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After Quick Rise to UFC, Walel Watson Aims to Make Some Noise

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

If you need more evidence that in the world of MMA, fortune favors the bold, look no further than Walel Watson. Take for instance, his story of getting signed by the UFC. Through a friend, Watson obtained UFC matchmaker Sean Shelby's cell phone number, and he simply called, introduced himself and asked for a fight. No agent, no manager, no pretense. Just a guy asking for an opportunity.

The initial contact produced no results but led to a dialogue between them, and the duo traded messages for about two months when Watson heard the UFC might be doing a show in Mexico, a country in which he had fought several times. When he asked if he could be considered for a fight on the undercard, the reply came back "OK."

A UFC Mexico show didn't materialize, but within a week, Watson had a UFC contract in his hands.

"It was like, bam, I'm in the UFC," Watson says now with a laugh. "Super crazy."

It wasn't the first call that changed his life's trajectory. The other came a few years prior. Watson had been an aspiring major college football player, and after a successful stint at junior college, received interest from Division I programs like Oregon State, Washington State and The University of Mississippi. His size though, proved to be too big a hurdle to overcome. At 5-foot-11, he was tall enough, but he couldn't manage to put on any muscle, weighing around 144 pounds.

Because of that, the opportunity slipped away.

"It was heartbreaking," he said.

Roughly around that time, the phone rang, and on the other line was friend and mixed martial artist Robert Peralta. The two had grown up together in Escondido, California, and Peralta knew of Watson's toughness and willingness to scrap. He invited Watson to come down and train. Watson was immediately hooked.

Most intriguing to him was the competition. That was in his blood. But after years of football and being dependent on teammates for success or failure, the ability to sink or swim on your own truly captured him.

"It happened to be the case my whole life that I was always getting to the championship game and losing, to the final playoff game and losing," he said. "No matter how hard I worked, at the end of the day it didn't matter if the whole team isn't doing the same thing. In MMA, it's up to me to train, to do the conditioning, to do the diet, to make weight, to go in the octagon and fight. There's nobody else to point fingers at."

Within days, he'd decided it was his calling.

His whole mind set immediately shifted from dreams of the NFL's gridiron to the UFC's octagon. Together with Peralta, who is now 15-3 with 1 no contest and a UFC featherweight, the duo decided to work toward that goal.

"It was a leap of faith," he said. "In my heart I felt I could make it my career, but I didn't know if i possessed the talent or anything like that to make it a career. I just held my breath and jumped off the edge."

That faith was tested after a disastrous rookie outing in the cage, when in his August 2008 pro debut, he lost by first-round submission. Just a few months into training, Watson says now that he simply wasn't ready, but was pushed into the fight by a trainer attempting to make a few dollars off his back. Watson soon split with that coach and linked up with coach Manolo Hernandez.

Hernandez, who has guided him since, immediately suggested a drop from lightweight to bantamweight.

It's been a fairly smooth adventure since, little surprise for a fighter nicknamed "The Gazelle." Amazingly, Watson only restarted his MMA career , and by 2011 he was already in the UFC.

In his two octagon bouts, he's proved that he belongs. In his debut last October, he steamrolled Joseph Sandoval in a 77-second knockout. He followed that up in a hard-fought scrap with veteran Yves Jabouin that ended up in a controversial split-decision loss (FightMetric showed him out-landing Jabouin in all three rounds).

From that loss came a lesson. Watson said he got caught up in the points game and answering back Jabouin's offense instead of focusing on his own attack.

"I'm not looking to go tit for tat with a guy," he said. "It's not going to be like that ever again. I finish fights. That's what I do, and that's what I'm going to keep doing."

His first fight since then takes place on Wednesday, against recent Ultimate Fighter alumni T.J. Dillashaw on the main card of the inaugural UFC on FUEL event. The bout will serve to test Watson's completeness as a fighter. Those who have only seen him in the octagon may be under the impression that the rangy fighter is primarily a striker. Seven of his nine pro wins, though, have come by submission, and he's soon to be nearing his brown belt promotion.

Dillashaw, a former collegiate Division I wrestler at Cal State Fullerton, may well decide where this fight takes place, but Watson plans to contest the fight everywhere.

"I'm going to knock him out, period," he continued. "This isn't the NCAA. I’m going to punch you in your face, I'm going to knee you in your face, I'm going to elbow you, I'm going to make your life miserable. He's going to run into one of my punches and get knocked out. Or it's going to be me standing over him punching him, and the referee saving his life."

There are many ways of getting to the UFC, many ways of winning fights. For Watson, both appear to be about calling his own shots.