The similarities between Alistair Overeem and Walt Harris are many: The UFC heavyweights are both imposing physical specimens even as they reach their late 30s. Both are heavy-handed. And both have largely treaded water in their UFC careers.
The 39-year-old Overeem is 9-7 in the UFC and has dropped three of his last five, all by knockout. The 36-year-old Harris is 6-6 in the UFC, but his recent run is what differentiates him from Overeem.
Harris has won his last two and it would be four if his win over Andrei Arlovski wasn’t overturned because he’d used a contaminated supplement.
Harris has needed a combined 62 seconds in his last two fights to knock out Sergey Spivak in 50 seconds and Aleksei Oleinik in 12 seconds, thrusting him for the first time into title contention.
Overeem is ranked eighth, a spot above Harris, and is attempting to make one last run at the top. He’s 45-18 with a no-contest and has done just about everything there is to do in MMA except to win the UFC heavyweight title. He has, however, won five of seven bouts against men who have worn the UFC belt.
Overeem already had recorded 34 victories when Harris made his pro MMA debut on March 15, 2011, with a 16-second KO of Justin Thornton in Panama City Beach, Florida.
Harris, though, made a big jump when he left the American Top Team (ATT), which is regarded as one of the sport’s finest gyms, to train at SBG Alabama Spartan Fitness in Birmingham. He said for him, smaller is better, and the individualized attention he received from coach Chris Conley helped him reach his vast potential.
“I think the gym change was so important for me,” Harris told Yahoo Sports. “Yeah, I made some changes in my personal life and I refocused. I’m getting the attention I need now. At ATT, I was kind of just one of the guys, but I wasn’t the guy. I’m the type of athlete who, not to sound like I need to be babied, but I need specialized attention. I felt like I needed one-on-one time and I get that now.”
As he’s trending up, he runs into the “Demolition Man,” who has far too often been getting demolished himself. Overeem remains powerful and capable of a finish at any point, but he’s now not dealing with punches as well as he once did.
He had a win all but sewn up in his last time out against Jairzinho Rozenstruik, but Rozenstruik caught him with a massive shot in the waning seconds and got a dramatic TKO.
A loss to Harris would probably end his dream of fighting his way back into the title mix, so he figures to be desperate and have extra motivation.
But it’s hard to imagine how he’ll be more desperate than Harris, who is fighting for the first time since his 19-year-old stepdaughter, Aniah, was murdered last year.
He’s said repeatedly that he’s fighting for her, and he’s been poised and composed in his public appearances leading up to the bout. It’s anybody’s guess how he’ll react when the bell sounds, but he’s confident he’ll be able to use that tragedy as motivation to lift him to a win Saturday.
“The guys at the top have always had a certain mindset that was like, ‘There’s nothing I can’t do,’ and that’s how I am right now,” Harris said. “I’ve been through a lot of adversity in my life, but nothing like this, obviously. But that has helped me to prepare for it. I know now that there’s nothing I can’t do when I put my mind to it, especially now that Aniah is up there looking down on me rooting for me.”
The bout figures to be a stand-up battle and the key will be where it’s fought. If Overeem gets to the cage and fights in the clinch a lot, it will suit his style. Harris needs to keep the fight at distance in the center of the ring for as often as he can.
Given his personal motivation and his better recent form, look for Harris to finish Overeem by the mid-point of the second round.
More from Yahoo Sports: