SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Herschel Walker realizes there’s no logical reason for this lifestyle, not after so many years and so many accomplishments.
He’s living alone in a luxury hotel in Silicon Valley, half a continent away from his fiancee and young son in Dallas. He rises well before dawn for a long jog, followed by the latest sets in his lifelong barrage of push-ups and situps.
The 48-year-old former superstar running back then goes to an unassuming kickboxing gym deep in San Jose’s suburban sprawl for several hours of daily training in mixed martial arts, the latest passion in his profoundly eclectic athletic life.
“I always said I wanted to be a great athlete, ever since I was an overweight little kid,” Walker said. “I just love competing in any kind of athletics. I want to try everything, and there’s no doubt that this is some of the toughest physical activities you can do. You can compete at these things, but can you compete at the highest level? That’s what I wanted to find out.”
After excelling in track, football, bobsledding and even poultry farming, Walker will get his second MMA fight with the Strikeforce promotion in San Jose on Saturday night against Scott Carson.
But why? Walker has many reasons, not all of them explainable.
Some days it’s a desire to motivate others into mid-life fitness. Other times it’s a still-raving hunger for competition.
Overall, it’s because Walker gave his life to athletics and fitness more than three decades ago, and it’s as much a part of him as his family, his faith and his teammates.
“There’s a lot of reasons, but, at this point in my life, I really want to show that it doesn’t matter how old you are,” Walker said. “If you dedicate yourself to something, you can achieve it. It’s simple, but it’s true, and your age is just an excuse. Being in your 40s or your 50s isn’t an excuse anymore, not after they see me do it.”
His upcoming bout was delayed nearly two months after Walker sustained a cut in November during training at the American Kickboxing Academy, which is tucked into a strip mall between a discount store and a fabric barn. Walker is there almost every day now, sparring in the ring and wrestling on the sweat-stained mats with prospects less than half his age.
“I don’t really know anyone out here in the Bay Area except my teammates,” Walker said. “I don’t really go out anyway, though, so it’s not too bad.”
Walker already had a black belt in taekwondo when became infatuated with MMA five years ago. He observed the UFC’s evolution into an organized, regulated league for elite athletes. He connected with Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker, who flew him to Los Angeles to test his aptitude against athletes in five MMA disciplines.
Coker realized Walker was raw but no joke. Walker was matched with AKA’s trainers in San Jose, and he has been training in the Bay Area for the past 15 months.
“I was thinking he was crazy to get into this sport at 47,” said Javier Mendez, who has trained B.J. Penn and Sean Sherk. “You can’t just jump into this sport. The first day here, he was very green, but I was already impressed with how explosive he was. His cardio, it’s not normal. If he had started this when he was young, he would have been the best of all time.”
Walker took to AKA immediately, embracing the camaraderie among the fighters. The gym is home to UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez and a collection of serious talent that wasn’t star-struck by Walker’s presence.
“He likes the team atmosphere,” said Mendez, his trainer. “He’s big on team. That’s what keeps him here. He’ll be in the trenches with all of our guys. He’ll go out of his way to help the other guys out.”
Athletes in other sports have been tempted to start a second career in MMA, including big talkers Shaquille O’Neal and Floyd Mayweather Jr., but most have realized the sport only appears easy to pick up.
Former heavyweight boxing champion James Toney was easily stopped by Randy Couture in a UFC bout last year. Jose Canseco lost 77 seconds into his MMA debut in Japan in May 2009. Former NFL wide receiver Johnnie Morton infamously was carried out of his debut fight on a stretcher in 2007 after a first-round knockout loss.
But Walker won his first bout with Strikeforce, stopping Greg Nagy last January in the third round in Sunrise, Fla.
Walker didn’t delude himself into thinking he could dominate the sport, but he also believes this weekend’s fight won’t be his last. He is looking for a home in San Jose and planning to keep working into his 50s.
“I can’t do this for a long period of time, I know that,” Walker said. “I’m not ever going to fight for a belt. I just started this, and I got into it too late. I just want to train, to get better, to test myself against guys who are better than me. That’s what my life is about.”