Alexandria resident Thomas Herrera hasn’t participated in mixed martial arts for more than three years.
Herrera has won five championship belts in the past and will soon have the chance to earn his sixth, but he will be fighting for a cause bigger than himself on May 8.
His goal is to raise $5,000 for veteran nonprofits and to increase awareness of veteran suicide rates. According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, there was an average of about 17 veteran suicides per day in the U.S. in 2017.
But this isn’t just a number for Herrera. This statistic includes one of his friends, a fellow soldier.
“When I fight in a cage this time, it’ll be to prove to everybody that their lives matter,” he said.
‘You have to be the one’
Herrera has been a member of the Minnesota Army National Guard since 2012, and he served once overseas in Egypt. The soldiers he spent time with quickly became friends that felt more like family.
One of those friends Herrera deployed with was Matthew Do. The two lifted weights, exchanged in long conversations and pulled jokes on each other.
Do didn’t tell anyone he was struggling with mental health when they returned home, and he committed suicide in 2018.
“What kind of battle buddy would I be if I didn’t do anything, if I just stood around and expected them to give me a call,” Herrera said. “You can’t really expect that from people who are dealing with mental health struggles. You have to be the one to reach out to them. You have to be the one to do more for your battle buddies.”
Raising funds and awareness
In response, Herrera has been selling T-shirts and some autographed sports memorabilia as well as reaching out for business sponsorships. All of the proceeds will be donated to organizations geared toward helping veterans.
Warriors Next Adventure engages veterans in recreational activities after they’ve left active service to inspire them to see what else their lives could hold after their military service ends. We Defy Foundation provides free Brazilian jiu jitsu and fitness training for veterans with military-related disabilities.
These two nonprofits, and other similar organizations, are where Herrera plans to donate the money raised from his efforts. So far, he has raised $4,000 of his $5,000 goal.
The 2012 Veterans Administration Suicide Data Report found that an average of 22 veterans die by suicide every day. A “22KILL” social media initiative started the following year to raise awareness, and it later became an official nonprofit in 2015.
One of the phrases on Herrera’s shirts reads “Fight for 22.”
For him, that tagline means fighting to honor veterans who have already lost their personal mental health battles, to remember the names of those who have committed suicide, to increase awareness of veteran suicide rates and to ultimately lower that average rate.
“Our nation’s heroes are signing the dotted line and experiencing trauma from the very moment they go on deployment,” Herrera said. “I just wanted to do more for people that I serve with and those who are struggling with those mental health issues.”
Preparing for variety
In the months leading up to his fight, Herrera has been training extensively every day. He only takes one day off every three or four weeks.
Herrera runs between four and 10 miles each morning before lifting and doing ab workouts.
Next, he heads to the gym to do bag work with boxing coach Corey Thompson and kick boxing with MMA coach Nick Rogers.
“To compete at this level, it requires this much work every day,” Herrera said. “If you’re feeling lazy, that’s when you need to go into the gym.”
When Herrera reached out to Nordic Warrior Boxing Academy in Alexandria, Thompson was aware of Herrera’s career as a MMA fighter. After meeting for their first training session, Thompson said he knew that he was working with a unique fighter.
“His work ethic is second to none,” Thompson said. “His ground game is extremely solid, but he was lacking some fundamental stand-up skills that I believe could take him to the next level. He is a champion and has the mindset of one, I just need to show him the technical aspects to improve his game even more.”
Herrera fits at least two workouts in per day and three on his days off from work, averaging between five and seven hours of daily exercise.
“In MMA, you have to do the intense stuff because of how broad and versatile (it is),” Herrera said. “Mixed martial arts can go anywhere from strictly boxing to wrestling to jiu jitsu. There’s so much variety, and it requires a high level of training to prepare for it.”
Competing once again
At one point in his MMA career, Herrera was ranked the number one fighter in Minnesota and the Midwest. With his three-year absence though, he was pulled from the rankings.
Herrera will be facing Tristian Overvig, who is currently ranked second in the Midwest. The May 8 fight is part of a two-day event hosted by Caged Aggression. Those attending may book tickets for the venue in Davenport, Iowa, which is holding up to 30 percent building capacity, or there will be a livestream option.
“I have never had a fighter who was fighting for another cause so strongly,” Thompson said. “When working with highly successful fighters, I have known them to be self-absorbed, but Thomas is a rare breed in the fact that he feeds on inspiring others.”