'Now, I'm fighting for her': Walt Harris returns to Octagon to honor his slain stepdaughter

·Combat columnist
Walt Harris reacts to defeating Andrei Arlovski during a heavyweight bout at UFC 232 inside The Forum on Dec. 29, 2018, in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
Walt Harris reacts to defeating Andrei Arlovski during a heavyweight bout at UFC 232 inside The Forum on Dec. 29, 2018, in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

Walt Harris was trying to live out his dream and in order to do that, sacrifices had to be made. Though fighting is an individual sport once the bell sounds, up until that moment it’s very much a team effort.

Because Harris’ dream of becoming a mixed martial arts champion wasn’t going to happen quickly, his wife, Angela Haley-Harris, worked long hours so the family would have a steady income while her husband rose up the ranks.

It was during those times that his relationship with a bubbly, always positive stepdaughter, Aniah Blanchard, began to blossom.

“People who saw us together, we were so close they couldn’t believe that she wasn’t my biological daughter,” Harris said.

While her mother was out of the house at work, Blanchard stepped up to fill many of Haley-Harris’ duties at home and became a surrogate mother to her half brother. Blanchard and Harris had a connection and she was mature beyond her years.

“Aniah had such a big heart and she’d do anything for you,” said Harris.

“She was a caregiver and when her mom was working so many hours while I was trying to make it to the UFC, she helped me so much. It was me and her so often and she was just an amazing girl. She was so caring and so loving and was just a beam of sunlight. Anytime she came around, she brightened up the room. She was my everything.”

Harris nearly quit fighting after stepdaughter’s murder

When Harris makes the walk to the Octagon on Saturday (9 p.m. ET, ESPN) to face Alistair Overeem at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida, his mind will be filled with thoughts of his stepdaughter.

It’s a walk he thought at times he wouldn’t be able to make, but he pushed himself because he knew she would demand it.

Aniah Blanchard was kidnapped on Oct. 23 and her body was found on Nov. 25. Ibraheem Yazeed was arrested and charged with capital murder and kidnapping.

Harris was so distraught, his faith in God was shattered and he initially considered never fighting again.

“For a while, I went back and forth, but I really considered [giving up fighting],” he said. “It was an extremely difficult time. But the more I thought about it, I realized that giving up at that point was the opposite of what she would have wanted me to do. She was so supportive of my fighting and she was so encouraging and always believed in me so much.

“I think if I’d have given it up, I would have fallen deeper and deeper into depression. This is something that she wanted me to do, so everything I do now will be to honor her.”

Harris was on a roll prior to Blanchard’s murder. He’d won four in a row and had seemingly come into his own. A college basketball player at Jacksonville State, Harris’ athleticism was obvious, but he wasn’t developing the way his potential suggested he might.

After a 6-1 start to his career, he debuted in the UFC on Nov. 30, 2013, and promptly lost his first bout by decision to Jared Rosholt. Two months later, he was knocked out by Nikita Krylov with a kick to the head in just 25 seconds.

He was given his walking papers. It was the first of many challenges he encountered in the UFC. 

“Some guys take longer than others to develop,” UFC president Dana White said. “Walt was always a guy with talent, but it’s like he flipped a switch and finally figured it out.”

Harris bounces back after positive drug test

Harris credits switching from the American Top Team to SBG Alabama Spartan Fitness for his improvement. He won four in a row, though his 2018 victory over ex-heavyweight champion Andrei Arlovski was overturned because he tested positive for banned selective androgen receptor modulators. It turned out he’d taken a contaminated supplement.

The positive test hurt his reputation in some eyes, but he raved about the way he was treated by the United States Anti-Doping Agency.

“If you are going to compete successfully at the highest level of this sport, you have to take supplements,” Harris said. “That’s just a fact. But supplements are not FDA-regulated and so, as you have seen with a number of fighters, even when you take something that is legal it leads to a failed test.

“It’s hard to hear people talking about you, but I know the truth. And USADA was so good to me. They were fair and they knew I had not attempted to cheat. But it was tough. Before the decision came down, people believed I’d cheated and that was super depressing.”

But when he returned, he scored back-to-back first-round finishes of Sergey Spivak and Aleksey Oleinik. He finished Oleinik in only 12 seconds and had stamped himself as a contender.

Harris: I want to do this to ‘glorify her’

He was set to fight Overeem in December, but pulled out when Blanchard went missing. Life as he knew it will never be the same — How could it? — but he’s persevered and plans to make a title run to honor the young woman he loved so dearly.

“Me and my wife, we really had a lot of trouble coming to grips with it and I doubted my faith there for a while,” Harris said. “I cried out and I asked God, ‘If you’re real, why would you allow things like this to happen?’ I was confused and I really, really battled a lot of different things when this initially happened.

“But it’s one of those things where I got into my spirituality and I would read and I would study and I realized that God didn’t do this. It wasn’t His fault that this happened. Everything happens for a reason and he has a bigger purpose for this. She served her purpose on this Earth for Him and now she’s in Heaven with Him.”

He speaks of his child with a strong, confident, unwavering voice. The pain he feels is difficult to miss, but he’s opened his heart to the world so he can tell the story of Aniah Blanchard and spread her message of kindness, positivity and hope.

He dreams now of being in the Octagon after having won the heavyweight title and thinking of Aniah as the belt is wrapped around his waist.

“When I started this journey, it was about proving to myself that I could do it,” he said. “But when you start to realize that you can, it becomes about titles and belts and success, however you define that. She believed in me so much and she had faith that I would get to where I wanted to go even at times when I was doubting myself.

“So now, I’m fighting for her. Every fight I have, this is something I am doing to honor her and remember her. When you put that kind of motivation in front of a father, you make him a dangerous man. After what I have been through, there is nothing another human can do to make me afraid or get me to worry about. So I want to go out there and do this to glorify her.”

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