A bout between top 10 ranked heavyweights Alistair Overeem and Walt Harris headlined Saturday’s UFC on ESPN 8 fight card in Jacksonville, Fla.
Overeem was looking to rebound from a knockout loss in his last outing to Jairzinho Rozenstruik in December. For Harris, the bout meant a lot more than sport. Harris entered the Octagon at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena riding a two-fight winning streak that earned him Performance of the Night bonuses. He last fought in July 2019 but his world came crashing down in October when his stepdaughter, Aniah Blanchard, disappeared in Auburn, Alabama. Harris pleaded for her safe return but details emerged painting a tragic picture.
Blanchard’s remains were found in December in a wooded area of Macon County. An autopsy revealed that the 19-year old was fatally shot in her vehicle at a gas station while trying to fend off her attacker. The Auburn Police Department arrested Ibraheem Yazeed and charged him with capital murder. District Attorney Brandon Hughes plans to seek the death penalty in the case. Saturday was Harris’ first fight since the horrific event.
In the opening round, it looked like Harris was going to pull off an emotional victory after dropping Overeem with a right hand. He followed Overeem to the canvas and delivered punches as Overeem covered up. Overeem scrambled to his feet revealing a cut over his left eye. Harris unloaded a high kick but slipped in the process. Overeem seized the opportunity to gain dominant position. He landed short punches for the second half of the round until Harris worked his way back to his feet in the closing seconds of the frame.
In the second round, the pace dramatically slowed but not for long. Overeem landed a head kick that stunned Harris and followed up with a left hand that put Harris down. Overeem took Harris’ back, flattened him out and hammered away with punches until the referee stepped in to stop it.
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“It’s been a long ride, but somehow I keep finding the focus. I love it,” said Overeem after the win. “He was tough. He didn’t want to give up. He was tired, but he hung in there.”
“The Demolition Man” hopes to fight one more time this year and potentially set up another shot at the UFC title.
“Let’s look at the rankings, fight again later this year and then maybe we’re going to see if there’s one more shot at the title,” he said.
For Harris, it was a tough defeat. He thanked those who stood by his family during their time of need. He vowed to return better next time.
“I want to say thank you, first and foremost to the UFC. They’ve been amazing through this whole process. My wife and family and I are so grateful. We owe you guys everything,” said an emotional Harris after the loss.
“To the fans watching at home, I’m sorry. I’ll be back better. I promise. You haven’t seen the last of the Big Ticket. I’m going to go home and recover. I’m going to heal emotionally and physically and I promise you that I’ll be better,” he said.