September 17. 6am. It’s an ungodly hour for anyone to be up, but this was a special Saturday for Walel Watson, a fight day unlike any other. Later in the afternoon, his childhood friend Robert Peralta, who he had known since they were in seventh grade, was about to make his UFC debut against Mike Lullo. It was almost like Watson was fighting, and in a way he was, through his buddy.
“It was so exciting,” said Watson. “I woke up so early that morning, and I was like ‘I can’t wait, I can’t wait.’”
After three rounds in New Orleans, Peralta’s first UFC fight resulted in his first UFC victory as he decisioned Lullo. Back in Southern California, Watson, 8-2 in his own pro mixed martial arts career, waited for his turn to do the same thing, and Saturday in Washington, D.C., he’ll get his chance against Joseph Sandoval. Hollywood couldn’t have scripted a better story.
“I know he (Peralta) has been doing it a little bit longer than me and I knew what it meant for both of us,” said Watson. “He played football too and he kinda went through the same thing of not being that big and all that. So I know what it meant for both of us to be professional athletes and fight in the best show in the world.”
A former wide receiver, cornerback and special teams returner in junior college, Watson always had ambitions of taking to the professional gridiron just like every kid who puts on the helmet and shoulder pads. And he was good. He just wasn’t big.
“When I played football, because of the gear and everything and sweating every single day, I never weighed more than 142, 143 pounds, and I played junior college and semi-pro that way, being the smallest guy on the field all the time,” said the 5-foot-11 Watson. And when National Signing Day rolled around and the phone didn’t ring, he knew that his dreams of playing in the NFL were over.
That’s when Peralta called his longtime friend.
“He knew that I was very interested in fighting and he was just getting started at that time, so he said ‘come check this out, come to the garage. I got a surprise for you,’” recalled Watson. “That was it. He got me into training and we were just hooked after that. We never stopped training after that.”
The year was 2008, and Watson and Peralta quickly outgrew the garage, where there weren’t any high-tech workout machines or amenities, but there were plenty of opportunities to prove whether you were cut out for getting punched in the face.
“It really did make you tough because it was almost like a fight club,” said Watson. “We didn’t really have any rules and we didn’t have a training regimen. We’d just come in, put on some gloves and we’re all just smashing each other. (Laughs) At that point, me and Robert realized that we really wanted to pursue this and get serious with it, and that’s when we had to break off from the whole garage thing. But it really did make us tough. There were a lot of people getting choked out, knocked out and all kinds of crazy things.”
Eventually winding up with different camps, Watson with Manolo Hernandez and Peralta with Xplode MMA, Johnny Hughes, and Jeff Clark, the two never lost touch with each other, texting or talking multiple times over the course of the week and even getting in some sparring time. Later in 2008, with Peralta already getting ready for his eighth pro fight, Watson made his debut with a submission loss to Enrique Cuellar. He wouldn’t return for another year, and when he did, finishing Peter Martinez in the second round, he was ready to make a run up the bantamweight ladder.
“I don’t want to sound cocky, but I felt like from the moment I started that I could really be something at this,” said the 27-year old Watson. “I don’t know if it’s just because I’ve been a competitor my entire life and I’m used to trying to be the best at everything I’ve done, but right away, from the day I stepped in there, I felt like I could be the best in the world at what I do, especially in my weight class.”
Earlier this year, the 8-2 Watson and the 14-3 Peralta got their calls to the big show. The subsequent phone call between the bantamweight and the featherweight went as you would expect.
“The first person I thanked was him because he gave me my start,” said Watson. “He invited me out to the garage three years ago and was the one who put my foot in the door. We’re always giving positive reinforcement to each other or talking about our training and giving tips to each other. We’re really good friends, and we don’t let anything get between that.”
Watson also gets some helpful hints from Strikeforce female contender Liz Carmouche, who has seen her share of the spotlight this year as well.
“We’re a real tight-knit family and we’re all pretty grounded,” said Watson of his team in San Diego. “None of us ever get too big-headed, and just seeing the way she (Carmouche) handles it, she’s real humble and she’ll be in here helping out anyway she can in the gym at anytime, whether it’s helping me spar or wiping the mats down, and I’m the same exact way. I don’t think any of us will ever change who we are.”
This weekend, things will change though, especially if he can turn back Sandoval and earn his first UFC win. And if you haven’t heard of Watson, a purple belt in jiu-jitsu who has finished all eight of his pro victories (seven by submission), he wants to make sure you know who he is on Sunday morning.
“I’ve had a lot of guys overlook me,” said Watson. “I’ve rolled with brown and black belts and world champions, and I’ve tapped them out because they’ve overlooked me. They’re like ‘oh, this guy’s brand new, he can’t get me.’ But with my tenacity and my belief that I can get anything and beat anybody that’s in front of me, I’ve been able to tap some of the best out there.”
Being a huge bantamweight at 5-11 doesn’t hurt his chances either. And unlike the late boxing star Diego Corrales, who starved his 6-0 frame down to 135 pounds, Watson has no difficulty getting to the bantamweight limit.
“It worked against me in football, but it’s helping me for MMA,” said of his size. “I don’t weigh more than 149-150 pounds if I had pizza the night before. So to get down to 135 is very easy for me. I train five hours a day, so my weight’s always really low, I eat very clean, so when it’s time to cut the weight, it drops right off.”
And as far as his height goes, “It gives me the advantage of being able to close the distance and it really helps my submissions. I can lock up submissions from some pretty strange angles because of my length and I have really good flexibility. So I pull off some strange things sometimes.”
Sounds like a fighter to watch. But is he ready? We asked the same thing of Peralta and he did just fine. So Watson is confident that he will join his buddy in the winner’s circle.
“I’m more than ready,” he said. “I feel blessed and I’m excited to show the world what I can do and what I can bring to the table.”
Walel Watson - A Long Way From The Garage
"I can lock up submissions from some pretty strange angles because of my length and I have really good flexibility" - Walel Watson