While 2020 was a difficult year for a lot of people, UFC heavyweight Walt Harris and his family endured far more than a global pandemic.
Following the tragic and senseless murder of his stepdaughter Aniah Blanchard, Harris returned to action in May to headline one of the promotion’s first events back after several cancellations due to COVID-19. “The Big Ticket” took on Alistair Overeem in the main event of UFC on ESPN 8 and had his opponent in big trouble early in the fight. But Overeem was able to overcome the early adversity and finished Harris in the second via TKO.
Harris carried an astronomic weight on his shoulders heading into that fight, and he felt he was in a much better place physically and mentally heading into his UFC 254 fight with Alexander Volkov. But he admits he lost focus for a split second, and it changed the complexion of the fight the rest of the way, leading to a second-round stoppage win for Volkov following a vicious kick to the body.
Harris, like most of the world, is ready to turn the page to 2021. While the fighter in him hope to return in the first quarter of the year, the 37-year-old heavyweight veteran knows there’s some things he needs to take care of first, most notably his mental health.
“I was thinking February [I’d like to return],” Harris told MMA Fighting while appearing on a recent edition of What the Heck. “I need to take some time, mentally, for myself. I feel like I jumped back in it so quick after everything. I really hadn’t grieved properly, to be honest.
“I heard Anthony [Smith] say something [after his recent win over Devin Clark], he talked to somebody and I think that’s gonna be key for me as well. I haven’t really talked to somebody, and I think that’s so important. Mental health is huge, and I’ve realized that more in this last year, or more than any point in my life, how important it is.”
Harris entered 2020 on a four-fight unbeaten streak and was rising up the heavyweight divisional ranks. In fact, Harris spent just over a minute in the octagon with his two finishes of Sergey Spivak and Aleksei Oleinik.
When asked if he has since had the chance to grieve the loss of his stepdaughter since returning, Harris admits it hasn’t been enough.
“In spurts [I have],” Harris explained. “It’s weird because I’ve been trying to stay busy and take my mind off of it, and it’s worked to a certain degree. Then there’s those days where it just hits you, and I just break down. I think that I still haven’t really grieved the way I’ve had to, and I need to sit down and really assess the mental side of it.
“I’m about to talk with some sports psychologists. I have a therapist and I’m not seeing him as regularly as I should, but that part of it is key for me. I need to take that into consideration and get back into it. But staying busy has tried to keep my mind from going to that super dark place but we’ll get all that figured out and I’ll be back stronger than ever for sure.”
In a July 2019 interview with ESPN, Harris opened up about battling depression following his college basketball career, which led him to finding a new journey in MMA. While his journey gave him a lot of tools to use in assisting with the process of healing following a tragedy, nothing could ever prepare him for what he and his family went through.
“This is nothing like I’ve ever been through or wish anybody to go through, but some of the things that I have been through to this point have helped me hang on,” Harris stated. “But this is uncharted territory for myself and it’s something I definitely need to analyze deeper to make sure I’m okay.
“At the end of the day, sometimes we tend to forget about ourselves because we’re trying to take care of others, and look out for others, and then being a fighter on top of that doesn’t make it any easier because you feel like you can make it through anything. And that’s been a lot of my problem: I feel like I’ll be alright, you’ll figure it out later. Sometimes you need to slow down and look at it, and see where you are.
“But I’m blessed, man. I have good people around me and I think everything will work out.”