UFC: Heavyweight Walt Harris motivated by tragic loss of stepdaughter

Walt Harris - UFC heavyweight
Walt Harris - UFC heavyweight Photo credit: Getty

The painful loss of a child has put the grind of being a professional fighter into perspective for UFC heavyweight contender Walt Harris. 

Stepdaughter Aniah Blanchard was murdered last November, after she was abducted at gunpoint at a service station in the city of Auburn, Alabama. 

Blanchard's horrific death rocked the mixed martial arts world, where Harris is an extremely popular member of the UFC roster.

The American understandably took time away from the sport to grieve, but returns to the Octagon for the biggest fight of his career on Sunday.

The 36-year-old headlines UFC's third event in a week against veteran Dutch kickboxer Alistair Overeem. 

Harris was preparing for this fight, originally scheduled for December, when Blanchard's death turned his world upside down.

After enduring such a sudden and shocking loss, the former NBA basketball tryout has refocused his career goals and believes he has someone very special in his corner.

"I've been an athlete my whole life, and it was all about me and what I could get out of myself," Harris has told Newshub's Fight Club podcast."When I got into fighting, I always looked internally for strength, will and energy.

"My goal, my motivation was to become a champion at some point, but now I feel like I am not just fighting for myself, but I am fighting for her. 

"She was my biggest fan, so my push every day, when I feel like I can't go anymore, is her. "She gives me the extra strength I have never felt before. It's hard to put into words what I feel in those dark moments in the gym, but all I can say is that I hear her talking to me and motivating me."

At Jacksonville on Sunday, Harris faces an extremely tested obstacle in the form of one-time UFC heavyweight title challenger Overeem.

The 40-year-old striker is truly battle-hardened, with 45 wins among his 64 fights, including victories over some of the biggest names in the sport.

'The Demolition Man', who has conquered the likes of Brock Lesnar, Junior dos Santos, Kiwi Mark Hunt and Vitor Belfort, presents the biggest challenge of Harris' fledgeling career.

But 'The Big Ticket' was riding a wave of momentum before November's tragedy, winning four fights on the bounce - three of them by knockout.

Harris recognises the enormous task in front of him, but he's prepared to go into deep waters to pull out the victory.

"With what I've dealt with...  that's a dangerous person to be in front of - a guy who has external motivation from the loss of a child. 

"She means everything to me and my family, so I'm going to go out there, and give her and the fans every ounce of me, and when I do that, I'll be a very tough guy to beat. 

"A fight is nothing compared to what I have gone through with the loss of Aniah.

"There is nothing a human being can do to me that will make me feel what I feel now she is not with us. 

"I am prepared for whatever - I've always had that 'I am prepared to die' mentality when I am in there and now it's on a level I can't explain. I just want to get at it."

And a win over a contender like Overeem would propel Harris into the heavyweight title conversation.

Champion Stipe Miocic is tentatively scheduled to defend against American Daniel Cormier later this year, with the winner to face the terrifying Francis Ngannou after that.  

Harris says he'd be "down to fight Francis" after he beats Overeem, if the towering Cameroon native wants to stay busy.

"Put the interim belt on the line and let's get to it," Harris says. "This is my opportunity to make a statement.

"I can see the silver lining in this whole pandemic thing. With the loss of my daughter, time was taken off my career and this break has allowed me to get into the best shape of my life. 

"It's really benefited me. If I go in there and put him [Overeem] away like I plan to do, then it puts me in the picture for a title shot."