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UFC Jacksonville: Walt Harris is back and fighting for more than just UFC glory

Headlining a card for the first time should be a moment filled with joy, elation, satisfaction. A main event slot is one of those milestones in a fighters career when it starts to feel like all of the hard work is about to start paying off.

For UFC Heavyweight contender Walt Harris (13-7) though, May 16, 2020 will be a date very much filled with mixed emotions. His main event bout with the legendary Alistair Overeem (45-18) was supposed to happen in December of last year. Harris’ career was finally picking up some steam having not lost in four straight fights and a big main event rendezvous was his reward. That was going to be the ultimate test. A chance to take a giant leap and get ever so close to the elite of the division.

But then, all of a sudden, the Alabama native’s world came crashing down.

Well underway in his preparations for the fight of his life, news broke out that Harris’ step-daughter Aniah had gone missing. Following a tireless search mission, the 19-year-old whom Harris had treated like his own child was found dead about a month later. Seeing that story unfold hit the whole MMA world like a ton of bricks. It was one of the sport’s biggest tragedies and it happened to a hard working man right on the cusp of greatness. The whole sports world was shaken — but united — behind Harris as he understandably pulled out of the Overeem bout in order to be with his family.

But in reality, Harris never stopped fighting. He couldn’t have stopped. In a featured story recently published by ESPN on the heartbreaking events from just a few months ago, Harris admitted that he had to be at his strongest in order not to fall off the deep end. The love that he had for his “baby girl” for whom he’d been a father figure for since she was little is indescribable.

It’s quite hard to believe that now, just under six months later, Harris is ready to get back into action and fight that fight. But that’s also very well explained in the previously mentioned story. Harris confessed that one night he felt an epiphany. He got the assurance he needed, from Aniah, in his dream, that everything would be OK. That gave him the fuel he needed. The drive that he was missing was shot straight back into his body. Overnight, Harris realized that he had to return to his mission for glory as “The Big Ticket.” But now, his motivation was different. He found a new purpose; and that is to do it for his late daughter.

She was by consensus his biggest fan. If it was up to Harris, he may have not decided to pick up a pair of gloves again. But the drive reinstalled in him is pushing him to keep working. To not give up. To continue striving for greatness. Not for himself, but for Aniah. Harris confessed that he’s no longer fighting for the money nor the belt. He is now, more than ever, fighting in his daughters name and for her legacy.

On Saturday, Harris will step back into the Octagon and face his toughest challenge yet. Not only because across from him he will see a heavyweight pioneer in Overeem, but also because of all the thoughts that are inevitably going to be running through his mind. It is impossible to put yourself in his shoes. There aren’t too many people in this world who can. But Harris is determined to resume his quest because the person he loves most would have wanted him to do just that.

It’s probably safe to assume that many people will be rooting for Harris on the weekend, quietly or otherwise. It is difficult to put his journey into words. Other than giving some context, I didn’t even want to try because only Harris himself can adequately convey how he felt and what he and his family went through. “The Big Ticket” stepping into the cage in Jacksonville is on its own going to be a tremendous show of strength.

And as the Octagon doors in the crowd less arena slam shut, the biggest fight of Harris’ life will be back on. Breaking through the deafening silence will be the yells from the two sets of coaches and the passionate cries of the commentary team off to the side. But once the referee calls for things to get underway, it’s going to be down to Harris to win his personal mental battles and take down “The Reem.” And should he get his hand raised, one of the most agonizing stories in sports history will have come full circle. And what a moment that would be for Harris and his family.

Check out the full ESPN feature on Walt Harris below:


Sports journalist based in CA, USA. Twitter: @ArionArmeniakos

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