- Ryan Hockensmith
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Want to be a MMA heavyweight champion? Fight Heath Herring. It's not mandatory, of course. But fighting Heath Herring seems to help.
He's the ultimate gatekeeper for the heavyweight division: The Texas Crazy Horse has had one of the most remarkable MMA careers ever, not because he's 43-0 with a whole bunch of gaudy gold belts hanging all over his house. He's had an amazing career because he's fought 43 times (28-14-1), at the highest levels, and he just turned 31 years old.
Think about his resume. He's fought Evan Tanner (twice), Vitor Belfort, Fedor Emelianenko, Mirko Cro Cop, Minotauro Nogueira (three times), Mark Kerr and Brock Lesnar. He has the fastest knockout in MMA history (zero seconds) after an opponent kissed him on the lips during the preflight mid-ring staredown. He has one of the most ballyhooed debuts-turned-disasters in recent UFC history—his huge buildup (and subsequent dull ground-and-pound rout loss) before he fought Jake O'Brien in January, 2007.
Herring is reprising his role a month from now, with a fight against rising star Cain Velasquez, at UFC 99. The two-time All-American wrestler from Arizona State is 5-0 (five quick knockouts), and considerable buzz. Right now, he's the hottest prospect in the heavyweight division (arguably in all of MMA). He has defeated solid opposition—O'Brien, for one—but not a real test. Enter Herring.
Herring's one of the most fun interviews in MMA. He laughs and jokes a lot, and is brutally honest. Ask him about his recent acting role, in Never Surrender, and he laughs at himself.
"I could only get through watching it one time," he says. "It's not going to win an Oscar."
Ask him about fighting for a living, having 14 losses, being a gatekeeper to the top, about the grind of training, and he speaks the truth.
"I'm six weeks or so out from a big fight, and they're all big fights for me now—I can't really ever lose any more," he says. "I'm a little worn out but I'll be ready. I'm always ready."
Herring has two fights after Velasquez left on his contract. He's 2-3 in the UFC. If Herring loses to Velasquez, he'll have won two out of six fights in the big league. It's hard to fault the UFC if it were to shuffle Herring off to the undercard netherworld for the rest of his contract, then let him go.
Herring could remain in the top tier of UFC heavyweights with a win against Velasquez. The latter has a huge advantage over Herring on the mat, but if the veteran Herring can engage Velasquez in a standup war early, he might be able to draw Velasquez into a 15-minute kickboxing bout. If that happens, advantage, Herring.
Velasquez is a good striker, too, so he could conceivably beat Herring even in that kind of bout. But one thing Velasquez has yet to cope with is getting mashed in the head a few times by a legitimate striker. Herring is that kind of striker, and he himself knows how to eat punches and keep coming.
"I think it could end up just being a back-and-forth punching contest," he says. "And I think I can win that kind of fight."
Win, lose, draw, whatever, Herring has no idea where he'll be five years from now.
"I have no idea where I'm headed," he says. "I like to fight and I think I'm pretty good at."
Here's one vote to keep Herring around, provided he doesn't start getting clobbered. He's one of the toughest guys to ever strap on the gloves, he's fun to watch and he's a genuinely nice guy. And, fighting-wise, don't forget he beat Cheick Kongo a year ago.
So when Herring's asked what should be on his UFC tombstone the day he does decide to walk away, he again speaks the truth:
"People thought he was a tough SOB."
He is a tough SOB, is he not?