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Eight years later, Heath Herring returns to all the things that were once so familiar

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Heath Herring Getty Images

The last time Heath Herring fought at an end-of-the-year card in Japan was 11 years ago, and the fight ended before it started. That’s when the singlet-sporting Yoshihiro Nakao affectionately gave Herring a kiss during instructions, and Herring, not feeling the love, delivered a short right in return. Nakao stared at Herring through cobwebs from the canvas, piecing it all back together, and that was it.

One kiss. One punch. No contest. Herring can laugh about it a decade later, as it all goes into the “Crazy Horse” lore, but at the time it didn’t humor him.

“It’s just so disrespectful, and really it’s so funny when people watch it, and they’re like, ‘that’s awesome, that’s exactly what I would do,’” Herring says. “I don’t know, it’s one of those things that everybody kind of gets it.”

Herring was one of the recurring names with PRIDE FC, as he stood in against everyone from Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira to Vitor Belfort to Fedor Emelianenko while fighting in Japan between 2000-2004. He stood in against those names while still in his twenties. He arrived to Japan after fighting in Hawaii, Aruba, Moscow, The Netherlands. By the time he took on Willie Peeters at PRIDE 9 in Nagoya, Japan at 22 years old, he’d competed in 18 professional bouts. By the time he fought Gary Goodridge at Hero’s 4 in Tokyo, he was a fixture on the circuit.

And now, a decade later — eight years since fighting Brock Lesnar at UFC 87 in 2008 — Herring has decided to make his return. It will come in Saitama, Japan, at the Rizin FF openweight tournament, against Iranian fighter Amir Aliakbari, a decorated Greco-Roman wrestler.

Yet “decided” is perhaps the wrong word. He was told he would return.

“I was doing the commentating, and I was actually really enjoying that,” he told MMA Fighting. “I had fun with it. Joe Ferraro and I pretty much got all positive reviews from everybody. So that was exciting. And we actually got pretty positive reviews, and I was actually scheduled to the do commentary on this show as well. Then everybody started dropping out of the tournament, and then they jokingly asked me to get into it back in September, and I was, you know, whatever.

“I was in training with Roy Nelson for his last fight against Antonio Silva, and of course his wife and my wife get to talking, and then the opportunity arose, and so then, yeah, my wife was like, you’re going to fight. And I said, okay. I guess that’s what’s going down.”

It was Herring’s wife, Sarah, that convinced him to take off his shoes again at 38 years old. In the last eight years, all through his thirties, Herring has become a bit of a renaissance man. He has dabbled in stunt work in Hollywood. He tried his hand at professional poker. He launched a mixed martial arts promotion down in Argentina. But he kept in shape throughout. When he steps in the ring he’ll weigh 270 pounds, which makes him the runt in the outsized Herring family.

He had no (real) intention of fighting in Rizin FF, just like he had no (real) intention of fighting in the UFC again after the Lesnar fight. He just kind of drifted away from the sport after giving it his youth, but his hiatus came to an abrupt end when Shane Carwin had to withdraw from the Rizin grand prix and the promotion needed a “name” replacement.

Enter Herring, who is still the fun-loving guy he was all those years ago when he took our Brad Imes at UFC 69 — the same night Matt Serra turned Georges St-Pierre into fight game obsessive.

“Honestly it’s been a complete disaster,” Herring says of the whirlwind return. “I didn’t know who I was going to fight, or when, or even if I was going to fight, we kept going back and forth of if it was happening or not. So literally, I just signed the contract Saturday night.”

Herring was a warmly regarded heavyweight figure in the decade before the MMA boom. Though he’s not been competing, he’s been thinking about fighting while living in Las Vegas. He’s stayed active at Couture’s gym, and helped Roy Nelson recently prepare for his bout with Antonio Silva. It was in that preparation that he says he felt the bug to return.

“Going and training with Roy, it made me really miss it,” he says. “Obviously running the event down in South America and being around it, and I’ve been involved in some other capacities…I think I’m just kind of a sucker for it. It’s what got me into it to begin with.”

But an openweight tournament? With eight years of ring rust to contend with? On short notice? With the possibility of fighting numerous times down the line?

“I grew up fighting like that,” he says. “You’re talking about 1996, that was the deal, the eight-man tournament. You’d show up and it was winner take all. If you didn’t win you didn’t get paid, so this isn’t my first rodeo.

“I’m more excited that nervous to be honest. I’m really kind of looking forward to it. Obviously you’re always a little bit nervous, but I’m excited.”

In the time he’s been away things have changed drastically. Lesnar, who beat him in Minneapolis all those years ago, has went on to become the UFC’s heavyweight champion, to tie the record for title defenses (at two), to have a few inches of his intestines removed, to going back to WWE, to returning to the Octagon at UFC 200 (full of asterisks). There were television deals, apparel deals, third-party anti-doping deals, the fall-off of MMA in Japan.

Yet Herring says he knows times have changed just by showing up at the gym.

“Try to find a ring these days to train in, it’s almost impossible,” he laughs. “It’s changed so much. Used to be you couldn’t find a cage to train in, and now I can’t find a ring. It’s crazy. It is too funny to me. Even at Couture’s, they don’t have a ring anymore.

“Roy keeps wanting to do work off the cage to avoid the take down, and I’m like, listen Roy, we don’t have a cage. There’s not a cage I’m going to get put up against, it’s ropes, just like in PRIDE. So we definitely have some interesting arguments and conversations in the ring with each other.”

Nelson will be in his corner on Dec. 29 for the fight with Aliakbari, and he jokes that the ring may tilt over with all the weight in his corner. Nelson was hoping Herring would draw Mirko Cro Cop in the quarterfinals round, rather than Aliakbari, a rematch to PRIDE 26 13 years ago.

Yet that didn’t happen. Muhammad Lawal got Cro Cop, and Herring got the Iranian, a muscle-bound 29-year-old up-and-comer who took out Joao Isidoro Almeida (TKO) in the opening round of the tournament.

“Amir’s a really good Greco-Roman wrestler who has competed at the top level, so we know he’s going to be strong,” Herring says. “He’s going to have good endurance. He’s got great throws, obviously, you don’t get to this level without that.

“But he’s new to the sport, and I’ve fought wrestlers my whole career, just as good if not better, with the same accolades. Really for me it’s just more like, how am I going to hold up? How does my body feel. How much ring rust do I really have? I’m not trying to underestimate my opponent, but I feel like a lot more is kind of on me and on my shoulders.”

Green or not, Aliakbari has stuffed a run with the Iranian Premier Wrestling League, a run at the 2012 Olympics, three runs in the Greco-Roman World Championships, and his first three mixed martial arts contests into his resume while Herring has been away.

“He’s been training longer than I have, and he fought more recently than I have,” Herring laughs. “But on the other side of the coin I can’t worry about those factors. I’ve got to control what I can experience.”

Herring feels like he’s returning to a different time in the now, an Old West out East, a throwback to the days of last man standing. He’s doing it in Japan, which is where he made his career. It’s all a big homecoming. Should he beat Aliakbari, it’ll be onto the next. He says he feels good. He’s ready to cram some fight action into a wild weekend.

He says it’s all coming back to him.

“I’ve been with guys that are more of a UFC rule set, so we’ve been working the knees on the ground, and the head kicks, and defending, and things like that. A lot of guys in the States, that stuff is completely foreign to them. For me, it’s there, but it’s way back in the closet. I’ve been trying to dig it out and dust stuff off. It’s exciting.”