For the last five years, it’s become increasingly hard to tell Heath Herring from a red herring. The "Texas Crazy Horse" spent a dozen years in the cage facing the full scroll of heavyweight giants in Pride and the UFC before a vague contract dispute with the latter sort of sent him off like a tumbleweed down the 101 freeway towards Hollywood.
Since that night five years ago in Minneapolis, back when he was bull-rushed and battered by Brock Lesnar at UFC 87, he has been cast as the prototypical bad guy in every kind of B-film known to never touch the silver screen. He went onto the World Series poker circuit, and ebbed and flowed with the cards that came down the river. He became a stuntman.
For a brief few moments there he was scheduled to face Cain Velasquez in Germany at UFC 99. But he didn’t end up going to Cologne, and he never did resurface in the Octagon again. Though he wasn’t ever given his official release from the UFC, one day he just sort of stopped fighting. Heath Herring "the fighter" has become, through the passage of time, Heath Herring "the cameo."
"I want to go fight, but my problem is for a lot of it -- where are you going to put your energy and time and efforts?" Herring, momentarily in Las Vegas, told MMA Fighting. "And I think sometimes you start getting spread too thin, and pulled in too many directions. It’s not that I wouldn’t fight. There’s been plenty of offers to go do it. But obviously I had that UFC contract dispute, and there weren’t a lot of other places to go. More than anything, that’s sort of been my problem I think."
At 35 years old, with five years of accumulated ring rust, the nomad from Waco would appear to be silhouetted on that far-off sunset. Though he and the UFC aren’t on "speaking terms," and that dissension remains cryptic and personal, the UFC recently filed him some paperwork that said he is still under contract. Even still, Herring is in no big rush to take off his boots again.
One of the big reasons for that is that Herring has become, wouldn’t you know it, a fight game promoter himself. He is breaking ground for professional MMA down in Argentina and the most southerly reaches of South America. These days Herring is learning legit Spanish (rather than the pidgin variety that's spoken from Beaumont to the Texas panhandle) and enjoying life on the outside of the cage where he can get his fight fix vicariously.
"I started a fight company down there actually called Combate Extremo," he says. "And it’s doing really well. We had our first event in July in Buenos Aires, and it actually went phenomenal. It was sold out. We got a TV deal with Canal 13, which is like I guess the equivalent of their CBS to us, the largest TV network. That was really cool. It was really cool actually to go to the president [of Canal 13’s] office and talk to them."
Herring says he got into the racket of fight game promotion/production in his usual driftwood manner: Somebody tossed the idea out there half willy-nilly, and he said okay. In this case, it was film director/former kickboxer Hector Echavarria, an Argentinean living in Los Angeles who’d worked with Herring on a couple of movies.
"Actually, last year when we were shooting a movie out in LA together, Echavarria said, ‘hey, have you ever thought about doing a fight company down in South America?’ And I was like, no, not really," Herring says. "I’ve met so many crazy people in this weird life I’ve had. Half the time when people tell me stuff it goes in one ear and out the other. But they were like we’re going to do this, and we’ll have you come down. So I was like, okay. We’d shot the movie end of November, early December. They called in January or February, and said we got your ticket, come down.
"Worst case scenario I get a free trip to Argentina, make a little bit of cash, and I can’t lose," he says. "So I went."
That free trip has led to many happy returns. The first show was held in a suburb of Buenos Aires, which Herring likens to Tokyo with its multitudes of districts. It will air on Canal 13 once the political season, which consumes the airwaves from morning ’til night, has passed. Meanwhile bootleg footage is hard to come by here in the States (and there are no immediate plans to stream the fights for northern interests).
Herring, who is listed as Combate Extremo's vice president, said the Buenos Aires locals turned out in fervor to see headliners Icho Larenas and Cristian Torres do battle. Much of the organization’s roster is comprised of Argentineans, and he says he’s surprised by the amount of talent they’re uncovering. Holding the event at a venue that "safely holds 5,000," Herring was happy to see the place was packed (perhaps, he says, a little beyond a fire marshal’s comfort zone).
"We use the unified rules," he says. "There was a big debate about that. I think we’ll have to do some training with the referees. The crowd, there were a couple of fights that went to a decision the crowd wasn’t happy with, but mostly because an Argentinean lost."
Combate Extremo’s next event will happen in Asuncion, Paraguay, sandwiched between Argentina and the MMA-hotbed of Brazil, on January 18, 2014. It’s not like he’ll need a machete to hack away vines and drooping overgrowth en-route, but then again, there are challenges.
"Paraguay isn’t that far away from Argentina geographically, but going with equipment from Buenos Aires to Asuncion is all rainforest, and there’s like…rebels and stuff, so it’s a challenge," he says. "Even though it might be a day’s drive, it might as well be across the whole planet, because driving a million dollar satellite truck through the rainforest with armed rebels isn’t really a kosher deal."
Herring didn’t put up the most mind-boggling numbers in his time with the UFC, but it wasn’t like he was facing stumblebums, either. Before being fed to Brock Lesnar at UFC 87, Herring had a 2-2 run in the UFC’s heavyweight division. He beat Cheick Kongo at UFC 82 and Brad Imes at UFC 69.
Going back to his fights in Japan, though, Herring really did face a carousel of the fight game’s nastiest customers. Guys like Fedor Emelianenko, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira (twice), Vitor Belfort, Mark Kerr and Mirko Cro Cop. He was fighting fellow Texas Evan Tanner when he was only 20 years old in the local corral. Though he was never a champion, Herring had his moments throughout his decade-long career, and is a live connection to the game’s historic figures.
And yet, even after a five-year absence, he’s only 35.
Given that, along with the relative dearth of heavyweights fighting in the UFC right now, can he envision making another appearance in the Octagon before it’s all said and done?
"Possibly," he says. "But I’m really trying to get this thing going on down south, because I enjoy that. I’m definitely not saying I’m above fighting, that’s for sure. Because I love the game, and I love to do -- and I keep thinking I’m old, but at 35 I’m not that old."
For now, though, Herring is cool with midnight dinners and goblets of good Argentine wine and walking the red carpet at Mann’s Chinese Theater for his latest premiere of the B action movie, Chavez: Cage of Glory, in which he plays a bad guy.
"I’ve always got to have something crazy happening," he says. "For me it was just so much fun to be on the other side of the cage and be on the side of building it up and getting it going. It was really kind of surreal. And that first show was successful and went well. I’d traveled so much all over the world and it’s always the same -- everybody who’s there loves it, and everybody’s who’s there wants to see more."