Mike Mahler: When did you start fighting in MMA (Mixed Martial Arts)?
Heath Herring: I started in 1996 when I was 18 years old and had just graduated high school.
MM: Was that overseas or in the U.S.?
HH: It was in my hometown of Amarillo, Texas. It was a small shoot-fight in a local rodeo ring (laughing).
MM: How did you get involved in MMA?
HH: It all started when I was in high school. I was playing football and the wrestling coach was always after me to come out for wrestling. I resisted initially. However, he kept the pressure on and I finally decided to give it a shot to get him off of my back. I soon realized that I had a knack for it and ended up been in the top ten for the state. Soon after, I got into Sambo, a Russian form of wrestling with some Judo.
MM: What old time UFC fighter Oleg Taktarov did?
HH: Exactly. I really enjoyed that and it just so happened that they had the Sambo nationals in Amarillo, Texas the same year that I started training. I entered that and ended up winning my weight class. Then a guy named Steve Nelson started some shoot fighting events and asked me to participate. I participated in an eight-man tournament, which included a pretty well known MMA fighter named Paul Jones. Everyone was scared to fight him (laughing). My first fight in the tournament was against a national Sambo champion who also happened to be a powerlifting champion with a 600lb+ bench press. The guy was huge and weighed in at 330lbs!
MM: Wow, how much did you weight at the time?
HH: I weighed 250lbs. I was not a small guy by any means. My dad was in my corner and took one look at this guy and was like, 'well good luck.' (laughing). I ended up beating the guy.
MM: (laughing) How did you beat him?
HH: I just kept hitting and kicking him and beat him into submission. Eventually, I made it to the finals against Paul Jones and beat him with a key lock. The local crowd went nuts (laughing). My dad told me that I was talented and should see how far I could go in the sport.
MM: So you won several fights in that tournament by striking opponents. Did you have any training in stand up fighting before that tournament?
HH: No, not really. I think my size and power really helped me out.
MM: How did you get into professional MMA?
HH: My manager Bas Boone put on a show in Aruba and invited me to participate. I was 19-years old and ended up making it to the finals against a Brazilian named Cocherico. The fight went on for 35 minutes and finally went to a decision. He ended up winning the decision. However, Bas Boone was really impressed with me and asked me if I wanted to go to Holland for training.
MM: Did you start working with some Muay Thai kick-boxers in Holland?
HH: Yes, I moved to Holland and my manager got me hooked up with Cor Hammers who is a legend in Muay Thai training. Everyone in Thailand knows who this guy is. He was even recruited at one time to train all of the K-1 fighters. He is really an incredible trainer and I have progressed tremendously under his tutelage. I have only been training with him for a year and a half and I credit my stand up skills to him.
MM: Sounds like you have a pretty complete arsenal of weapons?
HH: Trying to. Cor states that it is going to take me four years to reach an expert level in Muay Thai. Thus, I am only about halfway through.
MM: Wow, I hate to see you in four years!
HH: Personally, I cannot believe the progression that I have already made.
MM: Are you focused primarily on fine-tuning your striking or are you doing any other stuff as well?
HH: The team that we have in Holland is incredibly strong and diverse. All of my sparring partners are champions in something. For example, we have some Russian wrestling champions and some Brazilian jiu-jitsu champions. Everyone on the team has a specialty and we work off of each other. You really could not ask for a better group.
MM: Must have been a culture shock when you first moved over to Holland?
HH: (laughing) Oh ya it is a pretty wild place and it is totally different from the US.
MM: How many high level professional fights have you been in such as the 'Pride' events?
HH: I have been in seven 'Pride' fights.
MM: Who was your toughest opponent?
HH: I would say Rodrigo Nogueira, since I did not beat him (laughing).
MM: What gave you the most difficulty in that fight?
HH: It was a very overwhelming experience fighting for the championship in the Tokyo Dome. Cor did not feel that I was ready, but my manager really pushed for it. We had the wrong game plan going in. I was going to try to keep the fight as a stand up game. However, looking at the fight in retrospect, I was able to get out of everything that he tried on me on the ground and I should have been more aggressive on the ground. However, you live and you learn and Cor has more respect for what I can do on the ground after that fight. Noguiera is the best heavyweight submission guy on the ground and I was able to hang with him and I am proud of that.
MM: You have fought some pretty intimidating fighters such as Mark Kerr and Tom Erickson. Do you get scared before fighting guys like that and if so, how do you handle the fear?
HH: I have to admit that the more fights that I have the more comfortable I become. You are always going to be anxious and nervous which is natural with anything you do in the public eye where thousands of people are watching. As far as being afraid, I view this as a sport and it is not like I am going to go out there and die. I love what I do and seeing the fans go crazy and developing my own persona. I could not imagine a more fun job and I view this as a sport. This is not personal and I am not trying to kill anyone. This is pure competition and I am here to win and have a good time.
MM: What are some of the biggest misconceptions that Americans have regarding MMA?
HH: A lot of it goes back to the original 'Ultimate Fighting Championships' in which they promoted it as a spectacle, rather than a sport. In the first few 'Ultimate Fighting Championships', you had guys getting in the ring that had no clue what they were getting themselves into. That is why you saw more severe injuries. However, even then, no one got killed or seriously injured. Now it has progressed into a real sport with professional fighters that know what they are doing. I think that MMA is one of the safest sports in the world. Where else can you tap out and give up when you are out matched? In boxing if one guy is getting rocked, he has to get knocked out, he cannot just say stop without losing face.
MM: It is funny when people say that MMA is dangerous and at the same time watch boxing and football. You are much more likely to suffer a serious injury in boxing or football.
HH: I agree. I was talking to some MMA promoters in Vegas and they were telling me that the doctors that they work with like MMA, as the fighter has total control on what is going on and the referee can jump in at any time and stop the fight.
MM: Frank Shamrock was telling me about his recent K-1 experience and stated that it is much more brutal than MMA. He stated that just the training alone is much more brutal.
HH: I agree. I have done some Thai-boxing fights in the past and they are brutal. Stephen Leko, a K-1 fighter, was telling me that after a K-1 one fight, he knows that he will be limping around for two weeks! In Kickboxing, you are just sitting there taking damage and your body gets rocked. In MMA, a referee will stop the fight if one fighter is taking too much damage. However, in K-1 they will not as they know that the fans want to see a knockout.
MM: There is really nothing like a good MMA match and it becomes more like a chess game than a fight. Hopefully the fans of the future will view it that way and appreciate the sport more.
HH: I think that it is moving in that direction and if you watch the Japanese fans you can hear a pin drop during an MMA fight.
MM: Right, they watch it like it is a golf game.
HH: They understand every move and now exactly what is going on. I always look at myself as an entertainer first and try to make all of my fights as interesting as possible. Nothing is more boring than two guys just laying on each other. I am in there to win and make a good fight for the fans. Thus, I want to be in the best shape possible and really push it.
MM: Would you be interested in fighting Tito Ortiz for a heavyweight title in the UFC?
HH: I am not fighting any chumps and if he is in there as a contender, I am ready to go. I like fighting top opponents. I rather fight guys in the top ten, then an easy fighter. In my mind it is much easier to fight a tough opponent, as I will make sure to be ready. It is kind of like in sparring. You are more likely to get injured when you are not giving one hundred percent.
MM: I have an analogy that might be way off. However, I will give it a shot. When lifting weights, I find that I am less likely to get injured when I train with heavier weights. With light weights, I have a tendency not to respect the weight and it is more difficult for me to use perfect technique. However, with heavy weights, I automatically get focused and use perfect form since I respect the weight.
HH: Perfect analogy and that is how it is with me when I fight. If you match me up against Mark Kerr, I am going to train like crazy and be highly motivated. I am not fighting for the money; I am fighting because I want to be the best and I need that drive and motivation.
MM: Lets get into your training. Do you lift weights as part of your overall conditioning and if so how important is it?
HH: The conditioning stuff that we do is very intense! When I first went over to Holland, I weighed 280 pounds. I was in football shape, was bulky, and was squatting more than 600 pounds. Now as an MMA fighter we do a lot of light weight training with a lots of reps. For example, on the bench press we will do 12-15 reps with 8 second breaks between sets for 4 sets. At first, this was really difficult for me to do. I was used to using really heavy reps for low reps and now I had to switch to doing really light weights for several reps. I had to swallow my pride and realize that this is what I needed to do for MMA.
MM: Sounds like you are more into muscular endurance rather than brute strength.
HH: Right and that is what I really need to have.
MM: Is there someone that works with you on designing these programs?
HH: Actually, not as much as I would like. Sometimes we cut out the weights completely when our training gets really intense. We just get too tired to hit the weights and focus on other things.
MM: You need to conserve energy for your priorities.
HH: Right and we get over trained if we do too much and really cannot afford to have that happen. Our training is really difficult and we have had several guys train with us that could not make it through the training.
MM: What else do you do for conditioning?
HH: We run two miles 2-3 times a week in the morning.
MM: Do you do anything explosive such as sprinting?
HH: We do hill sprints with a minute rest between each sprint. Within two weeks of a fight we do some heavy bad work in between each sprint, which is hardcore. By the end of that you are dead!
MM: Sounds brutal.
HH: It is and what I have found is that you really need a trainer when your are working on this level.
MM: They can push you harder then you will push yourself?
HH: Exactly, they can take you where you need to be. Our trainers do not allow us to slack off.
MM: How important is flexibility in MMA?
HH: It is really important and one of my greatest assets. Fortunately, I have been blessed with great flexibility and can do a full splits without any difficulty. It allows me to get out of difficult positions when I am on the ground and throw powerful high kicks.
MM: Do you have a stretching routine as part of your overall program?
HH: I do not stretch as much as I should and my trainer yells at me a lot and states that I am getting away with natural talent (laughing).
MM: Do you have someone that works with you on your diet?
HH: No and we really should. I have taken Cokes and carbonated drinks out of my diet. When I am vacation, I will have some junk food. However, whenever I train for a fight I eat really clean and consume a lot of fruit, vegetables, and lean meats. I will have a banana and an orange before I go on my morning runs with a multivitamin. After training we eat a ton and I usually do not consume any food after 9pm.
MM: Do you take any nutritional supplements?
HH: I have been experimenting with Creatine Monohydrate when I want to gain weight. It really depends on what my trainers think I need to do in terms of muscular size. Other than that we just take some a vitamins and focus on healthy food.
MM: Is there anyone out there that you would like to fight?
HH: I would like to fight Nogueira again and get the heavyweight title. Other than that I am just taking one fight at a time and just want to get better at this sport.
MM: Sounds good Heath and thanks for taking the time to do the interview.
HH: Your welcome and thanks.