The Making of Herschel Walker

The man has been known as a phenom for so much of his life that we are led to believe that this is how it always was, that Herschel Junior Walker was delivered into this world with a man's physique, blessed with poise and grace and preordained with an athletic pedigree to smash the barriers of the impossible.

This is not how it always was. Walker was overweight in grade school and for a time wasn't even the best athlete in his family -- he could not beat his older sister Veronica in a footrace until his junior year of high school. He stuttered as a youth. He preferred books over sports. In fact, even the athletic arena in which Walker found his fame and fortune was not a natural fit.

"When I first started, I really was not a football player. I never really even liked football then," Walker told MMA Fighting. "I just loved to run. If it would have been around then, I really think I would have been an MMA fighter."

At 47 years old, Walker is finally following his calling. He makes his debut on Jan. 30, facing little-known Greg Nagy at a Strikeforce show in Sunrise, Fla.

Not surprisingly, the critics are doubtful of everything surrounding it: his motive, his ability and his preparation.

Between sports and business, Walker has accumulated a small fortune. His company, the aptly named Renaissance Man Food Services, Inc., is one of the largest minority owned meat providers in the country, with reported sales of around $70 million in 2008. Suffice it to say, it is not about the money. (He is donating his fight purse to Project Turnaround, a social outreach program in Dallas, Tex.)

Mostly, it's about the timing and opportunity. Walker says that prior to now, he was so focused on running his business that he couldn't devote himself to training the way he needed to; that is to say, fully. A simple look into his past shows that when he commits himself to a goal, it has to be all the way.

There is one story about him that best explains his success. In the spring of 1974, when Walker was 12 years old and thinking about what life would be like in high school, he approached the school's football and track coach Tom Jordan after church to ask for advice about improving as an athlete. Jordan told Walker to concentrate on sit-ups, pull-ups and sprints.

Sit-ups, pull-ups and sprints. It became his daily routine. Hundreds turned into thousands, and thousands turned into millions. Nearly 36 years later, he's still doing them, and credits the routine with keeping him in top condition despite years of wear and tear in football ("I left the NFL healthy as a horse," he says).

So when Walker came in through the doors of American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, Calif., for the first time in November 2009, he was hardly a typical 47-year-old. In fact, weeks later, under the direction of the Florida Boxing Commission, he would take a stress test to gauge his fitness level. Dr. Allan Fields, the longtime chief physician of the FBC was shocked by the results.

"This guy is 47 going on 22," he said, before noting that Walker had the highest evaluation score of anyone he'd ever tested, including Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson in their respective primes.

Of course, as detractors will point out, those numbers mean nothing in a fight.

*****


Tucked into a San Jose, Calif., strip mall between a Big Lots and a store called Beverly's Fabric Crafts & Home Dec, the AKA gym has over the course of its history been home to a host of major pro MMA fighters, including Josh Koscheck, Jon Fitch, Cain Velasquez, Mike Swick, Josh Thomson and Frank Shamrock.

Javier Mendez is the owner and head trainer at the gym, which originally began in a glass store.

Upon seeing Walker spar for the first time in late November, Mendez was not exactly overwhelmed.

"I went, 'Wow, he's green,'" Mendez recalled. "He didn't know how to punch right, kick right. I mean, he was really just very green. But I worked him a bit and watched the progress and went, 'OK, we might have something here.'"

It helped greatly that Walker walked into the gym with his trademark humility. Despite staying nearby at the five-star Fairmont Hotel, Walker impressed by arriving early to every session, every day.

"I've never had one of my fighters do that, ever. Not one," Mendez says.

Said Walker: "I just came in as a student that's trying to learn. I always tell people that if you have a black belt and go to a new gym, you're not a black belt anymore."

Walker turned himself over completely, including the reins to his fighting career. Though he'd already signed with Strikeforce, he placed his fate into the hands of his coaches and training partners. From the beginning, a Jan. 30 bout was never a lock. He told Mendez and co-head trainer Bob Cook that he would trust their judgment as to whether he was truly ready to compete.

"I may love doing it, but I told them if you tell me I can't do it, that I can't fight, I have to swallow my pride and not do it," he said.
"I always tell people that if you have a black belt and go to a new gym, you're not a black belt anymore."
-- Herschel Walker

At the conclusion of the first week, Mendez privately told Walker that if he had to decide right then, he wouldn't allow him to compete. After the second week finished -- though Walker had already shown great improvement -- again he told Walker that he couldn't sign off on him fighting professionally.

But then, as seems to happen when you put Herschel Walker and athletics together, an amazing thing happened. The gains he was making in training were not coming piecemeal; they were coming in rapid blocks.

"He wasn't just making quick leaps forward, he was making quantum leaps," said light heavyweight fighter Bobby Southworth, a Walker training partner and former Strikeforce light heavyweight champion. "He wasn't going from A to B, he was going from A to G. The improvements that he was making from day to day were huge. You kind of figured if he keeps advancing like this, he's going to be ready. And he has. He's kept advancing like that. His learning curve hasn't slowed yet."

A look at Walker's past shows that isn't so unusual. Southworth's statement sounds eerily similar to one made nearly 30 years ago.

In 1981, at the start of his sophomore year at the University of Georgia, Walker was profiled in Sports Illustrated.

The piece notes how as a freshman, Walker was a third-string preseason back, and coach Vince Dooley was initially pessimistic about his chances of being an impact player. That year, he went on to break the NCAA's freshman rushing record, compiling 1,616 yards and scoring 15 touchdowns in becoming the first freshman to make the consensus All-America team in the 20th century.

Afterward, Dooley noted that Walker's improvement graph throughout the season went straight up.

"Herschel kept getting and better," he said. "He just never leveled off."

*****

Perhaps most impressive to the AKA crew was Walker's fighting instincts.

Luke Rockhold, a rising middleweight star who fights for Strikeforce and trains at AKA, says while he was looking forward to the chance to meet Walker, he wasn't expecting much. But from the beginning, what he saw surprised him.

"I'd heard about his taekwondo background, but I've seen many guys come in with that background, and you hit them once and they run away and hide in the corner," he said. "He jumped into the pit. And when he gets hit, he comes back with fire."

The approach to preparing him has been to scale back on exotic parts of the MMA game and focus on basics. Many of those around Walker say that in the first few days, he was being overwhelmed by teammates who were perhaps too generous with their advice and critiques.

"It was too much. I had to stop it," Mendez said. "I told the guys they were overloading him. Give him little bits of information at a time. It's too much when one guy tells you this, one tells you that."

Mendez says Walker is remarkably strong in the clinch, has a good jab and a good right hand. While his camp admits his jiu-jitsu is "a little green," they say his wrestling is better than most would expect, and his strength and body control often keep him out of trouble on the ground.

Not surprisingly, Nagy has pinpointed the ground game as the area in which he likely has the biggest advantage. Walker's teammates believe it may not be as big as Nagy thinks.

"I'll tell you one thing that's impressed me: I've seen guys lock on to him in solid position on the ground, and all of the sudden Herschel just picks them up and launches them across the room," Rockhold said. "He's got this freakish instinct and ability, and when he lets it go, he can do some amazing things."

The question becomes then, What exactly can Walker do at 47? MMA is, after all, a young man's game.
"Herschel was a natural talented athlete, but combined with his work ethic, he could have competed in almost any sport with success."
-- Lawrence Huff, Walker's first martial arts coach

Aside from his astonishing stress test results -- 47 going on 22 -- Walker is young at heart. Noting how he stayed in San Jose during the entire holiday season, Walker joked about how his sacrifice might fuel him.

"I love Santa Claus, so for me to give up Christmas, that was a big thing for me," he said. "I love getting gifts, so I don't know if I'm going to take it out on Greg."

Walker's competitive spirit is that of a young man as well. Remember, he's taken on and succeeded in a number of ventures in life: football, track (he once briefly held the 60-yard dash world record), Olympic bobsledding (he finished 7th in the 1992 games despite little experience), ballet and business, just to name a few.

"I love it," he said of the competitive nature of MMA. "Most athletes stay in the sport they're in and they can't give it up, but I always considered myself a well-rounded athlete. People used to talk about Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders doing two sports. I was doing that for years when I was competing in martial arts tournaments in college, and track & field, and all these different things. It just so happens MMA came along late, but I loved it from when it first started. I didn't have the opportunity to do it then, but now is my time."

He says candidly that his goal is not to be a champion, but simply to improve. To grow and to become better.

That may not be such a simple truth. Walker has dreamed too big and accomplished too much to be content being just another fighter. While he understands there is hard work ahead, he has never feared putting in a good sweat. That -- not simple God-given ability -- is the real secret to the legend of Herschel Walker.

"Herschel was a natural talented athlete, but combined with his work ethic, he could have competed in almost any sport with success," said Lawrence Huff, who was Walker's first martial arts coach as a Georgia youth.

But make no mistake, regardless of Walker's history and his work ethic, he faces an uphill battle in succeeding at MMA. As for the tempered expectations, he's beaten them before.

As a cautionary tale to doubters, you need only look back to a time when Georgia football coach Dooley announced Walker's commitment to the school. Noting that Walker had come from playing in Class A high school football, comprised of Georgia's smallest schools, Dooley tinged the announcement of Walker's signing with modest expectations.

"I really don't see Herschel giving us a whole lot of help next year," he said then. "Realistically, I think he's going to have a slow adjustment period ... I think everybody, and that includes the coaches, fans and Herschel himself, will have to wait and be patient."

In Walker's first college game, Georgia found itself with a 13-point deficit. First, the true freshman ran through All-American safety Bill Bates en route to a score, and then in the fourth, the Bulldogs punched it in again, capping off the comeback.

The winning touchdown was scored by Herschel Walker.

So much for patience; behind the record-breaking phenom, the Bulldogs won the National Championship. Will we see another chapter of Walker's legend arise Saturday? Even at 47, it doesn't seem wise to bet against him.

"I can't see this guy hanging with Herschel," Rockhold said. "When he turns it on, he's amazing athlete. People have no idea what he can do."

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