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UFC’s Walt Harris returns to cage after stepdaughter’s death

UFC heavyweight contender Walt Harris admits there were days he felt guilty even thinking about resuming his career.

“There was a point where, honestly, thinking about anything but my daughter (felt) wrong,” he said Thursday on a video call. “I battled that so hard. I was like, ‘If I go back to fighting, am I not thinking of her? Am I not doing the right thing by her?’”

It’s difficult to blame Harris for such conflicted emotions.

His 19-year-old stepdaughter, Aniah Blanchard, whom he had helped raise since she was 3, was kidnapped in October as she returned to college in Auburn, Alabama. After a weekslong search that captivated the MMA world, her body was found dead by gunshot in a wooded area near Montgomery, Alabama, on Nov. 25. An Alabama man has been charged with murder.

Harris withdrew from the first main event bout of his career, in December against Alistair Overeem. The matchup will finally happen in the main event of Saturday’s UFC on ESPN 8 card in front of an empty venue in Jacksonville, Florida.

Harris, 36, is looking to build on the momentum of two straight first-round knockout victories that took a combined 62 seconds.

His last fight, in July, feels like an eternity ago.

“I went through a dark, dark period, as you could probably already imagine,” Harris said. “I felt myself slipping in the opposite direction of what I set out to be as a man and as a father.”

His wife, Angela, said a return to the gym could be a positive outlet for his emotions. Harris got the reassurance he needed by reconnecting with Blanchard through prayer.

“I could hear her telling me, ‘Daddy, I want you to go back. I want you to fight. This is what we worked so hard for. I sacrificed so much. Mom sacrificed so much. You sacrificed so much to get to where you are. I would be more upset with you if you stopped fighting.’” Harris said.

“That’s when I went back in the gym and started getting back in shape. I put a goal out there of when I wanted to fight, just to kind of give myself some incentive and motivation outside of what I already had.

“I faced something no father should ever face.”

One of his main training partners, former Alabama football player Eryk Anders, also will fight on the card. He said training camp has been difficult but therapeutic.

“It’s kind of hard to ignore the elephant in the room,” said Anders, who will fight middleweight Krzysztof Jotko. “Everybody knows what happened. When he’s in the gym, he’s one of the guys, man. We make fun of him. He talks trash. There’s a lot of camaraderie that goes into this. We all kind of took that hit. His daughter has babysat my children before. I think it’s a little personal for everybody in the gym.

“The camaraderie and being around the fellas and coaches in training kind of helps get your mind off those things. There’s no telling what the emotions are going to be like on fight night, but I think everybody is focused.”

Harris, who has been working with government officials on legislation to keep violent criminals in jail, known as ‘Aniah’s Law,’ just wants to go back to work.

“Out of me, you’re going to see the same me — explosive and athletic but with a renewed vigor,” he said. “My focus has been laser sharp since the tragedy. I’m fighting for a different purpose. My daughter is with me everywhere I go. When you’ve got something like that pushing you, at this point in my career, I feel like I could run through a brick wall. He’s going to be facing a dangerous man on Saturday night.”

The main card, which also features a women’s strawweight contender bout between Angela Hill and Las Vegan Claudia Gadelha, airs on ESPN at 6 p.m. Preliminary card bouts air on ESPN and ESPN Plus at 3.

Contact Adam Hill at ahill@reviewjournal.com. Follow @AdamHillLVRJ on Twitter.

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