JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Walt Harris pointed to the sky and proudly showed off a “Fighting for Aniah” T-shirt as he entered the arena. He left a few minutes later with tears in his eyes, hardly the result he wanted in his first UFC fight since the death of his stepdaughter.
Alistair Overeem stopped Harris in the second round of UFC’s Fight Night main event Saturday, ending what was an emotional return for the heavyweight fighter known as The Big Ticket.
Harris was a slight favorite and the sentimental choice as he stepped into the octagon for the first time since his 19-year-old daughter, Aniah Blanchard, was killed in Alabama.
Harris (13-8) looked as if he would notch his 14th career knockout when he dropped Overeem in the opening round. But the veteran regrouped on the eve of his 40th birthday and dominated the rest of the way. Overeem (46-18) sent Harris to the mat for the final time with an unblocked combination early in the second.
Harris never recovered, and the referee called it after a bevy of unanswered shots to the head. Overeem shared a moment with Harris on the mat.
Harris thanked the UFC, his team and his community while fighting back tears.
“I'm sorry I didn't get the W for you tonight," Harris said. “You've been like my family through everything, and I'm so grateful . . . Y'all at home watching, I'm sorry. I'll be back better, I promise you. You haven't seen the last of The Big Ticket. I'm going to go home, recover. I'm going to heal emotionally and physically, and I promise you I'll be better.”
UFC President Dane White echoed Harris' pledge.
“Win, lose or draw, being here is a win for him," White said. “He got through tonight and who knows what was going through that guy’s body, head, the whole deal.”
Overeem said he offered to train with Harris down the road, hoping it could make both of them better in a stacked division.
“Of course, Walt has been through personal tragedy, which is awful," Overeem said. “But I see it as a sport. It's a game, right? It's a way of making a living . . . I just see it as professional, nothing personal.”
Harris’ wife encouraged him to return to the octagon after more than six months of grieving.
Blanchard, a student at Alabama, was last seen on October 23 in Auburn, Alabama. Her SUV was found abandoned days later more than 50 miles away in Montgomery. Police said her blood was found in the car. Her remains were discovered in a wooded area in late November.
Ibraheem Yazeed, 29, was charged with capital murder. The medical examiner determined Blanchard died from a gunshot wound. Prosecutors have indicated they will seek the death penalty if Yazeed is convicted.
Harris and Overeem had been slated to fight in April, but the bout was postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic. It landed as the main event for the UFC’s third show in Jacksonville in eight days, all part of the series’ return following an eight-week hiatus.
The UFC will take the next two weeks off before fighting May 30. It hopes to return to Las Vegas, but first needs clearance from the Nevada Athletic Commission. If not, White said it will be held in Arizona.
Other fights on the main card:
• Claudia Gadelha (18-4) held off Angela Hill (12-8) in the strawweight division and won a split decision. Hill controlled the pace, making it more of a sparring bout than a grappling game, but Gadelha got the nod on two of the three scorecards.
• Dan Ige (14-2) edged Edson Barboza (20-9) in another split decision. Ige’s sixth straight victory came in the featherweight division. Barboza cut 10 pounds to move down a weight class.
• Krzysztof Jotko (22-4) beat former Alabama linebacker Eryk Anders (13-5) in a middleweight bout. Jotko did a breakdance in the middle of the octagon after his third consecutive victory.
• Song Yadong withstood Marlon Vera’s last push in the opening fight of the main card and won a unanimous decision in the featherweight division. Vera (17-6-1) refused to shake hands with Song (5-0-1) after the result was announced. Song, of China, had visa issues and wasn’t sure he would be able to fight until Friday.
On the undercard:
• Miquel Baeza (9-0) notched his seventh knockout to remain unbeaten in the welterweight division. He took down 39-year-old Matt Brown (22-17) early in the second round.
• Kevin Holland (17-5) got a 39-second knockout against Anthony Hernandez (7-2) in the middleweight division.
• Giga Chikadze made the most of his size advantage to beat Irwin Rivera in a unanimous flyweight decision. Chikadze (10-2) was on crutches following his fifth consecutive victory. Rivera (9-5) was a last-minute replacement for Mike Davis, who was removed from the card Thursday after suffering complications associated with cutting weight. Davis is the Titan FC bantamweight champion and was able to drive up from Miami on short notice.
• Nate Landwehr bloodied Darren Elkins in the opening round and dominated the rest of the way, winning a unanimous flyweight decision that was easily the bloodiest bout in any of the three UFC events held in Jacksonville. Landwehr (14-3) showboated throughout the fight and even put his right hand behind his back at one point. It was his eighth victory in nine fights. Elkins has dropped four straight.
“The blood was in my mouth. I was trying to spit it out,” Landwehr said. “Man, that was a good one.”
• Cortney Casey finished Mara Borrello with an armbar in the first round, It was Casey’s first submission since 2016 and her first fight in 15 months. Borrello (12-8) screamed as Casey (9-7) put pressure on her left elbow.
• Rodrigo Nascimento (8-0) won his UFC debut and remained undefeated in his MMA career with his sixth submission, this one against fellow heavyweight Don’Tale Mayes. Nascimento stopped Mayes (6-4) in the second round of the night’s opener with a choke hold.