UFC heavyweight Walt Harris was more familiar with his opponent than usual at UFC San Antonio.
Harris, who knocked out Aleksei Oleinik in 12 seconds in the co-main event last weekend, trained with Oleinik often during his time at American Top Team in Florida. Harris said he considers Oleinik a friend and that it was difficult fighting him.
Harris hasn’t trained at American Top Team since 2017; Oleinik is still there today.
“We worked together extensively,” Harris told Bloody Elbow. “We would text each other and drill and do things to help each other. It was honestly tough to fight him, and especially to see him go down like he did after the fight with the injuries, that was hard for me.
“But at the same time, we’re both professionals. He was in there trying to do the same thing to me. There are no hard feelings or anything like that, but that was definitely a tough thing to do, to go in there and fight somebody who you care about.”
Harris was scheduled to fight Oleinik in May at UFC Ottawa, but Oleinik was moved to a different card. After Harris beat short-notice replacement Sergey Spivak, he said he was interested in re-booking the fight with Oleinik, who had already lost to Alistair Overeem two weeks prior to that.
Harris could have avoided the fight, but ultimately chose to pursue it because he felt it was a winnable fight and Oleinik was ranked ahead of him.
“I wanted to test myself against the best, and it just so happens that one of the best is a friend of mine,” Harris said. “I just feel like it’s a business, it’s our job. That fight was something I needed to do in order to make myself known to the rest of the division, to prove myself.”
The two friends — and a couple of other heavyweights on the card — hung out before the ceremonial weigh-ins on Friday, Harris said.
“We were in the back, hanging out, talking,” Harris said. “In fact, all of the heavyweights were. It was kind of funny. Andrei (Arlovski) and Ben (Rothwell) were sitting back there together, me and Alexei, we were all sitting in the same little circle, talking, chatting it up.
“I had so much respect for Aleksei (going in). He’s done a lot in this sport, he’s a veteran, and he’s well respected. I didn’t take him lightly at all. I went into camp 110-percent focused every day.”
Harris said during their time training together, Oleinik showed him how to defend his specialty submission — the ezekiel choke, which the Russian has pulled off multiple times in the UFC.
“It definitely gave me some confidence, having actually been on the mats with him and seeing some things then,” Harris said. “He actually choked me with the ezekiel. He showed me how to deal with it. That definitely helped my confidence.”
But Harris is too different a fighter now, he said, for him to have been worried about Oleinik knowing his strengths and weaknesses.
“That was almost three years ago,” Harris said. “I feel like I’ve gotten so much better in that time. I wasn’t really worried about what he knew about me. I’m a totally different fighter than I was then. The guy that I was then, I would destroy that guy now.”
Harris’ finish of Oleinik was the third fastest knockout in UFC heavyweight history. The 36-year-old predicted he’d finish the fight, but never would have guessed it would end as quickly as it did.
“Honestly, I was prepared to go all 15 minutes, as hard as I possibly could,” Harris said. “In your mind, you play it out that way. At night, when you go to bed, you dream about the quick knockout. But to have it happen like that, it shocked me. That’s kind of why I took off running — I was like, ‘Oh, snap.’”
Harris said he had a feeling he had Oleinik figured out before the fight even started, and that’s why he managed to end it so early.
“We were in the locker room, and they have TVs in there so we can see what’s going on, and they showed him warming up, and he was doing exactly what we had worked on all camp,” Harris said. “I was like, ‘Holy crap.’ My coach was like, ‘You see it, right?’ And I was like, ‘Yup.’ He was like, ‘Whenever you get ready to throw it, you throw it.’ I saw it, I went for it, and it worked out perfectly.”
What’s there to learn from a 12-second knockout like Harris’? How much can you really take away from it, besides the known and obvious fact that Harris has power in his hands?
“I think that you can see the growth and the confidence,” Harris said. “I think that’s what you can learn. As much adversity as I’ve been through, I’m on the rise now. You can see the confidence building. I’m evolving. These last two fights have ended quickly, so nobody has really seen the growth — they know I can strike. But trust me, the growth is happening. When it’s time, they will see it.”
Over the past two years, Harris has trained at Spartan Fitness in Birmingham, Alabama, where he was born, alongside fellow UFC fighter Eryk Anders. Harris said he used to lack confidence in his training and the coaches around him — and that actually led to him suffering from depression, he said — but now all that has changed. His confidence is “through the roof” and he is happier than ever.
“Going through all of that stuff, it took a toll on me,” Harris said. “I had to remove some different people out of my life in order to see things clearly and move to the next level in my life.”
Harris said the switch in camps has led to his recent success. Harris is riding a four-fight unbeaten streak — three wins plus a no contest due to a USADA violation as a result of a contaminated supplement. Before that, Harris was 3-6 in the promotion.
“I’m starting to hit my peak now,” Harris said. “And that’s scary. What you’re going to see moving forward is going to be really special. There are going to be some good fights coming down the pipe for the next couple years of my career. It’s going to be fun.”
Harris said he believes fans have been sleeping on him — but that that period of his career, with the win over Oleinik, is over.
“I feel like I’ve been overlooked a lot,” Harris said. “I’ve done some pretty good things in my career. But now is the time for people to — I’m gonna force people to wake up. They’re not going to have a choice. I feel like I’ve definitely been slept on, but it’s alright.”
Harris said he considers the quick knockout his breakthrough win — not in the sense that people know who he is now, but that people realize he’s a legitimate contender in the heavyweight division.
“I forced myself into that conversation,” Harris said. “That’s how I like it. I like to be the dark horse and creep up under the radar. I’m not the kind of guy that’s going to go out and run my mouth, calling people out, talking trash, and doing a bunch of crazy stuff to get attention. I just let my fighting do the talking.”
And it was the win that has pushed Harris up the rankings — to No. 11 — and into a position where he believes it’s only ranked opponents for him from here on out.
“Main event, a big name, somebody in the top five, top seven maybe,” Harris said of what he would like next. “I’m ready for that. That’s perfect for me. I need that, I think the fans want that, and it’s time for that. It’s time for me to be in that conversation.”
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