On a hot summer afternoon, Herschel Walker, wearing a Best Damn Sports Show T-shirt and Clinch board shorts, strides into the 2,500-square-foot main room of the American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, California. At six-foot-one and 219 pounds, he is, in a word even his friends use to describe him, a freak—a magnificent physical anomaly. Walker’s trapezius muscles flare above his shoulders like the wings of an avenging angel—one who happens to have a 21-inch neck, a 48-inch chest and just 2.4 percent body fat. His 33-inch waist, the result of the 3,500 sit-ups he has done each day since he was a teenager, is essentially nonexistent, a mere transition to his 25-inch thighs. Open-faced and handsome with an easy smile, strong nose and tiny ears set far back, Walker appears to be ageless. That, however, is not so. In a few months he will turn 50.
Between 12 and two every Monday through Friday, the red tatami-mat-textured floor of the kickboxing academy is the scene of a mixed martial arts workout that Walker, who knows something about the subject (1,000 push-ups have also long been part of his daily regimen), calls “without a doubt the hardest training I’ve ever done.” MMA demands excellence in half a dozen disciplines—among them boxing, wrestling, jujitsu, judo and Muay Thai boxing. The sport likewise requires absolute cardiovascular fitness, and sessions conclude with set after set of sprints and bear crawls. First and foremost, however, it is about fighting, and fighting is what this temple to MMA stresses above all else.
As Walker squares off against a light heavyweight named Kyle Kingsbury, he is surrounded by the best of the best. In one corner Cain Velasquez, MMA’s premier heavyweight, grapples with up-and-comer Mark Ellis, a 2009 NCAA Division I wrestling champion. In another corner Josh Thomson, a standout MMA lightweight, rolls with the highly ranked Josh Koscheck. Elsewhere Daniel Cormier, an erstwhile Olympic wrestler, and Luke Rockhold, a vaunted contender, practice holds and parry blows. In this arena the most dangerous fighters in the world regularly butt heads.
Walker, the former tailback who led the University of Georgia to the NCAA football championship in 1980, won the Heisman Trophy and went on to a storied 15-year pro career (mostly with the Dallas Cowboys), first walked into the American Kickboxing Academy just two years ago. “He came to the gym very accomplished in other areas,” says Bob Cook, who has trained Walker from the start and stands at the edge of the room, watching him work. “But he had a beginner’s attitude. He got here early, stayed late and mopped the floors afterward. Never has there been a time he has taken the easy route. If we run sprints, box five rounds and wrestle 30 minutes, he never opts out. Some people come in and say, ‘Don’t punch me in the face.’ Herschel came in with a fighter’s attitude. He’s been punched plenty in the face.”
“I’d rate Herschel today at a midrange pro level, and that’s a high compliment,” adds AKA founder and proprietor Javier Mendez, who kneels alongside Cook. “He’s the strongest man I’ve ever worked with, and his striking and grappling were always good. But his wrestling and jujitsu are now at another level. He’s worked hard to learn them.”
Walker has also worked hard to dispel doubts expressed by some in the MMA hierarchy. The sport, though not officially organized until 1993 (until then it was little evolved from the unregulated “tough guy” matches of an earlier era) and not sanctioned by a state athletic board until 2000, has quickly developed a fierce, well-informed following and a proud lore. Dana White, president of Ultimate Fighting Championship, MMA’s top promotion company, scoffed, “He’s too old for football but thinks he’s young enough to fight? Fighting is a young man’s sport. You need speed, agility and explosiveness—all that goes with age.” For Walker, such cracks, in a friend’s words, “were like lighter fluid.”
In his professional MMA debut in 2010, Walker defeated the relatively untested Greg Nagy in three rounds by a technical knockout. In January 2011, against the far tougher Scott Carson, who boasted a 4–1 record and who is a protégé of UFC stalwart Chuck Liddell, Walker scored a more impressive victory. After absorbing a vicious kick to the face in the contest’s opening seconds, he took Carson to the ground with a ferocious left and then pummeled him with a flurry of knees to the ribs and punches to the head that caused the referee to call the contest before the first round had concluded.
Skeptics still abound, pointing out that Walker’s fighting style is basic and safe. “He’s not the alpha male yet,” says one. “He’s about controlling the opponent and staying out of trouble.” Still, those who have followed his progress believe he is becoming an undeniable force. “It’s crazy to see how good he’s gotten,” says Velasquez, who bested the formidable Brock Lesnar in 2010 to win the UFC’s heavyweight belt. Although 20 years younger than Walker, Velasquez has functioned as the older man’s mentor, teaching him how to plot strategy and avoid the brutal knee and arm bars that can prompt even the greatest to submit, or tap out. “He’s picked up the game fast. He just has to keep building.”
Now, in the stultifying steam bath that is July in central California, Walker is preparing for a third fight. His opponent has yet to be named, but the unanimous opinion is that the match will present a huge step up in difficulty. “They’ll pick somebody tough,” says Mendez. “They’ll elevate the level of competition. He’s going to face someone much more experienced than the last guy. It’s going to take Herschel being here every day for three months to get ready, but once he makes up his mind, that’s what he’ll do. He doesn’t mess around.”