Walt Harris is a Homewood rec league sports coach who talks to youth about bullying. Nothing strange there, except that as a mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter, the 2001 Homewood High School grad makes his living by beating up opponents, effectively bullying them into submission.
“When I speak to kids in school, the reaction I get is crazy. I’ll be talking to them about bullying in assemblies, and I’ll say I was bullied,” Walt recounts. “The whole crowd will gasp. They don’t believe me.”
Walt stands 6 foot 4 and weighs 260 pounds. How could he be bullied? Because he wasn’t always a big guy. He was 155 pounds as he headed to Homewood High. “Growing up (as) the youngest in my family, the youngest in the neighborhood out of the boys, I got picked on, I got bullied, I got beat up.”
He was even beaten up by a girl. “I was that timid,” he admits.
But Walt, aka “The Big Ticket,” is timid no more. He has a courage that has taken him from Homewood to a No. 12 ranking in the heavyweight division of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the largest MMA promotion company in the world that features the highest level fighters on its roster.
The 35-year-old hasn’t just grown physically. He’s grown into a husband, a father and a youth sports coach too. He’s done all of this as he has come full circle, becoming a part of the very city that gave him his start.
Walt also spent time in his youth at the Bessemer home of his grandmother, Lillian Morgan, while his single mother Vivian Morgan worked two jobs, including running the post office in Homewood.
In those days, Walt was reluctant to stand up for himself. He needed a push, and his grandmother provided it. “She’d make me go out there and fight,” he recalls. “That was part of her training and teaching me to stand up for myself. I would run. I was like, ‘I don’t want to fight this dude.’”
Lillian Morgan would hang her grandson’s dinner in the balance if he didn’t go out and fight. “‘You’re not going to eat,’” he recalled her saying. “I thank my grandmother for that. I know she’s looking down proud. I was like, ‘I’m scared of everybody.’ I was never one to stand up for myself by myself.”
His grandmother would watch the scene unfold from indoors. She witnessed him being bullied and would see him run. “She was like, ‘That ain’t gonna work. You need to go out there and stand up for yourself. If you don’t, it’s going to continue to happen.’”
That taught Walt a lesson that went beyond physically standing up for himself. It taught him to not run from his problems. He says he had a lot of issues from growing up without a father and dealing with his mother having to work two jobs.
His grandmother knew it was more than just a “go beat somebody up” mentality. “It was about being a man and understanding you can’t run when things get hard,” he says. “I think that’s what’s put me in a position to be successful today, why I’ve gotten as far as I have.”
The heavyweight says he could have quit a long time ago over several different things. He’s faced a lot of adversity but has always found a way. “I always keep going,” he says. “My wife doesn’t understand sometimes. ‘How do you keep that mindset?’ I think that came from our grandmother. I think she raised us that way. Don’t quit. Always find a way.”
Walt’s athletic ambition was to play in the NBA, perhaps following in the Nike footsteps of his favorite player Kobe Bryant. After playing on the Homewood Patriots basketball team, Walt took his basketball talents to Jacksonville State University.
It was during his time with the Gamecocks that he met Angela Haley, who would become his wife. She was driving on the JSU campus when she stopped at a traffic light and glanced to her left to find Walt in the passenger seat of the neighboring car. “Our eyes met,” she recalls. “I felt a connection.”
The chance encounter soon yielded a conversation, and the pair realized they had something in common. She lived in his hometown. “I moved to Homewood because I always heard Homewood had good schools,” says Angela. “I’ve always had it in my head that I was going to live in Homewood. I just can’t even ever imagine leaving.”
She had two children, Elijah and Aniah, from a previous marriage when the pair met and subsequently wed. When they met, Walt “instantly became a dad,” Angela says. “Basically, that’s what he wanted,” she says. “He loved them from day one.” The family now includes four children: 20-year-old Auburn engineering sophomore Elijah, 19-year-old Southern Union freshman Aniah, 13-year-old Homewood seventh-grader Asah, and 6-year-old kindergartener Aylah.
There’s also Eleven, a cat named for a character from Netflix’s “Stranger Things” and a golden doodle named Nalah, who Walt supposedly picked up for his youngest daughter. “I kind of got it for me,” he admits. “I wanted it. I’m not going to lie. For years, I told the kids they couldn’t have a dog because I knew I was going to be the one taking care of it. Then I saw these golden doodles, and I was like, ‘We’ve got to get one.’”
Walt initially worked for UPS and a moving company after the couple married in 2010. Fate would wave him toward his current path when the couple went to work out at a local gym. A woman there told the pro basketball hopeful that he looked like a mixed martial arts fighter and should join a class at the gym.
It proved to be a perfect fit. “He loved it,” his wife recalls. “He came out, and he’s like, ‘I really think I want to do this.’ I went to the class, and I watched him. And I was like, ‘Wow, he’s a natural at this. He looks really good.’”
Angela committed to working—sometimes as many as three jobs—so that her husband could train. He also was Mr. Mom, tending to the kids and coaching youth sports teams. “I love being at home with my kids,” Walt says. “The goal for me was always to be in a situation where I can spend as much time with my children as possible and be in their lives. I wanted to play in the NBA, but I know that would have taken me all over the place. With fighting, I get to involve them. They get to travel, and I’m at home for extended periods of time. It’s been a blessing to be in this position.”
L.J. Rouse has coached with Walt for about six years. He first encountered the MMA fighter when he coached Walt’s daughter Aniah’s hoops team. The two coached together for the first time when Asah played on a youth basketball team. “He’s just an energetic guy, very reliable,” L.J. says of Walt. “He’s a big kid. He knows when to smack talk with them and when to get serious with them.”
Walt was 23-1 as a MMA amateur with all of his wins coming via knockout. He was 6-1 as a pro and got his first shot in UFC. Now, he’is 13-7 overall and 7-4 in the UFC. “I had a lot of hype behind me, and then adversity came,” he recalls. “I had to learn how to handle it. It’s been a steady journey, but I believe God has got me hitting my stride right now for a reason. When I first came into the UFC, I wasn’t mentally prepared to deal with all the success and all the things that I’m receiving now. Now I’m more mature mentally and physically. I tell people I’m prepared for success now.”
The heavyweight dealt with a particular bit of adversity recently when he consumed a tainted supplement and had to sit out for four months. “I’m also taking legal action against that supplement company because they didn’t label their product properly,” he adds. “For me, it’s more about my reputation.”
And he wanted his next fight on May 4 against Sergey “Polar Bear” Spivak to make a clear statement. “Let me show you guys I don’t need nothing to help me,” he says. “I have God-given ability. I had a couple of chips on my shoulder, to say the least.”
The referee stopped the fight after 50 seconds in the opening round in Ottawa, Ontario. “I tried to take advantage of the fact that he was new to the UFC,” the Homewood fighter says. “Being a veteran in the UFC, I understand the whole process, and I knew he was going to be a little bit overwhelmed by that. I felt I needed to be overwhelming with my performance. I didn’t give him a chance to get comfortable and feel that octagon out. I just wanted to jump him, see what he was presenting and see if he could handle it.
“He didn’t respond… so I had to go in and do what I had to do.”
Walt fights Alexey “The Boa Constrictor” Oleinik on July 20 in San Antonio, Texas. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter at @thebigticket205.