Walel Watson is one of the more unique bantamweights around.
With his lanky 5'11" frame, the Team Hurricane Awesome fighter is taller than any other 135-pounder, even men renowned for their length like Dominick Cruz and Miguel Torres. Hell, he's the same height as heavyweight Pat Barry.
The former football player transitioned to mixed martial arts and took an immediate liking to it. He molded his attacking style while fighting the majority of his pre-UFC career in Mexico and having to scrap it out with Latino fighters who pride themselves on having a reputation for being fearless and tough.
"The Gazelle" brought that finishing mentality into the UFC, scoring a 77 second technical knockout in his debut with the promotion before losing a controversial split decision to Yves Jabouin in Toronto.
When he battles Ultimate Fighter 14 finalist T.J. Dillashaw tonight (February 15, 2012) on the main card of UFC on Fuel TV, it will be Watson's third UFC fight in just over four months. The spindly scrapper spoke with MMAmania.com during a guest appearance on The Verbal Submission about the advantages of his height, living in the gym and preparing for Dillashaw's wrestling.
Check it out:
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): I've got to start by asking about your last fight. It was extremely close against Yves Jabouin. I'm sure everyone you've talked to has said, "I scored it for you," but one question I have for you is, does that loss fuel you for this fight?
Walel Watson: Oh yeah. Every fight, I'm always motivated with my eyes on the prize. My goal is to be the number one bantamweight someday so every fight fuels me but yeah, that fight really motivated me even more. You can never leave it in the judges' hands. It hurts to put in all that work and have somebody sitting in a chair tell you that you didn't do enough.
Ben Thapa: With that brabo choke you attempted in the third round, if there was anything you could have adjusted and done it differently, what would you have done?
Walel Watson: Yeah, there was a lot of things I could have done differently with that brabo choke at the time. I didn't have it all the way cinched in. That's why he was able to roll all the way out of it and I was trying to get a better position but the whole time I could feel him squirming so I had to lock that in tight before I could really advance and try to get a better angle on that choke. It was a learning experience and I learned a lot from that fight and I'm moving forward and ready for my next opponent now. That's all there is to it.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): One of the things that helps you stand out at bantamweight is your ridiculous length. You're 5'11 and you fight at 135. I'm pretty sure you're the tallest bantamweight in the UFC. How have you been able to begin to utilize that length effectively in fights?
Walel Watson: I've just been working on my boxing more, learning about my reach, what it is and everything. I'm still new to the MMA game so I'm still a little raw. My coaches have been on me and they're really getting me to use my reach and I'm learning that I can hit a guy from so far away that there's no reason I shouldn't be tagging guys from 5-6 feet away.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Most fighters that spend the majority of their early career fighting in Mexico, it's because they're Mexican. I know that you fight out of San Diego and it's pretty close to the border but why did you spend so many of your early fights fighting in Tijuana?
Walel Watson: Well, it was close to us and it was a great crowd out there. Every time I fought in Tijuana, it was 6500-7500 people packing the arena and it was exciting. There were high level fighters there too. High level wrestling, high level jiu-jitsu, high level kickboxing and boxing and I feel that the hispanic fights are super tough. You've got to beat the life out of 'em. There's no quit in those guys. They don't come in there thinking, "I'm gonna point strike my way to victory," they come in there to kill and you had to bring your A-game every time you fought down there. I loved fighting in Tijuana.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Being such a long and lanky bantamweight, do you have a tough cut at all to get to 135 or are you more of a natural bantamweight?
Walel Watson: I'm a natural bantamweight. My strength and conditioning coach also happens to be my nutritionist so he's got me on a good diet and he knows how to cut my weight off my body perfectly and I've never had a problem making 135.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): I just feel it's crazy that your'e the same height as Pat Barry.
Walel Watson: (laughs) Yeah. I don't know what it is, maybe I've got hollow bones or something.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Let's talk about preparing for this upcoming fight. It was announced that you're fighting on the main card against T.J. Dillashaw. What does it mean to you to be fighting on the main card of a show for the first time?
Walel Watson: Oh, it's an honor. I'm just thankful that the UFC sees me at that level to put me on the main card. There's a lot of great fighters on this card and to put me on the main card, it speaks volumes about what the UFC thinks of me.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Does fighting with more exposure, does that affect your mentality heading in at all?
Walel Watson: Oh no, not at all. When I fought Yves Jabouin, it was a packed crowd. When I fought my debut in D.C., even though I was the first fight of the night, there was still a good crowd there and fighting in Mexico and with my history in football, I've been in front of the big crowds and the lights. It doesn't bother me. You can get the jitters when you come down the tunnel but once you step out into the crowd, it's go-time. You forget everything and you just go out there and do what you love to do.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): What goes through your head once those cage doors close? What are you thinking when you're staring across the cage at your opponent?
Walel Watson: "It's time to finish this guy. It's time to get there and get that 'W'," is all I think in my head. I don't care what he knows, what he thinks he can do. I'm gonna do what I know how to do.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): I saw this reading your fighter profile, but you lived in the gym training for this fight with T.J. Dillashaw. Is that the norm for you or was this a special occasion?
Walel Watson: Oh yeah, I stay at the gym. I love it there. I'm there day and night and I feel like if I don't spend all day there, if I leave for a bit, I'll miss out on learning something and that's a big thing to me. I don't want to miss out on anything. I don't ever want to have a "coulda-woulda-shoulda" in the back of my head going into a fight. I really put in all the work that I have to put in for that fight during my camp so when it comes to fight night, it's easy. Train hard, fight easy.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): I know it's a bit of a cliche, but have you ever been kicked out of the gym for being there too much?
Walel Watson: Yeah, my coaches sometimes tell me to go home because I'm there so much. They'll tell me to get out of there, take a break, get your mind off of it, but it's hard when you've got the eyes on the prize. That's all you want to do, all you think of. I'm walking to the store and shadow-boxing, in the mall shadow-boxing in front of a mirror. I'm just thinking about the fight all the time.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): In regards to your upcoming opponent T.J. Dillashaw, who is the best wrestler at Team Hurricane Awesome or someone that you guys brought in to really help you prepare for this guy because he was a highly ranked collegiate wrestler.
Walel Watson: Oh yeah, we just brought in a variety of different wrestlers and we went out and worked out with different gyms to get ready. They don't all have really big names, but they're all great, great wrestlers.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): T.J. got knocked out in his last fight with John Dodson because he decided to stand and trade with him which surprised a lot of people. Do you think he'll try to do that again or do you think the fact that he got knocked out could affect his mentality coming in against you?
Walel Watson: I don't think it'll affect his mentality too much. Everybody gets caught. That's why if he stands with me, I would like for him to do that but realistically, he's not going to do that. He's a wrestler. He's a great wrestler and if I came from the wrestling pedigree he came from, I would probably do the same thing.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): You are a strong Muay Thai fighter, you showcased that in your UFC debut against Sandoval. Are there any concerns at all about opening up or throwing specific kicks because that leaves weaknesses for him to take you down?
Walel Watson: No, not really at all. Like I said, I don't worry about what he can do. I know what I can do and what I bring to the table and I'm just gonna go out there and impose my will.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Let's say worst case scenario happens and he does put you on the ground. You do have a pretty good submission arsenal so are you confident even if he's trying to stifle you on the ground and earn points?
Walel Watson: Oh yeah. If we hit the ground, he's still got to keep his eyes open because I ain't no sleeper. I'm excellent off my back and if I have to go there, I'll be attacking right away. I'm not gonna be tying him up and holding him and waiting for the ref to stand us up, I'll be attacking the whole time and he's not gonna be able to punch me because if he slips up, he'll end up in something.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): He does train out of a terrific gym in Team Alpha Male. Those guys are pretty terrific with submissions and submission defense. I can't even remember the last guy out of Alpha Male that got tapped. Is that a concern at all, about the guys that he's working with and preparing with?
Walel Watson: Oh no, not at all. I know he's working with some elite fighters but I got some work with some elite fighters too. I've got some elite fighters in my gym and elite fighters all over my town and all around us in California. I wouldn't worry too much at all about that.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): What would a victory against T.J. Dillashaw on the national stage, what would that mean to you?
Walel Watson: It means everything. Victory means everything to me because the way I look at it, every fight is my title fight until I get to the title. Every fight is one step closer so if I lose, I'm setting myself back. That's not an option in my head.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): When you picture victory against T.J. Dillashaw, what has to right for you on Wednesday night to win?
Walel Watson: I've just got to go out there, set the tempo and impose my will right away. I cannot let this guy get any kind of rhythm going.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): You mentioned something about if he tries to take you down, you're gonna make him work really hard, expend all of his energy trying to do it. Is that part of your gameplan too?
Walel Watson: Oh yeah. I've been working a lot on my wrestling so I ain't just gonna be some scrub that he can throw onto my back like some dead fish or something. He's gonna have to really, really work to get me down there and if he gets me down there, it doesn't stop. I'm dangerous off my back so I'm never gonna stop working in this fight. Whether it's one minute or 15 minutes, whatever I have to do, I'm gonna do it.
Walel would like to thank his family, his coaches Manolo Hernandez, Bill Crawford, Tiger Smalls, Landon Piercy, all his teammates at Team Hurricane Awesome and the San Diego Combat Academy. He'd also like to thank his sponsors Booster, Lexani, Training Mask and Alchemist Management for their support. You can follow him on Twitter @135Gazelle.
So what do you think, Maniacs?
Will Watson's attacking mindset be enough to offset Dillashaw's wrestling? Will he make a big first impression in his first fight on the big stage?
To listen to the complete audio of my interview with Walel Watson, click here (begins at the 11 minute mark).