When it comes to fight week interviews, heavyweights are just more fun. In every other weight class, most fighters spend the final week before competition dehydrating themselves and severely limiting food intake in an effort to drop pounds and make weight the day before their fight.
As you can imagine, being hungry, thirsty, away from home and days away from facing a man who wants to remove you from consciousness can make someone a tad irritable. Most heavyweights fall well below the weight class limit of 265 pounds and so are freed up from the weight-cutting torture.
As such, they’re more relaxed and open to prolonged conversations over, say, waffle fry nachos with short ribs. That’s the appetizer on this Wednesday afternoon for UFC heavyweight Walt Harris, his coach Jon Dye and Cagewriter inside Chuck’s restaurant inside the Hard Rock Hotel on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue.
Harris is fastidious in ensuring his chicken entrée is lean and grilled but he allows himself “something unhealthy as hell for an appetizer.” Food becomes a central and reoccurring theme for the next two hours.
It’s the Dye and Harris’ first time in Chicago, both. The Birmingham, AL natives got a doozy of a winter for an introduction.
It’s hovering around zero degrees outside the Carbide and Carbon building as we eat and we can see snow swirling around the Magnificent Mile through the hotel windows. The pair admits that they were not prepared for the weather but it also isn’t deterring Harris in the least from wanting to head out into the storm to check items off his Chicago list.
Walt’s got a hit list this week. One is Nikita Krylov whom he fights Saturday in the first fight on the UFC on Fox 10 card, the rest of his list’s items seem to be Chicago restaurants.
“Where can I get a great hot dog in town,” he asks urgently.
Harris also mentions that his cab driver from the airport told him that “real” Chicagoans don’t eat deep-dish pizza. He was let down to hear that because he’d so much about the city’s stuffed pizza offerings and was looking forward to seeing what it was all about.
I set him straight – the cab driver is an idiot contrarian. Certainly, there is more to Chicago pizza than the stuffed kind (my favorite, for example, is the buttery thin-crusted Home Run Inn pizzas) but plenty of real Chicagoans stuff their bellies and souls with the upside-down, stuffed pies from Giordano’s, Lou Malnati’s, Pizano’s and the like.
Harris is relieved and excited to learn that there are several great stuffed pizza options within blocks of his hotel. As Harris says multiple times throughout the day, he believes that he is “living the dream,” right now.
The former NCAA Division I basketball player was disheartened when he didn’t make it to the NBA as he had always hoped and worked for. After a couple years of sulking, Harris got back into the gym just to get in shape.
That’s where the former pro boxer and MMA fighter Dye spotted Walt and asked if he’d ever fought before. No? Well, you should think about it, kid.
Walt stuck with Dye and racked up KO wins before getting an invite to the UFC last November. MMA had given Harris a new professional dream, and by fighting in the UFC he’s begun to realize it.
He’s not rich and famous yet, but Walt is having the time of his life fighting MMA. He tells us of a recent trip to Las Vegas for training where he was included in Vegas Fashion week.
Harris got to play model for a day, and play with models backstage at a runway show.
“Man, I was nervous!” he admits.
“It was like a fight. You’re backstage getting dressed and ready. Then, they call your name, take you to behind a curtain and you wait. Then, you walk out. All these eyes are on you. And, because we were fighters, they had us wear stuff like board shorts and no shirt. It was weird how it began to feel like a fight, man. I walked out there in shorts, trying my best to stay looking serious with that model-face on (laughs). That was the hardest part, not smiling! I didn’t realize it but they told me when I got to the end of the runway, I gave a Zoolander look (laughs). On the walk back I couldn’t help but crack a smile. It was hilarious.”
"The Big Ticket" was definitely on the beefier side among the models at Vegas fashion week. Most of his fellow models were of the traditional pretty little lady variety. That worked out just fine for Harris and the models alike.
“Those girls, oooh boy…It was just like you hear about backstage with them getting dressed,” Harris remembers.
“They were all over us, showing off, too. They loved us!” Harris laughs.
Walt isn’t bragging, he’s a young guy excitedly recounting a once-in-a-lifetime type of crazy experience that he still can’t believe happened. Living the dream.
Harris is looking for his UFC win Saturday at the United Center. In his first UFC bout, he dropped former NCAA Division I wrestling national champ Jared Rosholt with strikes early but ultimately lost a decision.
It might seem that he’s uncharacteristically upbeat for a guy facing the pressure of trying to avoid losing two-straight. Then again, what’s a fighter supposed to do when all there is left to do before fighting is wait?
Obsessing on a fight for every minute of the day is a trap, not a healthy preparation strategy.
Also, Harris’ buoyancy seems to just be an indication of his personality, not of how seriously he takes this fight. Sure, at this writer’s prompting, Harris talks plenty about food and fun Vegas experiences (he also met nightmare stage-parent legend Joe Jackson while working out at the Mayweather boxing gym. Harris says he worried that Jackson might hit him).
But he and Dye also remember the not so distant past when they were not flown to destinations and put up in fancy hotels.
“Walt had over two dozen amateur fights before turning pro,” Dye tells.
“We’ve been all over the country for fights and almost always we drove there. We pack into the car and hit the road looking for fights and training.”
Indeed, a couple years ago Harris and Dye decided that he should start spending time in Florida at American Top Team to ensure he got top-notch sparring with fellow big men. That’s where Harris has been for the past couple months.
Even though he could have driven home to Alabama for the holidays, Harris stayed in Florida to focus and keep on diet. “I know the type of good food I’d get at home,” he says with a smile.
“That’s why I didn’t go home.”
When he learns that this writer has never spent much time down South, Harris insists that I visit. “We’d put some weight on you,” he says.
As Harris and Dye reminisce about Walt’s path to the UFC, it is clear that both fighter and coach admire one another greatly. Dye talks about how Harris is a next-level athlete for MMA and how, because of his potential, the goal from the very beginning was to make it to the UFC.
When Dye humbly offers that good fighters often make poor coaches and that bad fighters make the best coaches, and that is why he’s a good coach, Harris is quick to jump in.
“The thing about [Dye] is that he has such an incredible eye for detail,” he says.
“His attention to detail is amazing. He sees every little thing I do, good and bad, and will correct me in the slightest but important way. Like, if my elbow is just a fraction low while throwing a hook, he picks up on it and won’t let me continue doing it wrong.”
Harris remembers Dye calling him up on the phone to ask for help setting up his, at the time, new gym. Dye’s eagle eye was in fine form that day, Walt remembers.
“I came in to the new gym and there were bags and all sorts of equipment everywhere. I didn’t know what to do but eventually I figured it out. I had put up this bag, mounted on the wall, and was real proud of myself, like, ‘I’m doing this pretty well!’ (laughs). Then, from across the room, [Dye] looked over, tilted his head and said, ‘the mount is off.’ I said, ‘You’re crazy! It’s perfectly straight.’ I’m thinking, ‘I’m right here doing it and the thing is straight, he’s just picking on me.’ Then he comes over, brings a level, puts it against the mount and, sure enough, it was off by a few freaking centimeters!”
Harris rolls his eyes and then howls with laughter while Dye just listens with a closed-mouth smile under his baseball cap. Dye is proud to already have a fighter like Harris who has reached the sport’s highest level in short order.
After years of training hard and driving cross-country chasing fights every month, the pair has developed a strong bond. Sharing the experience of Harris’ first UFC late last year was a particularly special one for coach and fighter.
At no point during our lunch do I bring up Harris’ opponent Saturday. On his own, however, Walt begins to talk about his last fight, a loss.
He’s serious as he does. “I hate losing,” he says.
“Ask any of my coaches, teammates, friends and family. Losing really affects me. But it didn’t hurt as bad that time because I realized that, at least, we were there. Finally. We were in the UFC like we had always planned. I lost, but I didn’t get beat up, I had some success and I showed that I belonged, at least. The hurt of that loss was blunted by the realization that I was living my dream.”
That’s when you realize that Harris’ “dream life” actually has little to do with flights, hotels and models. Success in the UFC replaced his goal of playing in the NBA.
Harris is a world-class athlete but his approach to MMA is blue-collar. The fighter is acutely aware that if he wants to continue living his dream, he needs to take the next step and start winning in the UFC.
Victory is the key to his dreams and Harris says winning MMA fights is the ultimate high. Harris is quick with an anecdote and laughter but when he talks about competition and winning, he sounds like a serious addict.
“Winning a fight is so much better than winning a game of basketball,” he says.
“They close the door, it’s you and another guy and now it’s all on you. You have to prove yourself. There’s nothing like it in the world. There’s nothing like winning at that.”