NBA dreams and MMA heavyweight aspirations- an interview with Walt Harris
The crossover or dual sport athlete has always held a special level of intrigue in the eyes of the paying public. Mixed martial arts has seen some of its best prospects come from college wrestling rooms and Jiu Jitsu mats before these athletes ever dipped their toes into the cage. To a lesser extent ex-NFL players like the UFC's Brendan Schaub and Matt Mitrione have breathed some life into the MMA heavyweight ranks, while also giving former football players another athletic career option if they are so inclined.
Meet Walt Harris (5-1) a 6'5 240 pound former shooting guard at Jacksonville State University. Harris turned his attention to combat sports after a string of NBA tryouts did not allow him to pursue life as a professional basketball player any longer. The 27 year old Harris' transition from the hardwood to the cage is one of the few examples of a non-contact sport athlete transforming himself into a legitimate MMA prospect.
After a recent training session ULTMMA.com spoke with Harris about basketball vs. MMA training, his amateur boxing career and how his basketball footwork has helped him in the cage.
ULTMMA.com: What gym do you train at?
Walt Harris: I train out of Champions Freestyle Fitness in Birmingham with coaches John Dye and Al Price.
ULTMMA: As a heavyweight is it tough to find sparring partners?
Harris: I actually have two heavyweights in my gym. I also go to a boxing gym to work on that aspect of my game and they have a lot of heavyweights.
ULTMMA: When was the last time you had a boxing fight?
Harris: It's probably been a year maybe? I won the Golden Gloves I think last April.
ULTMMA: Why did you decide to ease on the boxing fights and focus more on MMA?
Harris: I used to use the boxing as a way for preparing my fights, get ring time, and you know get in there and fight without having to stop. I was always more focused on MMA, it just so happens there are more avenues for me in MMA. With me starting so late I was kind of at a disadvantage to a certain degree.
ULTMMA: When did you first become a fan of MMA?
Harris: I've always been a fan of MMA since the early 90s. I used to watch it on pay per view. I always liked it, but never thought of myself doing it to be honest. At was at a point of my life when I was looking to reignite that fire I had with basketball and I needed to get my life back on track, I was getting in a little trouble or whatever. I wanted to get things squared away and get back in the gym and start working out again.
I ran into my coach and he actually started doing boxing classes. I started doing them and scheduled a fight than in the my first fight I knocked the guy out in 45 seconds. I figured this might be something I could be good in. From then on I started focusing my time and dedication to it.
ULTMMA: What did you do during the gap of time between NBA tryouts and your amateur MMA fight?
Harris: Nothing man, I was more or less hanging out and doing little odd jobs. I was really to be honest went through a phase where I was kind of depressed because I couldn't play basketball anymore. I had a rough time dealing with it when it first started. There was a two to three period where I was just doing odd jobs. I just got fed up with it and got back in the gym and wanted to do what God put me here to do and that's entertain people and use the gifts he gave me.
ULTMMA: Compare a typical college basketball practice with a MMA training session.
Harris: Its night and day. There are a lot of similarities with boxing when it comes to footwork, but as far as the training its two totally different things. As far as the shape you have to be in for fighting it's a totally different type of cardio as opposed to basketball. Its similar where you have to use quick spurts of energy but at the same time you're grappling with men and you have to support someone else's body weight and it takes a lot out of you.
It's a lot more strenuous than basketball. You have to put yourself in a lot more turmoil during training because fighting is very grueling. Basketball always came easy to me and it was something I never had to put a whole lot of effort into.
ULTMMA: What weight do you prefer to fight at?
Harris: I walk around at about 245, but at fight time I usually like to be at 238. That's where I feel is my comfort zone.
ULTMMA: What did you weight when you played basketball?
Harris: When I played my senior year I weighed 210 pounds. I was 215 at the most in college. My freshman or sophomore years I probably weighed no more than 205 pounds.
ULTMMA: Do still watch basketball?
Harris: Yeah, I've gotten back into it and I use it as a form of cardio for my camps. I don't play hard, but I make myself sprint and use the cardio part of it.
ULTMMA: Why do you think we don't see more basketball players trying out MMA?
Harris: As weird as it is to say I think it's the whole contact thing. Basketball can be a very physical sport. Basketball is more about finesse and skill. I've seen actually one guy box who used to play basketball. I cant really point my finger on it, why more basketball players aren't coming over to fighting.
For me I just gravitated to it. I actually heard Teddy Atlas (ESPN boxing analyst) say that basketball players make the better fighters because of the foot work aspect of it and having to pivot. Football players struggle because when you're fighting being that big and muscular it doesn't help you too much.
ULTMMA: The only loss of your career came to Strikeforce prospect Lorenz Larkin. How did that fight play out?
Harris: I was wining the fight. We stood up and he has a boxing background as well. I was dominating the whole first round and the last minute I made a mistake. I was getting frustrated chasing him around the ring and he was circling the cage. I went to clinch up with him and instead of putting the jab in his face and clinching up with him I just reached my hands out and he caught me with a check hook. I went down and covered up and they called the fight. The fight was in his hometown, so naturally I felt the fight was stopped early.
It is what it is. From what I understand we tried to get a rematch but he didn't want to meet up. I hope we meet again at some point.
ULTMMA: What do think is the most underrated part of your game?
Harris: I would say my wrestling. A lot of people haven't gotten a chance to see it because the way my fights end but I think that's the one of most underrated parts of my game.
ULTMMA: Do you have any people or sponsors you would like to thank?
Harris: First all let me thank my lord and savior Jesus Christ who has given me the opportunity to participate in a awesome sport like MMA. I would like to thank my gym Champion Freestyle Fitness and all my training partners. I would like to thank my sponsors Combat Corner, Gamma-O, Dice Clothing, Martial Arts Life and my management team Dream Makers Incorporated. I would like to thank all my fans who support me. I would also like to thank Russell Schenck. I appreciate the love and my family, and my wife and kids.