Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Heath Herring – UFC Debut, Take Two

By Thomas Gerbasi

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

For Heath Herring, Charles Dickens’ classic opening to “A Tale of Two Cities” certainly described the Texan’s UFC debut in January against Jake O’Brien. It was a homecoming for the former Pride and K-1 star, a fresh start in the United States and a chance - on national television no less - to re-establish his credentials as one of the premier heavyweights in the world.

That was the good part.

The bad part was everything that happened after his dramatic entrance into the Octagon against the unbeaten upstart, O’Brien, who took Herring down at will and followed his gameplan to a tee as he scored a three round unanimous decision that was clearcut, if not scintillating viewing. It was a disappointing night for Herring, and for the fans who eagerly awaited his UFC debut.

But as far as ‘The Texas Crazy Horse’ is concerned, it’s water under the bridge.

“For me, that fight was an all-around learning experience,” said Herring, 26-12 with 1 no contest. “After fighting overseas for so many years, you get used to different rules, little stylistic things. I think you’ve seen a few guys that have come over from Japan and suffered that same kinda thing. You get used to a certain type of scoring and a certain type of officiating and then it’s kinda hard to break that mold. But I’m gonna take absolute responsibility for that and I think some of my comments (after the fight) were me more venting my frustration with how the fight went. I was by no means upset with the refereeing or the officiating. I agreed with the decision according to the rules of the way it is in the UFC. That was on me, and I was thankful to have gotten in there and gone through that fight. I learned a lot and learned that you’ve got to do things a little bit differently over here. Not that it’s better or worse – it’s just different.”

And for those who may say, ‘well, it’s still a fight, whether it’s here or in Japan,’ Herring begs to differ, though he’s not looking to place blame anywhere but on the man in the mirror.

“The majority of the things that I’ve learned are more from a professional standpoint,” he admits. “I don’t think a layman or a fan of the sport is gonna understand the subtleties of it, and that’s fine. And to be honest, they shouldn’t. This is what I do for a living, this is my profession, that’s my job to know the differences and act accordingly. I guess I wasn’t necessarily ready for the way certain things were gonna be handled here as opposed to over there. A lot of that’s my fault. I’ve been fighting overseas for close to a decade and then I was out for a year, so there were a lot of contributing factors. But the bottom line was, I had to learn and I was out there trying to learn it as I went and I just came up short that day. I wasn’t able to get out there and do things that I normally like to do and it’s on me.”

Herring made his name overseas, first on the World Vale Tudo circuit, and then for the Pride organization in Japan. It was in Pride that he battled some of the premier fighters in the game, from Mirko Cro Cop and Fedor Emelianenko to Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Igor Vovchanchyn. And win or lose, Herring always brought the heat. Against O’Brien though, he was barely able to get a spark going due to his opponent’s nullifying strategy. When did he know things were starting to go south on him?

“The type of fighter that I am, I’m trying to end the fight at any moment and I think even in that third and final round, even the last minute, which was the most exciting of that whole fight, I’m trying to finish it,” said Herring. “So I’ve never been in a fight where I gave it up; even if I know I’m behind on the scorecards, I’m still trying to hit that home run.”

The home run never came against O’Brien, who, keeping with the baseball theme, was throwing Herring off-speed pitches all night. Against his opponent this Saturday night at UFC 69 in Houston, Brad Imes, he will be facing a fastball pitcher who won’t be throwing any fancy stuff at him. He’s just going to stand there and fight.

“When (UFC matchmaker) Joe Silva called me up the Saturday after the fight, I was a little bit down and he said, ‘hey, do you want to fight in Texas?’” recalled Herring. “I said ‘absolutely, who do you got for me?’ And I think Monday is when I got the text, ‘How about Brad?’ and I accepted that one as quickly as I could. I think that’s a great fight; we’re two guys that are gonna go out there and fight. What better thing to do than to just get out there and brawl in front of everybody in Texas?”

Herring is actually looking forward to his first fight in his home state since 1997, even though other fighters might have already started wilting under the pressure of fighting at home after a high-profile loss. He laughs about it.

“That’s certainly one way to look at it, and if I did I’d probably stay awake at night and not be able to sleep or train or anything (chuckles), but this is something, as an athlete, you have to adjust to,” Herring explains. “This is by no means the biggest fight I’ve ever been in or had. I’m in good shape for this fight, I’m feeling good, I trained real well, and my camp has gone great. We got out there just two months ago and fought and we adjusted some things, and getting to fight back home in Texas is actually more thrilling than anything for me. I’ve been in the Tokyo Dome with over 100,000 people, so I’m kinda sober when it comes to big arenas and things like that. It’s gonna be hard to shock me a little bit.”

So nerves are rarely, if ever, an issue for Herring.

“I derive a lot of strength from that,” he said. “When you’ve been there and done it, you just go out there and you’re not gonna be awed that there’s 20,000 people in the arena. 20,000 people in an arena for me is usually a pretty small venue. (Laughs) It’s kinda hard for us to wrap our heads around that here in the States because we just don’t have that many venues that hold those kinds of numbers.”

One thing Herring didn’t have to adjust to though, and it was a positive development for him, was re-introducing himself to United States fight fans.

“That’s one thing I wanted to say about the Florida fans – everybody treated me like gold over there,” he said of his UFC debut. “Those guys were great and I was actually surprised that a lot of people even knew who I was. I know that I built my reputation in Europe and overseas, but I didn’t expect such a warm reception. It was a great, great homecoming, and I really don’t know what to expect in Texas. After that last fight, I don’t know, we Texans like the winner (laughs), but hopefully I can make them proud of me so I can keep the ‘Texas Crazy Horse’ going.”

That shouldn’t be a problem, especially against someone like Imes, who gets insulted if he’s not in a toe-to-toe war on fight night. And size definitely won’t be an issue for the 6-4 Herring, who despite giving up three inches to Imes, has been in there with even bigger foes, like 6-10 Gan McGee and 7-2 Giant Silva (both victories).

“If you look at some of the guys I faced, Brad is by no means even one of the biggest guys I fought,” said Herring. “I fought Gan McGee, Giant Silva, some real giants. And my little brother, as we jokingly call him, he’s 6-8 and 360 pounds. That’s the guy I lived and trained with for two years in Holland. Fighting with a guy bigger than me is nothing out of the norm for me and it’s not something that intimidates me. I actually enjoy it because it’s a little bit different.”

So what can actually rattle this guy? Yeah, he looked frustrated by O’Brien’s tactics during their fight, but everyone has a bad night once in a while in this game, so that was no career-breaker. What about being back home in the United States on a full-time basis and dealing with the distractions that go with being around family and friends, and fulfilling their requests, especially around fight time?

“People say, ‘you’re living in Vegas, how do you handle that?’ Well, Vegas is a step down from Amsterdam as far as distractions go,” he laughs. “It’s nothing I haven’t had to deal with. For me, it’s important to have a peaceful home life. I like to go home and hang out with my girlfriend, spend as much time with family as I can, and that’s one thing I’m really looking forward to with this fight in Houston – a lot of family is gonna be there and I’m gonna have an opportunity to relax and hang out with everybody before the fight, and come game day I’ll get ready to go.”

Vegas is a step down from Amsterdam in terms of distractions, eh?

“Growing up in my 20’s, I wouldn’t really complain about it,” said Herring.

When he talks about being in his 20’s, you look at the date of birth (March 2, 1978), and you realize that despite having close to 40 fights under his belt and having been mentioned with the best heavyweights in the world for years now, he hasn’t even reached his 30th birthday yet. That’s an amazing fact in itself, especially when you consider that the UFC’s current heavyweight champion, Randy Couture, clocks in at 43 years old, and it bodes well for a fighter who may not have even hit his physical prime yet.

“I’ve been fighting for ten years and that seems incredible, but you look at Randy and he’s 43 years old, and that’s 14 years away from where I am right now,” said Herring. “But I’ve had a really rough patch these last couple of years overseas, changing organizations and management, and lawsuits and it’s been really, really rough. Maybe one day I’ll write a story about it and people wouldn’t believe half of it. So I’m looking to get back in the swing of things. The UFC heavyweight division is something I can do a lot in, I think the fans appreciate my fighting style, win or lose, and that’s something I was known for in Japan. When they put me on the card, the fans knew what to expect from me, and I’m hoping that here in the US, when the fans hear that Heath Herring’s on the card, it will be something to watch.”

So despite the ups and downs and wins and losses, Herring fights on. It’s what he does, and there’s nothing he’d rather do. He’s been through the worst of times; not he’s ready for the best.

“I don’t know if I’d know what else to do with myself if I wasn’t fighting right now,” he said. “I love training, I love going and fighting in the arenas, I love the fans, I really enjoy hearing what the fans have to say at the fights, and there’s nothing on God’s green Earth that I’d rather be doing than what I’m doing. Every night I thank the Lord for the opportunity that I’ve been given and that I get to keep doing it.”

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