Even so, Walker acknowledges how unlikely it all is. “What am I doing in there running around with those 20-year-olds?” he asks as he emerges into the AKA lobby, sweat pouring from his face, brow furrowed. For a serious man, the soft-spoken ex–NFL star is not without a sense of absurdity. “Am I really 50? It’s weird.”
To those who have known Herschel Walker through the years, it is not surprising he has decided to plunge into a sport in which there are no pads, pain can be inflicted in a dizzying number of ways and the playing field is an unforgiving fenced enclosure known as “the cage.” Vince Dooley, Walker’s coach at the University of Georgia, recalls that on Sundays during the college football season, a day when most players were too sore from Saturday’s game to crawl out of bed, Walker would attend tae kwon do classes. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Dooley. Michael Irvin, Walker’s Dallas Cowboys teammate and now an analyst for the NFL Network, says, “When Herschel was the baddest motor scooter on earth, he’d say, ‘I want to fight Mike Tyson.’ I’d say, ‘Herschel, do you know what that guy does to people? Let’s just beat the Redskins next week.’ But he believed he could beat Tyson. MMA is par for the course for him.” Troy Aikman, the Cowboys quarterback during Walker’s final seasons in Dallas and now a broadcaster for Fox, also believes his former teammate’s latest incarnation is apt. “When Herschel decided to get into it,” he says, “an acquaintance of mine involved in MMA told me he didn’t give him a chance. I replied, ‘I’ve seen enough of this guy over the years that I wouldn’t bet against him on anything.’ He’s highly driven. He doesn’t take on anything halfheartedly. He runs a heck of a lot hotter than people realize. He’s a killer.”
Walker’s rationale for entering the world of MMA is not what many may imagine. “People think I’m doing this for the money,” he says, “but I say, ‘Guys, I don’t need the money. The businesses I’ve built since I got out of football provide a bigger payday than any fight can bring me.’ ” (Walker donated the purse from the Carson bout to his Dallas church, Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship.) Nor, he adds, is he mentally unbalanced. In 2008 Walker made news by revealing that he suffered from dissociative identity disorder—what would once have been called multiple personality disorder. In Breaking Free, his book about his battle to come to terms with the condition, he writes that in its throes he had experienced fits of murderous rage. But after years of therapy, he says the problem is now under control. “The story people want to hear is that I’m out of whack. But that’s not me. I have not become an MMA fighter because I have an anger issue.” The truth, he adds, is both simpler and more complex.
Few successful American athletes have enjoyed as varied a career as Walker has. Even as he was leading Georgia to a national football title, he was competing on the collegiate track circuit, running a 9.1-second 100-yard dash and briefly holding the world’s record in the 60-yard event. Before the start of a senior year that would almost surely have seen him break nearly every NCAA rushing mark, he became the first collegian to bolt not just to the pros but to the fledgling USFL. The New Jersey Generals (soon to be purchased by Donald Trump) signed him to a multimillion-dollar contract. When the upstart league folded after three seasons, Walker joined the NFL’s Cowboys. In Dallas he not only played football but, to prove he could, danced with the Fort Worth Ballet. In the 1992 Olympics he competed on the United States’ two-man bobsled team, finishing seventh.
As Walker sees it, MMA is simply a new challenge. “One night I was watching The Ultimate Fighter on Spike TV,” he says, “and someone said, ‘We’re the best athletes in the world.’ I thought, That’s a bold statement. I thought, I’m not trying to be arrogant, but I’ve always thought of myself as being one of the best athletes in the world. I’ve always wanted people to say, ‘Herschel Walker wasn’t just a great running back but a great athlete.’ So I said, ‘I’ll give it a shot.’ ”
Thus began Walker’s pilgrimages to San Jose, where he spent four months living in a hotel room before his first fight and six months prior to his second. This was indeed a new challenge, and for Walker challenges are not to be taken lightly. “I don’t see in between,” he says. “I see only the white and the black. You win or you lose. There’s no such thing as just playing well. You do the job or you don’t do the job. I don’t want to be just a fighter. I want to be a great fighter.”
As Herschel Walker and Julie Blanchard, his fiancée, jog through his Dallas neighborhood, Texas-size manifestations of ostentatious wealth loom everywhere. Vaquero is a gated enclave of spanking-new châteaus and palazzi, sculpted lawns and country-club amenities (a meandering golf course, jewel-like tennis courts, even stocked ponds with fishing poles at the ready). It has been home to celebrities (the Jonas brothers), major leaguers (the Texas Rangers’ Josh Hamilton) and CEOs too numerous to name. “You can order room service at your house,” says Walker, who a mile into the run speaks with the effortlessness of someone who could do this for hours. Indeed, it is only 7:30 on a summer morning, but he has been up since 5:30, already knocking out 2,000 sit-ups and 500 push-ups and then answering e-mails. As far as Walker is concerned, two and a half miles of roadwork before his business day starts is a form of cooling down.