Why Walt Harris is returning to the Octagon after the tragic loss of his stepdaughter

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UFC heavyweight Walt Harris is ready to turn tragedy into triumph.

On Saturday night, Harris will fight for the first time since his stepdaughter Aniah Blanchard went missing last October and was found dead of a gunshot wound the following month.

He’ll compete in the UFC Fight Night main event against veteran Alistair Overeem at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida, on May 16. The fight was originally scheduled to be in Portland, Oregon, on April 11, but the event was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Harris, who is unbeaten in his past four fights, talked with ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi about his return to the Octagon.

Editor’s note: Answers have been edited for clarity.

If I asked you a year ago to define the word “strong” and what it means to you, what would your answer have been?

That would definitely be my feelings about me as a person, I see it in a different light now, for sure. I’ve grasped a whole new meaning of that word. But a year ago, I mean, strong just meant, you know, resiliency. You know, just battle. It’s kind of a part of what I do for a living is try to be strong. You know, some days you don’t feel like training. Some days you don’t feel like running. But you’ve got to be strong and go get it done.

That word now?

That to me, it means everything to me now, because I’ve got to be strong for my family and people around me, my friends, and I’ve got to be strong for my daughter that’s no longer with us. She needs me to keep being strong.

That word evokes emotion. Why?

Because I’ve been through so much in my life, but never anything like this, to this level. And as a father, there are so many other emotions to attach to it, a husband, there’s so many more emotions attached to it, especially since my wife has already lost a child in the past. So I’m trying to navigate those waters and be what she needs me to be while I’m still hurting, myself. And I think that’s the part that may get lost in the shuffle, on the exterior, people see me as this strong, tough guy, but inside I’m hurting. I miss my daughter. I miss her every single day. And I think that that’s the part I’m dealing with now, is trying to just maintain for everybody else. That’s always how I am. I’m just like a caregiver, a lover, protector. And that’s just what I’m trying to do right now.

Why did you decide to come back to competing in the UFC?

If I can be quite candid, it was hard, but I knew I had to do it and I knew she wanted me to do it, because I was going off the deep end. Yeah. I mean, there were days I didn’t want to wake up. Just drinking a lot. Self-medicating, trying to find a way to cope, you know.

At that time, where was fighting in your mind?

I didn’t care about it. I really was just trying to navigate the waters of understanding how to go on without her and how to try to be a father and a husband in this new capacity, and then be there for my wife, because, man, I’ve always just wanted to protect her. I knew she had lost a child already, so … as hard as it is for me, what she must go through and feel, I never wanted that for her again. …

And I think that’s the part that I was struggling with the first, like, month or so. I mean, I couldn’t understand why us, you know? We’re good people. We do right by others. We’re givers. Why it happened to us and her? And I’m still trying to process and piece all that together. But, you know, in those first weeks right after, I mean, it was just like I didn’t care about anything. … I don’t know how I was functioning.

And I vividly remember having a dream. I had a breakdown the night before. We were planning the memorial service with my aunt, and just everything was coming undone for me. And I just started praying. I just said, “Lord, I don’t understand. But I know you — there’s something in this. I just need to know she’s OK.” And I promise you, I went to sleep and I dreamed about her. And she just hugged me and told me, “Daddy, I’m OK.” And that’s what she would always say. I have it on video. She would say things like that to me all the time. “It’s going to be OK.” And from that day on, I went the opposite direction.

I had two choices to make, and I knew it. I could either fall off and I can ruin everybody around me’s lives and let this ruin everybody around me’s lives, or I can get up and I can fight. And that’s all I know how to do, man. I can’t quit on her. I can’t quit on my family. And so from that day on, it was just like, let’s go. I called my manager, and I said, “Man, look. Give me till March or April, but tell the UFC I’ll be ready.” And they got on the phone, and it was on from there.

What led you back?

I just can’t let her down. She has sacrificed, and my wife and my other kids have sacrificed so much for me to get to this point that I felt like if I quit on her now, I would never be able to live with myself. And it’s not about fighting for me anymore, it’s about fighting for her. I just refuse to let her down. I never want to see her disappointed. Everybody knows I spoiled her. And … I don’t want to ever see her upset. And so I know she would be very, very upset if I stopped fighting.

What do you carry with you into the Octagon?

Oh, she’s in there with me, for sure. There’s a different level of motivation for me right now. I’m on a different plane, you know? I look at it like I’ve seen the worst thing a human can possibly see, so there’s not a thing a man in a cage can ever do to me. I’ve never been afraid of anybody, ever, so you add that on top of fuel of, you know, I’m fighting for my daughter, I’m fighting against myself in some ways, battling to keep pushing, and it’s a dangerous mixture for an opponent. I’ll say it like that.

What’s the challenge of what will be running through you?

Just keeping the emotions under control. But I think that that’s a part of who I am. If I try to stifle it, then that’s when I got issues, you know what I mean? But I think that just embracing that moment and trying to absorb her presence and understand that it’s a fight. You know, like my wife and I and our family are fighting every day for the rest of our lives, so it’s just something, you know what I mean? It’s just a little something that I do. I’m not overlooking Overeem. I’m not saying it in that way. But I’m just saying that there’s more pressing issues in my life, and I think that the fight is just a part of it. It’s a challenge to get ready for it and do all those things, but, you know, I’ve done this for 12 years. And just like Aniah said, it’s going to be OK.