Talk about a tough crowd. You wouldn't want to tangle with any of the guys working out at the American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, Calif. The faint of heart would be encouraged to try the nearby fitness club.
It's also a young crowd. Most mixed martial arts fighters get out of the sport at around 35.
But one muscular fellow with a very familiar face is a novice in their midst. And he's 48.
In fact, Herschel Walker is getting ready for a televised fight. Yes, that Herschel Walker, the one who won the 1982 Heisman Trophy at Georgia, who played for the New Jersey Generals in the short-lived United States Football League and who made two Pro Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys before being dealt to the Minnesota Vikings in what was probably the most one-sided trade in NFL history.
He looks like he could still run over a safety. He weighs 217, a few pounds under his playing weight. He claims he ran a 4.39 in the 40 a year ago.
"I don't know if I could play every snap, but there's no doubt in my mind that I could help a team right now," he said after a workout for his fight against Scott Carson Saturday night on a Strikeforce show.
He wishes he could play for the Vikings again; he regrets that he was never able to show the team and its fans fully what he could do after he was acquired in 1989 for five players and six draft picks.
At an age when most former NFL players are trying to find their way out of sand traps, Walker is trying to punch, wrestle or kick somebody into submission and avoid the same. He scored a third-round TKO over Greg Nagy in his MMA debut a year ago. A scheduled fight in December was scrapped because he took an eight-stitch gash near his eye during a wrestling workout.
"It's the hardest training I've ever done in my life," he said. "In this world, you're going to get hit."
He's in this world strictly for the competition, he said. He knows he's way too long in the tooth to win a championship belt. "I've been very blessed because of my physical condition and mental condition," he said. "I want to show people, especially kids, that you can do anything if you're willing to work."
You'd think that a person who rushed for 2,411 yards in a season (with the Generals) and 1,514 in another (with the Cowboys) wouldn't harbor doubts about his athleticism.
For Walker, though, there's always another hill to climb, the steeper the better. He got into bobsledding and, with pilot Brian Shimer, placed seventh in the two-man competition at the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France. He won back-to-back American Superstars competitions. He even danced with the Fort Worth Ballet.
Every day he does 1,000 to 1,500 sit-ups and 750 to 1,000 push-ups. That's a step down from the 3,500 daily sit-ups he used to do, but let's cut a guy who's nearly 50 a little slack.
He picked the San Jose gym because it was home to several elite MMA fighters. They don't take it easy on him. When he started training there in July, he says he told them, "If you don't think I can do this, let me know. I'm not going to embarrass MMA or this gym."
Trainer "Crazy Bob" Cook is impressed. "Obviously he's a world-class athlete, and he's doing his best to be a world-class fighter. It doesn't happen overnight. He's probably eight months into MMA training. Most fighters at the world-class level have 8 to 10 years into this type of training. But he's progressing very well."
Taking the road less traveled is typical of Walker. He famously morphed from a pudgy 13-year-old with a speech impediment to a chiseled football/track stud in a few years. Aided by positive parents and siblings and the local library in Wrightsville, Ga., he also became a fine student along the way.
Life after football had some dips and turns. In 1999, he was diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder, also known as multiple personality disorder. Among the symptoms are depression, sudden unjustified anger and severe memory loss. He said he didn't remember the Heisman Trophy ceremony and doesn't remember most of the games he played at Georgia. In fact there were a lot of things he didn't remember, his then-wife, Cindy, used to tell him.
He checked himself into a psychiatric hospital in Southern California for a month's stay. "I had an anger problem," he said. "If I had not gotten help, I might have hurt myself or someone else."
He responded to treatment and threw himself into his company, Renaissance Man Food Services, which he calls his "chicken company." It employs about 600, he said. He got out of the management of the firm, at least temporarily, when he entered MMA.
"People think this sport is more brutal than football or boxing. It's not. In this sport, if you get knocked down, the referee is stopping it right away. Or a guy can tap out. In football, guys get concussions or spinal injuries -- that's brutal.
"In boxing when a guy gets knocked down, his brain hits the back of his skull. He's still woozy when he gets up. He gets a standing eight-count, and the fight goes on. Is that not more brutal than this sport? I don't know why everyone's so afraid of this sport."