Herschel Walker is a difficult guy to figure out. Spending 20 minutes on the phone with him, as I did Tuesday, should be enough to get some idea of his martial arts training and motivation for taking on a professional Strikeforce bout in December.
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But looking back, I'm still not exactly sure what it is he has done, who he did it with or why he's taking a high-risk leap into a sport in which bones crack with regularity. At 47, the former college and NFL football standout owns a lucrative wholesale chicken company and has no apparent financial incentive to compete. He also suffers from a dissociative identity disorder that once prompted him to hold a loaded gun to his head.
As candidates for fighting go, a middle-aged man out of competition for years who has a mood disorder should rank toward the bottom. But Walker insists his mental issues are under control, that his venture isn't about money, and that he could step onto an NFL field and compete today if he wanted to.
Confident or crazy? That's a question you could pose to a lot of combat athletes.
ESPN: Why MMA at age 47?
Walker: I'm a competitor. I love to compete. I've been doing martial arts for years. I love the sport. I happened to be in Vegas when some of the ultimate fighters were working out. Many of them said, "We're the best athletes in the world." And I'm sitting there, and I really didn't say that much. I've competed with some of the fastest guys in the world in track and field, I played NFL football, I've been on Olympic teams. And I'm thinking, I'm a pretty darn good athlete myself. I don't care what age I am. I can still compete. I don't see a lot of people wanting to step up to compete against me.
I think there are a lot of good athletes in basketball, baseball, football. To make a bold statement that your group is the best just pinched a nerve with me.
ESPN: Dana White has criticized your decision to compete. What's your reaction?
Walker: It's funny. I don't think too much about it. For Dana to speak of me, he knows nothing about what he's talking about. What's so strange about that is, I respect Dana for cleaning up this sport and bringing it to mainstream America. But who made him judge of what athletics really is? If he's saying that Herschel's not athletic enough to do it, he's wrong. And if he's saying Herschel can't fight, he's wrong. I will beat the heavyweights he's got on his show right now.
ESPN: Would you have gone on "The Ultimate Fighter" if you had been asked?
Walker: It's something I probably would've entertained. Maybe if Dana came to me and said, "Herschel, you want to do 'The Ultimate Fighter'?" I would've said, "Yeah, I'll do it." I would've loved to.
ESPN: How would you evaluate your physical capabilities right now, at age 47, as opposed to when you were in your 30s?
Walker: Right now, I'm in better shape than I was in my 30s. I can play NFL football today. I can walk on the field. I can't say I can walk out there and play every down, but I don't know too many people who are doing that today. But I can go out and play. I've kept myself in that type of condition.
ESPN: What specific martial arts training have you undergone?
Walker: I got a lot of my rankings in taekwondo and also in Thai boxing. I've also been doing some Muay Thai. You're talking about 30-something years of martial arts training. For Dana to make those statements he made, questioned where I got my belt, why doesn't he step in the ring with me, since I'm an old man, and he can test me? To question what Herschel Walker is, is insulting.
ESPN: But there's a school of thought that says a lot of traditional arts like taekwondo may not have an application in an MMA fight.
Walker: You're 100 percent correct. If you don't know what you're doing, you're not going to do well. What's strange about it is that your best MMA fighters have mixed their traditional martial arts with their Muay Thai and their wrestling and boxing. Those are your better fighters.
ESPN: What about the ground? How much time have you spent there?
Walker: I've spent time in wrestling. I've spent a lot of time with that. I think that's what's going to surprise people. I'm not stepping in there unprepared. I don't think you can look back and say Herschel Walker stepped into any sport unprepared. When I step into the ring, I'll be prepared to do it. I wasn't going into it to embarrass myself or my family or the sport.
ESPN: What weight class will you settle in?
Walker: That's one thing we've talked about. Right now, I'm about 215. I thought the best fighters in the world were at 205. I said I'll fight heavyweight. I could get back up to my playing weight, which is about 220. That's probably where my first fight will be at, at the heavyweight level.
I'm not saying I'm jumping into the ring and making this a career. It's something I said I would do. I'm going to get in the ring and do a fight and see where it goes, how [I] feel. I take it one step at a time.
ESPN: You're going to work with AKA (American Kickboxing Academy) and Bob Cook for your training camp. Is it possible Cook could come to you and say, "You're not ready for this"?
Walker: I don't think it's possible, but Bob could do that. At the end of my training camp, if Bob said, "Herschel, we don't think you're ready for this," I wouldn't do it. You have to take the advice of someone who has that experience. There's no shame in my game. I can step out into the street and defend myself anytime. But if he doesn't think I'm ready, I wouldn't do it.
ESPN: Have you ever been in a street fight?
Walker: No, no. I can talk my way out of almost anything. Street fighting and fighting in the octagon are totally different.
ESPN: There's some cynicism that Strikeforce signed you for the publicity hook, that you're being used to get them some press.
Walker: Think of it this way: How many Heisman trophy winners, how many people who've done the things I've done, can fight? That's what's so funny about it. I know I can fight. Who was the football guy who fought and nearly got killed -- Johnnie Morton? I'm not talking about no Johnnie Morton. I can fight martial arts. Anyone who wants to question it, I'll give them an opportunity to come test me. To judge me, you need to see me first.
ESPN: Are you looking for an opponent who is also making his debut as a fighter?
Walker: No, no, I don't want that. I think the matchmakers for Strikeforce have been told that. Bob Cook knows that. I have the skills to fight a fighter, not someone trying to make a debut. I'm not here to fight five fights. I'm here to fight the first fight and maybe a second. The first fight has got to be a fighter or I don't need to do it. This is not a gimmick for me. I'm not into it to get publicity for Strikeforce. I'm here to fight. Who wants to embarrass themselves by stepping into a ring and getting their head beat in?
There's no doubt in my mind: This old dog can still go and get it.