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Herschel Walker's Inexperience Is Not Bad for Strikeforce, MMA

Here's a test. Tell me about the MMA careers of Jay Lester and Johnny Curtis. These were the first two opponents on a top prospect today, so I presume everyone must be familiar with their names.

Don't sound too familiar, do they?

These were the first two fighters UFC heavyweight fighter Brendan Schaub faced in his MMA career. Lester has one recorded fight - this loss - and Curtis is not a name familiar to fight fans except in Northern Virginia. Both of Schaub's first two fights combined for a total of one minute and thirty-seven seconds in fighting action. Admittedly, Curtis had an accomplished Division I amateur wrestling career, but I was cageside for that event. Curtis was long, long past his athletic prime and came in unprepared, even uninterested, that night. Schaub has always been a serious talent, but didn't really have to use many of his skills to put Curtis away.

I bring this up because of a particular criticism levied at Herschel Walker. Walker is certainly no Brendan Schaub, nor is he trying to be. But the former football great is being attacked for facing opposition that realistically have no chance of winning or even doing damage. The charge is that if one is going to fight on such a large stage for an elite MMA promotion, either be capable of competing at that level or get out of the way.

The truth is early professional experience in MMA is incredibly uneven and often tailored to be some kind of a building experience for one of the two fighters competing. This is particularly true in the case of someone like Schaub, an elite fighter from an elite camp with considerable ability. Schaub and his handlers, in the very early stages of a top prospects' career, are usually looking to simply break the MMA ice with the first fight. The second fight of fighter's career may be a test to see how they an execute a more strategic gameplan. But one need not even be a prospect to get this kind of treatment. The separation between amateur MMA, which is frankly a chaotic mess, and professional debuts is virtually nonexistent.

Strikeforce is handling Walker's MMA career exactly as they should be. The idea that only fighters of certain caliber belong in elite organizations is now a rule of thumb, not a sacred edict. If exceptions to the rule make sense - particularly for a number two promotion looking for a unique leg up - then make them. Even if Coker's organization doesn't always get the mention in the media when Walker fights that it arguably deserves, his events and the sport itself do.

Walker is taking a path no different than any other MMA fighter with commensurate experience. The pushback on Walker is as much pushback against Walker's participation in the sport as it is a lack of familiarity with low-level professional MMA. I often wonder how many of those who decry Walker's participation have ever attended a regional MMA event. Those fights lack the superstar power of Walker, but look no different. They're nasty, brutish and often very short. Perhaps this is part of the reason why local or regional MMA promoters often struggle: not even MMA fans are paying attention to their shows.

Several journalists and fans noted on Twitter last night that many if not all of the main card participants in last night's show were trending on Twitter. Who do you think is responsible for that, Jacare? The mic skills of Robbie Lawler? Roger Gracie's massive pre-fight hype? That credit belongs to Herschel Walker and likely Herschel Walker alone. No one else to my knowledge had a write-up in the Associated Press heading into the bout or the sporting talk radio hype or the curiosity of casual sporting fans. The sports fans may have all paid less attention to Walker this time than they did for his debut, but that's still a level of attention leagues above anything anyone else on last night's card was pulling in. Critics often say it's the "real fighters" who deserve the shine. I don't disagree, but much of the attention paid to last night's "real fighters" is a direct result of a fighter participating in only his second MMA bout.

It's unclear if Walker will participate in MMA again. I suspect he will, but either way, the condemnation some of MMA's faithful heap on Walker is getting it completely wrong and entirely backwards. He deserves a debt of gratitude from all fans of mixed martial arts. He's fighting the right opposition at the right time in his development and doing so while giving the sport a boost to the right audience. That's more than any of us can say of virtually any fighter competing today, irrespective of weight class or organization.

I say thanks, Herschel. We all owe you one.