Herring a Seasoned Foe for Lesnar

By Tim Leidecker Aug 9, 2008
When Heath Herring (Pictures) steps into the Octagon Saturday at UFC 87, his role as underdog is set in stone.

In one corner will stand Brock Lesnar (Pictures): a physical specimen who was not only a WWE superstar but also has a legit amateur background as a former NCAA Division I wrestling national champion. On the other side of the cage will be Herring: a seasoned veteran, 2-2 in the UFC, who is viewed by many as a stepping stone for the explosive grappler.

Most oddsmakers agree that Herring is the underdog, with some placing the betting line as high as 3-1.

What some fans likely don’t know is that the “Texas Crazy Horse” has been fighting professionally for more than a decade, and has participated in some of the best heavyweight bouts in the history of mixed martial arts. In this trip down memory lane, Sherdog.com provides you with a closer look at the defining moments of Herring’s career.

The Early Years

Born 30 years ago in Waco, Texas, Herring was a big kid growing up.

At 6-foot-4 and well over 280 pounds, he attracted the attention of local MMA promotion Unified Shoot Wrestling Federation shortly after turning 18. Equipped only with a little high school wrestling experience and the most basic of skills, Herring made his MMA debut. Still a teenager, he picked up a submission victory over eventual UFC middleweight champion Evan Tanner (Pictures).

His career picked up speed when he was invited to take part in the World Vale Tudo Championships on the beautiful Caribbean Island of Aruba in 1999. Undeterred by the changes the UFC was going through in the U.S. -- gloves, rounds and weight classes -- the WVC still prided itself in “old-school vale tudo,” which included everything from bare knuckles to headbutts. Herring excelled in this “no holds barred” environment.

In his first appearance abroad, Herring coasted through to the final of a one-night, eight-man, open-weight tournament where he faced Brazilian Alexandre “Cacareco” Ferreira. Cacareco, a luta livre practitioner with an explosive takedown and outstanding control from the top, was the better man that evening, however, and took the unanimous decision after a grueling thirty-minute war.

Herring wasn’t to be denied, though. Less than three months later, he submitted Dutch kickboxer Michael Tielrooy and Rings veteran Sean McCully before pounding “Dirty” Bob Schrijber (Pictures) in the final to be crowned the WVC 9 tournament champion.

Moving to Holland

Impressed with Herring’s performance, Bas Boon, a WVC producer and one of the figureheads behind aspiring Dutch kickboxing team Golden Glory, convinced the Texan to relocate to the Netherlands.

Together with one of the greatest kickboxers of all time in Ramon “Diamond” Dekkers, fellow promising upstart Gilbert Yvel (Pictures) and world-class standup trainer Cor Hemmers, Herring added striking tools to his already decent wrestling and submission base.

Herring soon got to put these newly acquired qualities to use as Golden Glory had reached a deal that brought him to Japan and the Pride Fighting Championships.

Pride was the stage for heavyweight talent at the time after adding exciting new blood such as Kazuyuki Fujita (Pictures), Ricco Rodriguez (Pictures) and Ken Shamrock (Pictures) to their already established stable of stars, which included Igor Vovchanchyn (Pictures) and Mark Kerr (Pictures).

The 22-year-old Herring was now fighting to make his mark amongst living legends.

After hitting the floor running in his debut for the promotion with a 48-second submission of Dutchman Willie Peeters, Herring was presented with a nightmare matchup. Standing across the ring from him at Pride 11 was undefeated 280-pound grappler Tom Erikson (Pictures), who at the time was considered one of the best heavyweights MMA had to offer. According to the “Fight Professor” Stephen Quadros, even established stars like Mark Coleman (Pictures) and Mark Kerr (Pictures) were ducking the two-time All-American wrestler.

As expected, the “Big Cat” dominated the fight from the opening bell. Erikson took Herring down and controlled him from top position, scoring with powerful punches. Herring hung tight defensively, however, and after six minutes of the opening round, the referee ordered the fighters to get back to their feet after a lull in the action.

Herring applauded the referee intervention and took advantage. He landed two crashing kicks to the bleeding wrestler’s frame. Quick to react, he spun onto the back of Erikson and finished the fight via rear-naked choke.

The outcome of the contest was considered a huge upset at the time and put the young Herring on the map as a serious contender for the heavyweight crown. His performance continued to take an upwards course as he put on dominant displays against Enson Inoue (Pictures), Denis Sobolev (Pictures) and Kerr. His only setback was a highly controversial decision loss against Vitor Belfort (Pictures).

Still, Pride executives didn’t have to think very hard while searching for an opponent to confront Brazilian sensation Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira (Pictures) in November 2001. In a bout to decide the inaugural Pride heavyweight champion, “Minotauro” and Herring fought a classic that is still regarded as one of the greatest battles in the history of the division to this day. For 20 minutes both men boxed, wrestled, applied and avoided submissions. In the end, Nogueira was awarded the decision, although Herring was able to leave the arena with his head held high after an inspiring performance.

Slow Decline and Injury Woes

The loss to Nogueira marked a turning point in Herring’s career.

It wasn’t as if the Texan suddenly stopped developing and making forward progress as a fighter. Chalk up bouts with Fedor Emelianenko (Pictures), Mirko Filipovic (Pictures) and a rematch with Nogueira as the stumbling blocks in this fighter’s fall from grace.

Now merely a .500 fighter over his last eight appearances inside the Pride ring, Herring was standing in the ruins of his once highly promising career. Pride parent company Dream Stage Entertainment did everything in its power to get the “Texas Crazy Horse” back on track by booking him in a series of fights with jobbers, freak shows and journeymen. Though victorious, the ease and brilliance of time passed was long gone.

Together with fellow former Pride stars Gary Goodridge (Pictures), Don Frye (Pictures) and Fujita, Herring jumped ship to rival Japanese promotion K-1 and its newly launched MMA division titled Hero’s. His two-year stint with the company was plagued by injuries including a blown knee and broken ribs.

After departing from the Netherlands for a move back to the U.S., the most remarkable event to happen during this dark period of his career was a bizarre no-contest involving Yoshihiro Nakao (Pictures) on New Year’s Eve in 2005.

Prior to their fight, Nakao thought it would be a good idea to kiss Herring on the lips. Herring didn’t consider it to be very funny, and knocked the Japanese wrestler out cold before the opening bell. Nakao needed six months to recover from a neck injury he sustained from the blow and resulting fall.

Returning to the U.S.

For nine long years, Herring had fought all over the world including Aruba, Hawaii, Holland, Russia and Japan.

When the UFC called in early 2007, the career of the charismatic Stetson-wearing fighter came full circle. Despite a lackluster loss to wrestler Jake O’Brien and an unadorned decision win over rookie Brad Imes (Pictures), Herring got a third crack at Nogueira when the Brazilian debuted for the UFC in July 2007.

In a fight that clearly showed the wear and tear both men had absorbed from their grueling battles in the Pride ring, Herring made a grave mistake that ruined his chances of getting a title shot anytime soon.

At the end of the first round, he landed a head kick that put Nogueira on the canvas. Instead of finishing the dazed fighter on the ground with punches, he allowed the Brazilian to regain consciousness. “Minotauro” would go on to win the next two rounds by outboxing and outwrestling the surprised American.

Herring finally enjoyed a rare taste of good luck when fellow Pride companion Mark Coleman (Pictures), who was scheduled to fight Lesnar Saturday at UFC 87, suffered a torn knee ligament in May.

Coleman’s injury opened the door for Herring’s shot at the Minnesotan. A win over the former professional wrestling star could provide a huge career boost to a fighter many fans and pundits have written off.

In order to beat Lesnar, Herring will have to go back to his strong performances against Erikson and Kerr, where he used his superior striking and submission prowess to defeat the wrestlers.

And if he can channel the performances that beat Erikson and Kerr, Herring will have what it takes to score a major upset.
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