Herschel Walker, Michael Jordan, and Red Grange Digress
Fifteen years ago one of the greatest players to ever live traded in the basketball court for the baseball diamond.
His new community cried foul ball.
The prevailing belief from this purist crowd: Michael Jordan, 31 at the time, was being allowed to brandish a bat based on name recognition coupled with the fact that the man who owned the Chicago Bulls also owned the White Sox.
Jordan, who hadn't worn cleats since high school, signed a contract, completed spring training, and batted .400 in a Cubs-White Sox exhibition game before sliding into AA baseball with the Birmingham Barons.
Needless to say, the Barons shattered their yearly attendance record and the White Sox organization enjoyed all the extra media attention.
“His Airness” never lifted himself to the major leagues, pulling the plug after just one year in the minors.
Now, another athlete will look to try his hand in a sport that he brings little to no experience to, but provides plenty of that name recognition.
Herschel Walker, who racked up over 8,500 rushing yards in the NFL, will step into a cage on Jan. 30 and compete in his first professional MMA fight under the Strikeforce banner.
The 47-year-old completed his version of spring training, a 12-week MMA training camp at the world renowned American Kickboxing Academy (A.K.A.) in San Jose, Calif.
Unlike Mike, Herschel will forgo time spent toiling in the minor leagues.
If he had, the fifth degree black belt in taekwondo would have taken a fight on a regional fight card first, or at the very least, competed on a Strikeforce "Challengers" card, which generally spotlight up-and-coming fighters.
Instead, Walker will go straight to the Bigs, with his first opponent expected to perform not unlike the Kansas City Royals.
The biggest penalty Walker is committing though, in the minds of many, is not cutting to the front of the line, although, knocking Jay Hieron vs. Joe Riggs off of the main card feels bush-league to the majority of hardcore fans.
No, the biggest flag being thrown on the field involves that of attention.
Since Walker is drawing more attention to himself than the actual sport itself, it can be construed that somehow mixed martial arts needs a former NFL star to gain mainstream acceptance; that the fasted growing sport needs a circus act to become further noticed.
Speaking of noticed, once upon a time, the NFL was searching for its own identity.
And like MMA, when it first stared the rules were simple: there weren't any.
Early championships were awarded to the team with the best win-loss record, initially rather haphazardly, as some teams played more or fewer games than others, or scheduled games against non-league, amateur, or collegiate teams.
Back in the 1920s, professional football, whose originators wanted to build a sport that rivaled Major League Baseball in popularity, was considered more of a dog and pony show then an actual sport.
College football was the gold standard and a nascent pro league desperately seeking credibility needed to find a godsend or gimmick to pack their stadiums full of mainstream acceptance.
Enter Red Grange, who would later be dubbed the greatest college football player of all time by ESPN (for the record, Herschel Walker ranks third).
The University of Illinois football star signed on with the Chicago Bears in 1925, something that most college football players at the time didn't take seriously as a career path.
History credits Grange with legitimizing professional football in the United States.
The following year Grange became a part of the New York Yankees!
No, he didn't cross over into baseball, but got involved in a dispute with the Bears and left to form his own league, the American Football League, to challenge the NFL. His league only lasted one season, after which Grange's Yankees team was absorbed by the the NFL.
Back to MMA. Being contested under the UFC banner, the sport is only 16 years old.
To put that into perspective, professional baseball, the sport that just fifteen years ago shunned Michael Jordan, didn't have a World Series after 16 seasons.
For people that say with such conviction that Walker’s attention is bad for the sport, or that 2010 will be a make or break year for sport, perhaps a little hindsight is in order.
Who can tell for sure, other than Nostradamus, what will make or break a sport, what will ultimately be good or bad in the long run, even if it looks suspect or surefire in the short run.
Could the unwavering Vince Lombardi ever have predicted Brett Favre would retire twice before having one of his best years as a Minnesota Viking?
Could an unbeatable Rocky Marciano foresee Mike Tyson taking a bite out of sport of boxing?
Who could have guessed an innocent "Shoeless" Joe would be out-shamed by a former bulked up Pittsburgh Pirate?
For better or worse, sports are a celebration of it all, till death do us part.
So sit back and enjoy Walker vs. Nagy followed Couture vs. Coleman. As long as the fights aren't fixed and the fighters aren't performance enhanced we can all hold our breath.
And if Shaq decides to call out Chuck Liddell (again), or Fedor never fights an ailing Lesnar, just imagine where the sport will be when we're telling tall tales to our grandkids about how Jordan got Matt Serra'd?
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