SAN JOSE – As Herschel Walker
took his seat among a lineup of vastly more experienced fighters at Thursday's Strikeforce press conference, ring announcer Jimmy Lennon Jr. – a man whose job requires him to work in hyperbole the way some artists work in oils – called him "the greatest athlete in the world."
It's the kind of statement that might get tossed out easily and maybe even thoughtlessly in all the megaphone barking of fight promotion, but the 48-year-old Walker, who's been everything from an NFL running back to an Olympic bobsledder, doesn't take it lightly.
"I don't know whether I feel up to that," Walker told MMA Fighting. "I think I'm a pretty good athlete, but there are a lot of good athletes out there. Even though I've done a lot of things and done them at the highest level, that's a bold statement to make. I think it's great to hear it, but I don't know if you can ever really say it."
But his career in MMA isn't about proving his athletic prowess, Walker said. For him, it's about learning and training. He had no intention of taking another fight when he returned for more time at the American Kickboxing Academy, he said.
And yet, here he is again. The question is, for how much longer? After his fight against the relatively unknown and totally unheralded Scott Carson
on Saturday, will there be a third fight in his future?I respect this sport enough that I wasn't going to go out there and disrespect the sport or gym.
-- Herschel Walker
"Will I fight again? I don't know," said Walker. "I really don't. I love it. I love to train, and there's no doubt that I'll continue to train. After thirty-something years of taekwondo, I've learned so much from just one year of MMA. I also fell in love with the gym and so many of the guys. They've become like my family."
In fact, Walker said, he let the guys at AKA tell him whether he should fight at all. He asked them to honestly assess his skills in the gym and tell him whether they thought he was a competent enough fighter.
"I respect this sport enough that I wasn't going to go out there and disrespect the sport or the gym. But they said, 'Herschel, you can do it.'
It's hard not to wonder though, who can he do it against? In his first outing Strikeforce matched him up with Greg Nagy
, who had a record of 1-1 at the time. Now he gets the 4-1 Carson, who hasn't won a fight since 2001.
Neither were Strikeforce regulars before signing to face Walker, and neither is in any danger of being called the best athlete in the world. Walker realizes the criticism this opens him up for, but said matchmaking for him is not as simple a problem as it seems.
"A lot of guys don't want to fight me because they have more to lose than I do from it. Some guys will fight me. But one of the things I said when I first started fighting was, you've got to find me somebody with experience. Even Greg, he had more fights than me, but we were both green fighters. We didn't know what we were doing. I think it was a great fight, but we were really young."A lot of guys don't want to fight me because they have more to lose than I do from it.
-- Herschel Walker
That is, young in MMA years. Young in the sense that neither had much experience or even fully knew what to expect. He's grown as a fighter since then, Walker said, but he's still a novice in this game, and he knows it.
"I knew this was really hard. I think there are so many people taking this as a joke. But I knew, all the athletes who think they could just step into this, that's crazy. These guys are serious. They put the time in, and you've got to respect that. When I came into the gym, I was a rookie again. I didn't have a black belt in taekwondo. I didn't have a Heisman Trophy. I had to mop the floors and earn my stripes all over again."
But now, because of his name and his appeal to the mainstream sports fan, he finds himself on the Showtime portion of a Strikeforce fight card alongside MMA veterans like Nick Diaz
and Robbie Lawler
As great of an athlete as he may be, he hasn't done what those guys have done in the sport. He hasn't put that kind of time in, or taken the same lumps. To be there next to them as one of their peers is somewhat strange, but it's up to him to prove that he belongs.
"It's a humbling experience," said Walker. "It's a big humbling experience to be up here with those guys. But you know, people doubt what I can do. It's like on [the conference call], I told them, 'Guys, you can come to the gym and roll with me.' I'm not scared to roll with anybody. They'll see it's a different experience to get in there with me. Even though I've only been at this a little bit of time, I'm not that bad at it."