By the time Walt Harris walked through the doors of the UFC octagon on Saturday night, much of the sports world had already learned of the tragedy he’d experienced. Last fall, Harris’s 19-year-old stepdaughter Aniah Blanchard was abducted and murdered. Revolting as it is, the description of the crime does little to convey the true pain of such a devastation. Blanchard may not have been Harris’s blood kin, but he raised her as though she was, parenting her from the time she was four years old. Harris searched for her, buried her, mourned her loss. He was and remains a grieving father.
No one would have blamed him if he decided to disappear from the world for a little while, to retreat into his feelings and his family, but somehow, Harris managed to pick himself up and move forward with his career within just a few months.
Anyone with a heart was rooting for Harris in his UFC on ESPN 8 headliner with Alistair Overeem, and for a blip in time, it looked as though he would be able to create and celebrate a special moment. He knocked down Overeem in the first round and followed with ground strikes that had referee Dan Miragliotta giving thought to a stoppage, but Overeem defended and repositioned himself just enough to hold him off. Miragliotta also gave Harris a chance to work his way out of trouble in the second after Overeem landed a head kick and a cross that floored him, but Harris couldn’t find an escape from a back mount and succumbed to the barrage.
It was a heartbreaking result for an individual and a family that could certainly use a moment of joy, but that was so obvious that even his opponent couldn’t deny it. After stopping Harris with ground strikes, Overeem couldn’t bring himself to celebrate. Instead, he leaned over Harris and slung his arm around him, sharing a few moments of empathy and encouragement with a fellow father.
It is not uncommon to see good sportsmanship in mixed martial arts, but this was an especially poignant moment. Jacksonville, Florida’s VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena was completely silent due to an absence of fans, who were not allowed to attend due to COVID-19 restrictions. So the fights seemed intimate even without a knowledge of the athletes’ personal histories. Once you factored in what someone like Harris was fighting for, the scope of the defeat was far more obvious and emotional. You could feel it displace the frenetic energy of the fight in real time and dissipate into compassion.
It takes a lot to move MMA fans from one emotional extreme to the other, but this was a rare moment when those who didn’t feel it were the outliers.
Even if you were rooting for Overeem, your joy could only be muted by understanding what his victory meant for Harris. It is one thing to celebrate an athletic achievement, but not at the expense of another person’s humanity.
It was wonderful to see Overeem lead that response, particularly on a night that was also meaningful for him. At the moment he stepped into the cage, he was just minutes away from his 40th birthday. He fought through a dangerous moment to win, and upon earning that victory, he became only the second mixed martial artist to win professional fights in each of the last four decades.
Overeem has quietly won three of his last four fights and yet again clawed his way back into the UFC heavyweight championship picture. Twenty-one years into his pro career, and he’s still a force to be reckoned with. But he’s also mature enough to tone down his celebration in an instance where his opponent is hurting.
It’s no small thing to win a fight. So much goes into preparation, and this fight was particularly difficult due to gym closures, travel restrictions and scheduling issues that affected routines and cut into prep time. No one was 100 percent on fight night. Overeem overcame all that but still tempered his joy out of respect for Harris. That was beautiful to see, and if anything, it made him more likable.
Overeem’s story was always going to be overshadowed on Saturday night. All he could do was go out there, compete ferociously and accept the result with class and grace. He went beyond even that.
It may not have been the result that most people hoped for, but Saturday night was still the best that MMA has to offer. Two men, two fathers, two fighters, showing all the best sides of themselves.