JACKSONVILLE (AP) — Walt Harris pointed to the sky and proudly showed off a ‘Fighting for Aniah’ T-shirt as he entered the arena. He left a few minutes later with tears in his eyes, hardly the result he wanted in his first UFC fight since the death of his stepdaughter.
Alistair Overeem stopped Harris in the second round of UFC’s Fight Night main event last Saturday, ending what was an emotional return for the heavyweight fighter known as The Big Ticket.
Harris was a slight favourite and the sentimental choice as he stepped into the octagon for the first time since his 19-year-old daughter, Aniah Blanchard, was killed in Alabama.
Harris (13-8) looked as though he would notch his 14th career knockout when he dropped Overeem in the opening round. But the veteran regrouped on the eve of his 40th birthday and dominated the rest of the way. Overeem (46-18) sent Harris to the mat for the final time with an unblocked combination early in the second.
Harris never recovered, and the referee called it after a bevy of unanswered shots to the head. Overeem shared a moment with Harris on the mat.
Harris thanked the UFC, his team and his community while fighting back tears.
“I’m sorry I didn’t get the W for you tonight,” Harris said. “You’ve been like my family through everything, and I’m so grateful. Y’all at home watching, I’m sorry. I’ll be back better, I promise you. You haven’t seen the last of The Big Ticket. I’m going to go home, recover. I’m going to heal emotionally and physically, and I promise you I’ll be better.”
UFC President Dane White echoed Harris’ pledge.
“Win, lose or draw, being here is a win for him,” White said. “He got through tonight and who knows what was going through that guy’s body, head, the whole deal.”
Overeem said he offered to train with Harris down the road, hoping it could make both of them better in a stacked division.
“Of course, Walt has been through personal tragedy, which is awful,” Overeem said. “But I see it as a sport. It’s a game, right? It’s a way of making a living. … I just see it as professional, nothing personal.”
Harris’ wife encouraged him to return to the octagon after more than six months of grieving.
Harris and Overeem had been slated to fight in April, but the bout was postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic. It landed as the main event for the UFC’s third show in Jacksonville in eight days, all part of the series’ return following an eight-week hiatus.
The UFC will take the next two weeks off before fighting May 30. It hopes to return to Las Vegas, but first needs clearance from the Nevada Athletic Commission. If not, White said it will be held in Arizona.