09/17/2012 01:22 EDT | Updated 11/17/2012 05:12 EST

Move from football to mixed martial arts is elementary for Walel Watson

TORONTO - Walel Watson was eight when he ran his first punt back for a touchdown.

"I looked to my Mom and I told her 'I'm going to the NFL.' That was my dream," he recalled. "And I worked my butt off to get to this level. But God had other plans for me."

Now a mixed martial arts fighter, Watson (9-4) takes on bantamweight Mitch Gagnon (8-2) of Sudbury, Ont., on Saturday at UFC 152.

The main event on the Air Canada card features light-heavyweight champion Jon (Bones) Jones against Brazilian veteran Vitor (The Phenom) Belfort. In the co-main event, Joseph Benavidez takes on Demetrious (Mighty Mouse) Johnson to decide the UFC's inaugural flyweight (125-pound) title.

Clarke is one of four Canadians on the card. The others are light-heavyweight Roger Hollett, lightweight T.J. Grant and welterweight Sean Pierson.

The 27-year-old Gagnon, who lost his UFC debut to Bryan Carraway at UFC 149, will be giving up six inches to the five-foot-11 Watson in the 135-pound matchup.

A star receiver and kick returner at San Diego Mesa College, Watson had the speed (4.4 seconds over 40 yards) but — at 140 pounds — not the weight to make it out of the junior college ranks.

"It broke my heart," said the 28-year-old California fighter. "I've been playing football since I was seven years old."

The late Matt Kofler, then coach at San Diego Mesa College, did his bit to help Watson realize his dream of moving up in football.

"He'd always write 170, 165 (pounds) on the scouting reports for the college scouts from the Division 1 schools," Watson recalled. "These guys would fly all the way out from Arizona, Mississippi, Washington, Oregon State and all these schools, come visit and the first look at me, they'd be 'Coach, this guy is not 170. This guy is not even 150.'

"They'd be mad at my coach, they'd be mad at me. They'd get back on the plane, they'd go back to their college."

He played three years for the Olympians, going from the bench to team captain, all-conference honourable mention and was ranked top 50 in the U.S. among junior college players.

But no one saw past the scales.

Watson could never get any heavier than 144 — "and I was excited the day I jumped off the scale weighing 144."

When national signing day came round, Watson was ignored by Division 1 colleges. A few weeks later, Robert Peralta — a friend and former football teammate who had taken up MMA — invited him to come down and check it out.

It was hardly an elite facility. They were training in a nearby garage.

"Everyone's punching each other and kicking each other," Watson said. "They're grappling and they're wrestling. I don't know any of it yet.

"I had been in a couple of street fights and things like that but I had never really got to see what it is to train and stuff. I was taken by it right away, infatuated with it. The first time I rolled on the ground and got my first guillotine (choke), I fell in love with it instantly."

Watson had his first fight a month after taking up MMA. It was in Mexico and Watson says the locals liked nothing better than to see an American beaten.

Watson had been told he would be fighting an opponent who was also making his pro debut. Turned out his foe had a 9-3 or 5-3 record, depending on who you talked to, and has just lost a 155-pound title fight.

"I looked over and they were wrapping his hand with all kinds of tape and it looks like a brick. I don't even have my hands wrapped, I don't have nobody to wrap my hands."

Watson staggered him with a punch, then his opponent tried to take him down. Watson tried to lock on a guillotine choke but hadn't learned how to finish it.

"I probably squeezed him for about two minutes then my arms just blew out."

The Mexican eventually got up and started tossing him around the cage, eventually catching him in an anaconda choke.

"Right before I went out, the referee pulled him off of me, I didn't even know how to tap, that's how raw I was," Watson recalled.

Watson took solace from the fact that he survived four minutes with a veteran. But he saw he needed real instruction and so sought out Manolo Hernandez as his coach, moving from Escondido to nearby San Diego.

He won seven of his next eight fights, earning his contract with the UFC. Many of those fights were in Mexico and he remains a popular fighter in nearby Tijuana.

When he's not training at the San Diego Combat Academy, he teaches jiu-jitsu there.

Watson, whose father used to box in the army, likes to set his goals high.

When he started learning jiu-jitsu, he was told it would take him 10 years to get a black belt. Everyone laughed when he said he would do it in four. He got his brown belt in 3.5 years and says the black belt is coming.

People also laughed when he said he would make the UFC by the time he was 27. He signed on just after his 27th birthday.

Watson doesn't take shortcuts. He hasn't taken a vacation in four years and trains every day unless he is hurt or sick.

"I'm in the gym busting my butt, eight to nine hours a day ... I feel any day I miss in the gym, I'm missing an opportunity to get better and I'm giving somebody else an opportunity to beat me."

In MMA, Watson's height causes opponents problems. As does his unorthodox striking, which has softened up opponents to the point where he has collected seven submissions.

"I can hit submissions and punches and kicks from the weirdest angles — angles that most people can never do," he explained.

He has worked hard on his wrestling so he doesn't end up pinned under an opponent.

"That's not going to happen ever again."

Watson thought his fighting style had prompted his nickname. But it turns out fight teammate Landon Piercy came up with it after discovering an online video of Walton running the 40-yard dash at a scouting combine.

Piercy came up with Walel (pronounced Why-elle) the Gazelle.

Watson — whose first name is taken the arabic name Wael — was part of the last UFC card in Toronto, losing a split decision to Montreal's Yves Jabouin at UFC 141 last December. Watson was coming off a first-round TKO over Joseph Sandoval in his UFC debut.

The Jabouin loss marked the first time Watson had to go the distance. He considers it a painful lesson learned.

"We watched the video over and over again, me and my coach, when it first happened and we couldn't find anywhere where I had lost the fight," said Watson.

"It's just one of those things. If you leave it in the judges' hands, they're going to make you cry, they're going to break your heart. That's something that we're told every day in the gym. We're told by other fighters and it showed that night. I did everything, outstruck him, I outgrappled him, I outfought him, but because of the fact I left it in the judges' hands, it hurt. It bit me in the butt."

Watson says he remembers that when he gets tired in the gym, using it as incentive to push himself even harder.

But in February, he lost another decision, this time a unanimous verdict to T.J. Dillashaw on a televised card.

"That night, it was crazy. I don't like making excuses at all (but) that night really wasn't my night all the way around the board," he said.

Watson said "a couple of things went wrong" during his camp and it showed. But he acknowledges Dillashaw had a better game plan on the night.

He says his camp had moved to correct those problems. Watson has also improved his diet.

"What I put in my body really makes a difference," he said. "As opposed to me eating whatever I want."

"I feel this has been the best camp in my four-year career so far," he added.

Watson has never had problem making weight but says he feels more energetic than ever thanks to the improved diet.

These days, he watches what he eats even when he is not training for a fight. Weekends, he relaxes the diet a bit and he says he will treat himself to a pizza after this weekend's fight.

"As much as I love it, it'll hurt me ... the grease and the cheese and all that stuff, breading," he said of the treat. "All of that stuff bloats you up."