No one was happy that the COVID-19 situation put a momentary halt to the heavyweight bout between Walt Harris and Alistair Overeem on April 11. But if there was a segment of the population that breathed a little sigh of relief, it’s the folks that might have had to spar with “The Big Ticket” back in Alabama after he was in the building for the February rematch between Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder.
“Oh yeah, for sure,” Harris laughs. “If we're training that Sunday or Monday, it's gonna be some session, especially if I'm close to a fight, like three or four weeks out. I feel bad for my sparring partners. I'm not even conscious of what's going on, I'm just so focused on the fight.”
That’s what watching a little high-level heavyweight action can do for a high-level heavyweight, regardless of what combat sport it is. The hype, the packed house, the bright lights, it’s what Harris is closing in on in the UFC and getting a taste of it for Fury-Wilder II in Las Vegas just whet his appetite for the future.
“That's one of the motivating factors,” said Harris, who has sparred with both Fury and Wilder in the past. “You watch it and then you have a chance to absorb it and put yourself in the shoes of those guys. It's always fun to go to fights live, especially UFC fights because you know what it's like to actually be in there and it gets you pumped up to go train. I'll go and shadow box for like an hour after I leave the fight.”
Harris laughs, and to hear that from “The Big Ticket” is one of the best sounds possible now.
Sure, he’s dealing with the pandemic and all its inconveniences, and he’s hoping he will get a date in May to finally meet Overeem, so he has to get creative to make sure he’s in fight shape. But what will never go away is the feeling of loss after the kidnapping and death of his daughter Aniah Blanchard last fall. It’s a heartbreaking tragedy that’s hard for anyone to put into words, let alone fathom what Harris and his family are going through. But they’re doing their best, so any moment to smile or laugh is a welcome one.
“I'm hanging in there, day by day,” he said. “Trying to stay healthy, stay in shape, stay mentally sharp and keep pushing.”
“Prayer, and a good foundation,” Harris said. “I've got a good family behind me. But it's still a process. I'm still working through it and trying to find a way through it, but I try to stay prayerful, focused and keep my faith and stay focused on my kids so I can give them the best life moving forward.”
Harris, 36, is one of the good guys. So while you don’t wish something like this on anyone, it really hits home when it is a solid citizen and a doting father like him. Needless to say, it was no surprise that when 19-year-old Aniah went missing in late October, the MMA community rallied around him and his family as they searched and hoped for a positive resolution that sadly never came.
“I received so many messages, posts on Instagram and Facebook and different social media sites throughout, and I'm still receiving them,” he said. “I try to read as much as I possibly can because it does help to know that people have you in their hearts and they're thinking about you, even if it's just to say that they're praying for you. That means a lot, more than people understand sometimes until you actually realize you need it. So I'm grateful for everybody who's reached out.”
The Overeem fight, originally scheduled for December 7 in Washington, D.C., was obviously too soon for Harris to even consider stepping into the Octagon. But in February, when the UFC announced its return to Portland, his name was back on top of the card, a welcome sight for someone who was happy to get back to work.
“It's kind of what I feel like my daughter would have wanted,” Harris said. “She was my biggest fan, so doing this is something that I love and training keeps me in a good head space. So it's definitely something that I'm looking forward to.”
COVID-19 would put a halt on the Portland date, but he’s doing what he can to stay ready for the call to meet “The Demolition Man.” It’s not a normal camp, but when has combat sports ever been normal.
“We moved some times around but this week we had to shut everything down,” Harris said on April 17. “Hopefully next week we'll be back up and we'll try to keep the groups as small as possible and skill-build and condition.”
No sparring in the backyard?
“Nah, we thought about that, but my neighbors would probably freak out if we did.”
You could charge admission.
“That's a good little side hustle, I didn't think about that.”
If that side hustle doesn’t come together, there is footage on Instagram of Harris dancing in the gym, though he may want to stick with his cooking for the next big gig.
“I'd definitely say that now that I'm getting older, I'm definitely a better cook than I can dance,” said Harris. “I'm cooking in the house, and the cooking at home is getting crazy because I'm on TikTok now, so I'm watching all these different shows and trying to make stuff at home.”
In other words, Harris and his family are living their lives as normally as they can. There will be laughs, tears, obstacles to overcome and triumphs to celebrate, just like every other family. That’s all he can ask for at this point. And when he gets his crack at Overeem, a win would make it three in a row for a fighter who hasn’t lost since 2017. Then he can start talking world title shots.
“I think a big statement win over Overeem puts me right in the mix and puts me where I want to be,” he said. “It sucks with all the stuff that's going on and how hot I was from July on. I was on that trajectory. But I feel like God does everything in his timing and a win over him puts me where I should be.”
As for the night he gets that win, Harris knows it won’t be easy, but it will be exactly where he wants to be.
“There's gonna be a lot of emotions,” he admits. “Just the mere fact of being able to work again and everything that I've been through, I'll probably shed some tears after the fight just because it's emotional with my daughter not being able to be there for my first headlining event for the UFC. I kinda thought about it here and there, and I always try to play out my victory speech in my head when I'm going to sleep, so I'm excited to get back in there and do what I love to do, and that's fight.”
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