bobsledding -- has seen. In college, the strong, speedy running back was a three-time All-America and a Heisman Trophy winner. As a pro, he went to two Pro Bowls. Beyond the gridiron, Walker is a black belt in taekwondo. And even more to the point, he's trained at American Kickboxing Academy, the San Jose, Calif., gym that is home to elite heavyweights Cain Velasquez and Daniel Cormier, among other MMA stars, and has fought twice in the Strikeforce cage. He didn't face a top contender, or even a middle-of-the-pack contender, but his opponents were professional fighters much younger than him. And Walker dominated both of them.

But Walker, now 50, has kept his football ambitions sidelined, and it's going on two years since he last stepped in the cage, so that ship might have sailed, too. Looks like we'll have to piece something together.

A standup guy: Tom Zbikowski

Zbikowski, a safety for the Colts, is not likely to be the first guy to come to mind if you're envisioning an NFL player as an MMA fighter. During his first four seasons in the league, he was with the Ravens, a team whose roster contains the ferocious Ray Lewis and the big (very big) brother of UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones. Even now in Indianapolis, Tom plays in the shadow of Dwight Freeney, who hunts down quarterbacks and punishes them like a practitioner of the fine art of ground-and-pound.

Yet Zbikowski is the one with skills lacking in many an MMA fighter. He displayed those skills at Madison Square Garden in New York, at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City. Those are some of the most prestigious boxing venues anywhere, and they happen to be the sites of three of Zbikowski's four professional prizefights. He's won them all, three by knockout.

It's true that boxing and MMA striking are two different animals, and that a boxer entering the cage suddenly has to concern himself with being kicked or, even worse, being taken to the mat, as Randy Couture did to James Toney 18 seconds into their 2010 crossover bout. But we're just doing the Dr. Frankenstein thing here and creating an MMA fighter from the best parts available. And Zbikowski's pro boxing resume gives us the raw materials -- that is, fast and accurate hands -- to create a proficient standup fighter.

A counterpuncher:Charles Woodson

It's bad enough when your defense can't stop the other fighter ... or other team. But when you're the one moving forward on offense, and you have your opponent on the defensive, is there anything worse than having the whole thing instantly turned around on you?

In the NFL, Charles Woodson does that better than any defender. Over 15 seasons with the Oakland Raiders and Green Bay Packers, he's returned 11 interceptions for touchdowns. That number is the best among active players and is surpassed (by one TD) only by another Woodson (Rod, no relation). Sure, I'm reluctant to put my faith in a 35-year-old who, by virtue of being moved from cornerback to safety this season, is on the downside of a 15-year career. But Woodson has aged gracefully. Nine of those 11 pick-6s have come in the last seven seasons.

So let's give our fighter the opportunistic counterpunching ability of Woodson. That way, no matter how the fight is unfolding, he'll be dangerous to the final horn.

For the championship rounds:Eli Manning

There's a reason that when a title belt is going to be on the line, an MMA fight is scheduled for five rounds instead of the usual three. To become a champion, you must be capable of going into deep waters if necessary. And often it is very much necessary.

Now, it's not Eli Manning but older brother Peyton who has engineered the most fourth-quarter comebacks in NFL history, with 37. And the Patriots' Tom Brady is next among active players, at 26, two more than Eli. But both Peyton and Tom have seen first-hand evidence -- Brady from the nervous opposing sideline, Manning as a spectator with a family rooting interest -- of why Eli gets the nod here. In two of the last five Super Bowls, the Giants quarterback has led game-winning drives in the tense final minutes to defeat the Pats.

Is there a football player alive who has stepped up his game more, when the big prize is on the line, than Manning? Big brother and Tom Terrific are superior quarterbacks if you're assessing from the opening kickoff on. But if you're building an MMA fighter and have championship aspirations for him, an indispensible quality is a knack for rising to the occasion when the occasion is most tenuous. When the fifth round begins and the scorecards are even -- or they're tilted in the opponent's favor and a knockout punch is called for -- you want your guy to have some Eli in him.

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