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Gerald Harris initially turned down chance to step out of retirement for short-notice Bellator 198 fight

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Gerald Harris (EL, MMA Fighting)
Gerald Harris returns this weekend at Bellator 198.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Three days ago, Gerald Harris was a retired fighter on his couch setting up his DVR to record this weekend’s Bellator 198 event. Now, suddenly, he’s part of the show.

Harris stepped out of retirement this week to replace the injured John Salter in a short-notice matchup against jiu-jitsu ace Rafael Lovato Jr. on Saturday in Rosemont, Ill., at Bellator 198. A highly regarded veteran of the UFC, WSOF, DREAM, and countless regional shows, Harris brings with him to Bellator a sterling 8-1 record over his last nine fights, a run highlighted by a nasty slam knockout over Matt McKeon in the 38-year-old’s intended farewell bout last October.

The days since Harris received the phone call from Bellator officials have been a whirlwind, to say the least. The well-traveled middleweight admitted Thursday that he has been eyeing a chance to return to the fight game, but the opportunity that arrived at his doorstep was one greater than he imagined — even though he initially turned it down.

“Honestly, I retired because I kinda felt like my career wasn’t going anywhere,” Harris said at Bellator 198’s pre-fight press conference. “I was just feeling like I was peaking and I tore my Achilles tendon. So once I did that, I had to take a few months off, surgery, rehab. I fought two times and talked to my wife and said, ‘Hey, let’s just live a normal life.’ I’m teaching high school, I own a gym, and life is good, no complaints, but I just keep watching my friends fight and it’s just killing me. I’m really good friends with Chael Sonnen, ‘King Mo,’ ‘Rampage’, and I’m just watching these guys do their thing, and we’re all a similar age.

“I was sitting on the couch, I was like, ‘Babe, I could do it.’ Got back into training and just got a phone call. And I’ll be honest, the first time I got it, I turned it down. Then as soon as I hung up the phone, my gut was like, ‘Dude, do it.’ I’m super happy to be here. I was literally on the couch on my little app ... and I was trying to DVR this event. And I end up being on it. So, man, it’s amazing. This is the best card I’ve ever been on.”

Bellator 198 takes place April 28 at Rosemont’s Allstate Arena. The main card, headlined by a heavyweight tournament quarterfinal bout between Fedor Emelianenko and Frank Mir, airs live on Paramount Network.

Harris faces Lovato Jr. on the night’s main card in a 188-pound catchweight fight that could have major title implications for the Bellator middleweight division.

A decorated jiu-jitsu player, Lovato Jr. is undefeated thus far in his MMA career. The Cincinnati native’s 7-0 record is punctuated by a flawless three-fight run under the Bellator umbrella that has featured a 13-second knockout of Charles Hackmann, a submission of UFC veteran Mike Rhodes, and most recently, a unanimous decision win over two-time All-American wrestler Chris Honeycutt.

An opponent with the credentials of Lovato Jr. is a tall task for Harris to face in his impromptu promotional debut, but “Hurricane” is up for the challenge.

“I got the call Tuesday sitting on the couch eating donuts,” Harris said. “It was my fat day in my little training, and I was like, ‘Man, I just ate a donut. I can’t fight on Saturday.’ The one day I choose to eat something fat. But I’m fine though. I’m in shape. I’ve been training my butt off. And it was just a natural instinct, going, ‘I want to be ready. This is Bellator. I can’t take a last-minute fight.’ Mentally, I’m prepared. I’ll tell you something a lot of fighters will tell you, that, mentally, short-notice fights are a lot more fun, a lot less stress.

“If I had eight weeks to think about Lovato, it’s just a long time, watching video, training. And then look what happened to him, his opponent backed out at the last minute. So, I’m fine. It’s mentally a lot easier but physically it’s going to be a lot harder.”

Though he may have considered himself retired just days ago, Harris isn’t looking at his opportunity at Bellator as a one-off. The longtime MMA veteran was infamously cut from the UFC in 2010 despite sporting a 3-1 record with three knockouts during his Octagon run. Since then, chances to compete on a mainstream stage have largely eluded him. So Harris is looking at Bellator 198 as the start of a new chapter of his fight career.

“I don’t want to say one-and-done,” Harris said. “I went into this going, ‘Hey, I want to put on a good impression and hopefully you guys will keep me around.’ This is literally the only organization I’ve never fought for. I’ve always wanted to fight for Bellator. I’ve never said anything bad about them. But whenever I was released from the organization I was with (the UFC), it was kind of a tough time for the two, and I can understand why [Bellator] didn’t sign me, because I was kinda like leftovers at the time. But years have passed and I have a great relationship with a lot of the staff here.

“It’s just kinda crazy. I was starstruck when I met Mr. Coker. It’s just great to be here — and I got to take a picture with Fedor.”