‘I faced something no father should face’ - Walt Harris fights back from the brink after daughter’s tragic passing

The Big Ticket takes on heavyweight legend Alastair Overeem at UFC Fight Night 174 this weekend, a little over six months after his daughter, Aniah, was killed.

By George Mills Published: 4 September 2020 - 3.11pm
UFC

Walt Harris

Alistair Overeem

Walt Harris will make his first UFC appearance since the death of his daughter this weekend

“I went through a dark period, as you can imagine,” Walt Harris confessed.

The Alabama fighter faced every parent’s worst nightmare last October when his daughter, Aniah Blanchard, was reported missing.

Profile

  • Born 10 June 1983 in Birmingham, Alabama
  • Nicknamed 'The Big Ticket'
  • Worked as a UPS driver before training MMA full time
  • Talented boxer and has sparred with both Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder
  • Two performance bonuses in his last two fights
  • Record: 13-7-1

A month later, the 19-year-old’s body was found almost 40 miles from her abandoned vehicle, killed by a gunshot wound.

Detectives allege Aniah was kidnapped by suspect Ibrahim Yazeed who, at the time of Aniah’s death, was out of prison on bond after being charged with possession of marijuana, robbery, kidnapping, and attempted murder.

Now back behind bars, Yazeed faces the prospect of the death penalty with a twice-delayed hearing scheduled for June 3 to decide his fate. Two other arrests were also made in connection with the crime.

Aniah’s tragic passing united the MMA world in support of the Harris family and 36-year-old Walt admitted fans’ kindness has been a huge help in the subsequent healing process.

“The community has been amazing. It makes for a dangerous fighter when you realize that everyone loves you. It gives you more to fight for, more energy…more focus,” Harris explained.

“My focus has been laser sharp since the tragedy. I'm fighting for a different purpose”
- Walt Harris

“The support means everything, it’s overwhelming.

“To think that so many people are sharing their love…It means so much to me that people are behind you and proud of you and supporting you. It’s an incentive to do the right thing and an incentive to keep doing the right thing.”

Many might question how Harris could step foot back into the Octagon so soon after such a tragic loss but the 13-7-1 contender claimed the time was right to move on with a new perspective on life.

“I felt myself slipping in the opposite direction of what I set out to be as a man and a father. I had a talk with my wife one day, and she suggested I start training again,” he continued.

Walt Harris knocks out Cyril Asker
Harris knocked out Cyril Asker in brutal fashion at UFC Singapore in 2017

“I was at a point where I thought that thinking about anything but my daughter was wrong. I could hear her tell me ‘Daddy I want you to go back. I want you to fight. This is what we worked so hard (for). I sacrificed so much. Mom sacrificed so much. You sacrificed so much to get to where you are. I would be more upset with you if you stopped fighting.’

“That’s when I went back in the gym and started getting back in shape. I put a goal out there of when I wanted to fight, just to give myself some incentive and motivation outside of what I already had.”

13
Wins by knockout

Harris had originally been set to face off with former title challenger Overeem at UFC Washington in December but withdrew after Aniah’s disappearance.

Overeem remained on the card, instead taking on Jairzinho Rozenstruik in a fight that saw the Dutchman dramatically stopped in the dying seconds after a gruesome lip injury.

The loss moved proved to be Overeem’s fourth in his last eight fights having been stopped each time – but BT Sport’s Nick Peet believes the former Strikeforce champion remains a worth adversary in the heavyweight division.

“Overeem over time has become that guy, he’s the guy that unlocks a fighter into the top five,” Peet said.

“Overeem is following Arlovski into the gatekeeper kind of role. The old legend”
- Nick Peet

“He’s fringe top ten himself but he came into the UFC with much loftier ambitions. Fans were excited about Overeem’s arrival because he’s such a huge name in the sport but it just hasn’t happened for him in the UFC and he’s kind of following [Andrei] Arlovksi along that gatekeeper kind of role. The old legend.

“If you’re serious about becoming a contender in this heavyweight division, the likes of Arlovksi, the likes of Overeem, these are the names you’ve got to pick up along the way to prove yourself as a genuine challenger in the division.

“Walt Harris has been through so much over the last six months or so, absolutely heart-breaking, and I think a lot of fans want to see him realise his full potential now.

“This the perfect opportunity for him to put a period of his life behind him, lay tribute to that time in his life and claim the biggest win in his career and really push on during quarantine towards potentially breaking into a heavyweight title fight early next year.”

With all 13 of his career wins coming by way of knockout, Harris undoubtedly has some of the heaviest hands in the division but Overeem will arguably be the most accomplished opponent he has ever faced.

Speaking on BT Sport’s Open Mat, former UFC lightweight challenger Dan Hardy urged Harris to respect Overeem’s technical ability.

“But at the same time he can’t get inside his own head and not pull the trigger because it’s Overeem,” ‘The Outlaw’ explained.

“You’re fighting a veteran kickboxer, someone with so much experience, you can start to outthink yourself and second-guess and then you’re hesitant and you don’t fire. That’s when these veterans find a way to take over and dominate the fight.

“Walt Harris should be able to push him around, clinch him, beat him up and make it untidy, make it a very scrappy fight. But if he starts to play the counter-game with Overeem, that’s when Overeem’s experience will come through.”

Speaking to reporters this week, Harris told fans: “You’re going to see the same me – explosive and athletic but with a renewed vigour.

“My focus has been laser sharp since the tragedy. I’m fighting for a different purpose. My daughter is with me everywhere I go. When you’ve got something like that pushing you, man.

“Right now, at this point in my career, I feel like I could run through a brick wall. He’s going to be facing a dangerous man on Saturday night, for sure.”

  • Watch Fight Night 174: Harris v Overeem exclusively live on BT Sport 1 HD and the BT Sport app from midnight on Saturday.