Walt Harris knew what he was going to do with his life. He had known for almost his entire life.
Young Walt grew up as a basketball prodigy in Birmingham, Alabama within a family full of high level ball players. Walt would one day play in the NBA, he just knew it.
More than that, he worked for it. Like all hard-working young athletes, Harris spent hours before and after school and during summers developing his skill sets.
Walt went through high school, made it onto the NCAA Division I Jacksonville State basketball squad, and then came the camps for NBA scouts to check out Harris and the other college hopefuls.
His call from a pro team never came and Harris was crushed.
“When I didn’t get into the NBA, I was crushed,” he tells UFC.com.
“That was my whole dream. I got depressed for a couple of years after that.”
Eventually, Harris found his way back into a gym. He wanted to at least get back into shape and start improving his mood and mindset.
A pair of informal scouts spotting the former basketball player and a couple leaps of faith by Harris later and the college athlete was on his way to a new career.
“A woman saw me working out at Gold’s and asked if I had ever fought,” Harris remembers.
“I said that I hadn’t and she said that I should consider it.”
Walt was then directed to a local fight gym where he began training. Harris enjoyed the training and sparring he got at the fight gym.
“I was looking for something to replace the competitive need I always had and that I used basketball for,” he explains.
Just six months into his training, Walt would get a real chance to work out his competitive spirit. “My coach told me that I should think about fighting, that he thought I’d do well,” Walt says.
“I said, ‘sure. I’ll do a boxing match.’ Then he said, ‘no, I mean an MMA fight, in a cage.’ I thought he was crazy [Laughs].”
Crazy or not, Harris ended up following his coach’s suggestion and went through with his amateur MMA debut. He was scared, especially when he learned he’d be fighting a former training partner of his coach, but Harris had faith in his trainer’s judgment and bit the bullet.
He still remembers his first fight day and the pressure he felt. It was familiar, but different.
“Fight day was similar to game day,” the heavyweight remembers.
“You get those competitive butterflies and natural nervousness. But with basketball, after so many games during your life, you get used to them and go out there and do what you’ve trained to do. With MMA, that first time, it was all new techniques to me.”
Harris took to the new techniques and environment better than he could have imagined, and won the fight in 45 seconds.
The more he fought, the more comfortable Walt got. Fight after fight, first round knockout after first round knockout, Harris began to realize that he was cut out for this new athletic endeavor, perhaps even more than the one he’d spent his whole life prior preparing for.
Two years into his pro fight career, Harris has now made it into the big leagues of MMA, the UFC, and as he heads into his promotional debut Nov. 30 on the TUF 18 finale card, he says he feels as at home on the mat as he used to on the court. “Oh yeah, for sure,” Walt says.
“You do it more and more and you finally get to the point where you're completely comfortable. I enjoy training, I enjoy fight week and I smile walking to the ring.”
In the UFC, Harris will likely only face high-level athletes like himself from here on out as a rule – guys like his Nov. 30 opponent and college All-American wrestler Jared Rosholt. Luckily, Harris doesn’t believe his biggest advantage lies in his physical attributes and abilities.
“I think I bring a humility to MMA that helps me,” he says.
“I soak things up like a sponge. I think that’s why I’ve been able to find success so far and make it to the UFC this quickly. Fighting in the UFC is a huge honor and means so much to me. I believe I can be a champion and I just want to keep working hard, getting better and showing what I can do.”
Walt Harris' Second Act
"You do it more and more and you finally get to the point where you're completely comfortable. I enjoy training, I enjoy fight week and I smile walking to the ring." - Walt Harris