Next challenge for Herschel: MMA

Now that Walker, 47, has committed to risking -- in laugh and limbs -- in the mayhem that is Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighting, the only question is: What took him so long?

The ever-curious Georgian's interest in the hands-and-feet combat dates nearly three decades to his glory days of football at Georgia. Sunday afternoons, when teammates watched the NFL or rubbed Bengay on their sore bodies, Walker immersed himself in off-campus martial-arts classes.

"Coach [Vince] Dooley was cool with it," he said. "I never got hurt.

"Everybody at Georgia then probably knew I was gonna get into this."

Walker, a fifth-degree black belt in tae kwon do, said he approached MMA, which had suffered third-degree burns from its previous ill-prepared celebrity contestants, chiefly Jose Canseco. For 12 weeks, he trained in San Jose, Calif., wowing instructors, even skipping a Christmas trip back home to Irving, Texas.

His coming-out bout is Jan. 30 in Sunrise, Fla., against another greenhorn, Greg Nagy (1-1). Cable network Showtime will carry the bout and others at 10 p.m.

Asked in a telephone interview if acquaintances have questioned his sanity, Walker said, "A hundred times. Everybody thinks I'm nuts."

Even his parents -- with love, of course. "They didn't want me to do this," Walker said.

Those whose lives Walker touches have learned to stand back and let him plow his path solo. This is the guy who left college early to join the first-year United States Football League at a time when the NFL didn't allow early entries.

"What's important to me is only what I think about myself," he said. "I decided I was still at a time in my life that I can do this."

In the sport where he straddled the line between famous and legendary, Walker was padded mostly from head to toe. He played in bursts of five or 10 seconds, then got at least a half-minute to catch his breath.

In MMA, he will enter a steel cage wearing only shorts, gloves and a furrowed brow. The fighting will be furious, interrupted by short breaks between rounds and likely over within 10 minutes.

Walker is well aware that, in his latest venture, bones can be broken and knees rendered dysfunctional. The Internet is awash with clips of freak injuries, one of a snapped shinbone that is not recommended for the weak of stomach.

"It's a fierce, fierce, fierce sport," Walker acknowledged. "Anything can happen."

The necessary physicals and stress tests have been passed in A-plus fashion.

"We were surprised at how incredibly athletic he is at age 47," said Mike Afromowitz, spokesman for the promoter Strikeforce.

Although barely two years shy of AARP membership eligibility, Walker is not the first geezer to subject himself to arm bars and guillotine chokes. Randy Couture, for one, is 46, with nearly as many bouts (27) as hairs on his head.

MMA will add a page to the resume of this almost mythical figure hailing from a speck on the map called Wrightsville, Ga. Separating Herschel fact from Herschel fiction is an ongoing task.

While jogging, he once came across a woman trapped in a wrecked car and rescued her. But did Walker really, as he insisted, lift the entire vehicle in the process?

He carves out time daily for pushups and situps. But did Walker truly, as he claimed, once do 5,000 of each per setting?

How can a man of his proportion (6-foot-1, 215 pounds) have 4 percent body fat, as he once maintained, and confine himself to one meal per day?

And does he actually have multiple personalities, as Walker attested in his book "Breaking Free: My Life with Dissociative Identity Disorder?" Or, as some medical observers suggest, do his symptoms hint at other issues?

If this self-proclaimed, modern-day Sybil has a Ninja warrior character in his head, Walker could make a short career out of this.

On that topic, he borrows from the playbook of his famously cautious old mentor, Dooley, who would not dare look beyond the next game against South Central Eastern Mining College.

"I'm taking it," Walker said, "one fight at a time."

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