Heath Herring is a colorful personality in the world of mixed martial arts, known for his Dennis Rodman-esque hairstyles, entertaining fights and a New Years Eve kiss in 2005 from an unlikely person his opponent Yoshihiro Nakao. Though he grew up in Amarillo, Texas, Herring has traveled the world fighting in promotions such as Pride and K-1. Herring will return to his home state April 7 to fight Brad Imes in a heavyweight matchup at UFC 69 in Houston.
I spent 20 minutes talking to Herring by phone on March 27. We discussed his UFC debut earlier this year -- a stunning loss to Jake O'Brien at UFC Fight Night 8 -- his upcoming match against Imes, and the news that the UFC owners had just purchased Pride.
UFC Fight Night 8
You lost a fairly one-sided decision to O'Brien at UFC Fight Night 8 on Jan. 25. That was your debut fight with the promotion and you were brought in with a lot of fanfare. Why do you think you lost the fight?
I think I learned a lot at that fight. I had to realize that the UFC isn't the same organization as what I was used to fighting [for] in Japan. And the end result was that I came up short on the judges' cards. And that's what happens sometimes. You start playing a new game with little bit different rules -- sometimes those new rules will kind of catch ya.
When you say new rules, what is different about the UFC compared to Pride?
Just a lot of minor differences, I would say. Like the referee standing the fight up at different times. I think here in the states, they put a lot of credit on [what happens] once the fighters hit the ground, even if there's not a lot of action being done. I think they let the fight continue on the ground for a long time. As opposed to Japan, [where] I've been in fights where we were on the ground 10, 15 seconds [and] they'd stand us up.
But, I'm by no means trying to put that blame on the referee or anything else. That's absolutely my ignorance and that's why I'm taking full responsibility for that fight.
In hindsight, how do you feel about that performance?
Well, I'm not happy with it of course. I like to win and like I said afterward, I like to give the fans what they want -- that's an exciting fight. I look at it as my job to be in shape and be able to go the full 15 minutes, as hard as I can. And if you get caught with a punch or get caught with a cut or something like that, that's part of it. But to lose to a guy who wasn't doing a whole lot and he was picking away the points -- yeah, that sat a little bit badly with me. But, you're going to be a little bit smarter next time and learn how things go.
After your loss to O'Brien, you mentioned you had an MCL injury. First, which MCL was it?
It was my left I didn't actually mention that, to be honest with you [laughing] I think there was some stuff that did come out but I never officially came out and said either way.
About the injuries, I sure hate when people make excuses about fights. And just to sum it up real quick, I went in there and I knew what the score was when I got in the fight and I still chose to get in there so I'm not going to sit back and make up an excuse for an injury. I hate when guys to do that.
If you read stuff -- and I'm not saying it wasn't so and it didn't happen -- but I sure hate to make that as an excuse for why I had such a poor performance.
Are you completely healed from that injury as you prepare for UFC 69?
Yes sir. If I'm getting in the ring, [then] I'm healing up. I am feeling really, really good on it. I'm able to kick again and everything so it's [a lot] better than it was.
I noticed that when you entered the Octagon, you puffed on an inhaler. I haven't noticed too many fighters doing this, at least not right before entering the Octagon. Is this something you do before every fight?
Yes sir. I've actually had asthma since I was a child. I think it might be a little bit more psychosomatic than anything. I can't even tell you the last time I really had to take a puff on an inhaler but I kind of just do it right before the fight more out of habit than anything. I've been fighting for 10 years and there was a time when I used to have to [use] a breathing machine before I'd fight. I'm real fortunate now that I'm able to really not have too much of a problem with my asthma. That's more of a preventative measure.
You also mentioned after the O'Brien fight that you wanted to give the fans excitement and you seemed to imply that wrestling doesn't deliver this excitement.
No, not at all The point I was trying to stress was, we were in there for a fight. I don't feel I'm out of line to interpret my opponent's actions as he was taking me down, kind of just holding me down, and not doing a whole lot.
That was more me venting my frustration. Even on the ground, I think I threw more punches than he did [and] I was on my back. I was out there trying to finish the fight and I can't necessarily say the same thing about my opponent. I think he was trying to survive the fight and win on points, which is a valid strategy and obviously he won that fight. Like I said before, that was something I've had to go in and re-analyze and understand that's part of the game.
Do you consider ground skills and takedown defense a strong part of your game?
Normally, my ground skills are actually very, very good. And if anybody has a history of my fights, I do have very good ground skills and very good ground defense.
Unfortunately, I was unable to show those at the athletic level I normally have this last fight.
For those who may not be familiar with your fights, how would you describe your fighting style?
[Laughing] Normally? Normally, it's a very fast paced style -- I do a lot of kicking, a lot of punching. And I'm looking to end the fight on the ground [or] standing up. I've actually won probably the majority of my fights by submission, believe it or not. I'm always looking for that finish. I was a mainstay in Japan for a lot of years because I think a lot of the fans over there realized that there was always something to watch with me. I was always an exciting fighter. I wasn't known for these long, drawn out, boring fights that unfortunately sometimes seem to pepper through this sport.
You've traveled the world, fighting in Pride and K-1. How does it feel to now be fighting in Houston in UFC 69, near where you grew up in Amarillo, Texas?
I'm really excited about it. I'm glad to be fighting back in my home state of Texas. It's also double-edged because it's going to be the first UFC ever in Texas and I think the fans are really, really looking forward to that. When I got the opportunity to fight on that card, I accepted right away. And I knew it was something that would be important for me to be on and be a part of.
Houston's real far away from Amarillo but considering all the places I've been on God's green earth, it's not too far away from where I grew up. [laughing] So, I'm looking forward to it.
Your opponent in UFC 69 -- Imes -- is a former TUF fighter who is a little taller and a little heavier than you and is also a grappler like O'Brien. What else do you know about Imes as a fighter?
Well, to be honest with you, I don't really see him as being much of a grappler. I think he's going to come out and try to punch a lot more. But, he might surprise me. I think he's more of a stand-up kind of guy -- he likes to throw a lot of punches and do a few kicks. I know he trains with Tim Sylvia -- he's one of Sylvia's sparring partners and he comes from the Miletich fight camp.
So, we are looking for him to come out there and give me a good fight. And I think it'll be an exciting fight. He'll also be fighting in front of a hometown crowd as well.
How do you feel you will match up against him?
I feel I match up very good against him. I'm actually really excited about this fight. I think it's a good opportunity for both of us to get out there and showcase what our skills and abilities are to the fans.
It's a chance for me to get a little bit of vindication after that last disappointment. [laughing] And it is for him as well. So, it's actually a good fight for both of us.
Given that you lost your first fight in the UFC, do you feel you are at a crossroads in your UFC career with this upcoming match?
You could interpret that in many ways. I've had several people ask me that question. I think if I sat down and I really let the pressure get to me, it could. But, I just have to trust in my abilities, where I've been, what I've been through. I know what I've gone through. I know all the opponents that I've faced. And I know what my abilities are. So, I'm really not too worried about it. I know I've got a place in the sport for a long time to come. Unfortunately, I feel that people weren't able to see me fight at the top of my abilities at that last fight. So, I need to come out and show everybody what I am capable of as opposed to seeing half of a performance.
If you do defeat Imes, who would you like to fight next?
I've never even considered opponents to be honest with you. In Japan, that was a favorite question of all the interviewers. And I never really had a good answer for them. Whoever the organization offers up to me at the time, I'm going to take and accept. I like to stay active. I like to stay busy obviously. I just fought. I'm trying to fight again. I've had a year, year-and-a-half layoff due to some legal issues in Japan so I'm actually glad to be back in the swing of things.
So, as far as an opponent that I would want to face, probably the quickest fight that they'll give me after this one -- if everything goes the way I want it to -- then I'll probably say yes to [that matchup].
You're known for interesting haircuts and hair dye jobs. Do you have a special haircut that you have planned for this fight, your return to Texas?
You know what, I'm going to talk to the girl that does it. I have a girl here in Vegas -- her name's Valerie -- she's the one that does my hair. If you saw me right now, my hair's long, I've got a long beard. I just grow everything out and then I go in the week of the fight and give her free reign to do whatever she wants. I think it's a little bit like artistic freedom. I think if you're someone doing that everyday -- day in and day out -- you don't get many opportunities [where] someone just comes in and says "Do whatever you want" and means it.
Usually I'm pretty open with the people who do it and they've always done a really, really good job. In Holland, I had a different guy who used to do my hair. I think they really enjoyed it. This time I might try to sway her a little bit and see if she's got something planned just for Texas. But, I think when you have an open and creative license with things, sometimes you do your best work.
Why did you leave Pride at the end of 2004?
Unfortunately I was being managed by someone who I thought was looking out for my best interest and they decided it would be better for me to move over to K-1. We had a little bit of differences with K-1. Then I was forced to be in legal limbo until my contract came up as of last year.
As you mentioned, after you left Pride, you went to K-1. When you fought in K-1, you were part of a memorable occurrence Dec. 31, 2005. During the pre-fight staredown, your opponent, Nakao, leaned in and kissed you on the lips. You retaliated by punching him and the fight was eventually ruled a no-contest. Has Nakao ever explained why he did what he did?
No sir, he has not. I've never even seen him since that incident. Actually there's more to it. His corner tried to jump us on the way back to the locker room and it was a whole huge thing. We never had any words. And I don't think he speaks English to be honest with you. [laughing]
So, neither he nor anyone else in his camp has ever apologized for the kiss?
No, and likewise I have not apologized for hitting him either. [laughing]
Do you regret reacting to that kiss with a punch -- would you have rather taken it out on him during the fight?
No. In hindsight, I think that's the reason that image has become so popular among people. I think people like to think that under the circumstances they would have done the same thing. And I think sometimes it's kind of hard not to be uncompromising.
I don't even know if I would have done it if the circumstances had been a little different. And it happened all before I knew what had occurred. It's things like that, I guess, that leave a legacy in life, so I'll run with it. [laughing]
I think he learned his lesson. I don't think he's been doing that again, so I think that's a good thing.
As you mentioned, the video footage of that kiss has become pretty famous and UFC used footage of that kiss to promote your entry into the UFC. Were you OK with UFC doing that?
Absolutely, I had no problem with it. And actually, to speak kindly of K-1, they let us use that image, very kindly, without any problems.
Everything seems to be clicking together now finally and if we start winning some fights, there won't be a problem. That's the most important thing.
How would you compare UFC as an organization to Pride as you knew it back then and K-1?
Well, if you're going to do a comparison, I don't know if anybody who's ever traveled overseas or been in Japan -- you have to get used to that cultural difference. There's a significant cultural difference. [I'm] not saying if it's good or bad, it's just a difference -- you have to learn how to deal with it.
Also, I would say me having a little condo out here in Vegas for my training purposes, it's been really easy to be able to drive down and take care of things with the UFC people here.
I can't say necessarily that I like one better. People in the UFC have treated me like gold and I've got nothing but a lot of good words to say about them. Same with the people in Pride. And I won't say anything bad about the people in K-1 either. There were a lot of good people in K-1. Just because we had a couple of contractual differences doesn't mean that the organization as a whole wasn't a good organization.
And as someone who has fought in both Pride and UFC, what are your thoughts on the news that the owners of UFC Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta -- are buying Pride?
I don't know. Mixed feelings. I think the Fertittas have done a great job with UFC here in the states. They've helped the sport really grow. As somebody who competes and loves the sport -- as an athlete in it -- I'm hoping it's not going to be a bad thing. I think it's going to be a good thing. I'm just going to keep my fingers crossed.
How many fights do you have left on your UFC contract?
After this one, I'll have three.
So you signed a five-fight contract with them?
Pramit Mohapatra covers mixed martial arts for baltimoresun.com. Visit his blog, MMA Insider, for frequent updates on the sport.