Everyone watching was rooting for Walt Harris last night (Sat., May, 16, 2020) at UFC on ESPN 8, which took place inside VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida.
Barring the sole exceptions of Alistair Overeem’s family and sociopath gamblers looking to make a buck, the combat sports world cheered for “The Big Ticket.” Nothing against Overeem, but it’s human to empathize with Harris following his personal tragedy (details). The death of a family member is one of the worst — yet most relatable — traumas mankind endures, and UFC did not hide the terrible circumstances behind the death of Harris’ step-daughter Aniah Blanchard.
UFC made a decision (presumably with Harris’ blessing) to talk quite a bit about Blanchard’s death in the lead up to his first bout back. They incorporated her death into the narrative of the fight. Harris carried that loss with him into the Octagon, and it even preceded his entrance in the form of an ESPN feature and multiple previews. There was no separating Harris from his personal loss.
I don’t mean to sound like I’m criticizing the organization or suggesting it was inappropriate. The situation was handled respectfully and with care. However, it ignored a deep-seated truth about combat sports: there are seldom happy endings. Any Disney executive could tell you the storybook resolution: Harris storms out of the gate, knocks out Overeem, and the viewing public shares a cathartic moment in the light of his victory.
Harris blasted Overeem in the opening two minutes and nearly finished the fight. He chased that picture-perfect scenario with too much vigor. Harris missed some key shots in pursuit of the finish, slipped on a kick, and the rest is history. There was no way to enjoy Overeem’s moment of heart and grit. It was all too much of a bummer (watch highlights).
In the last eight days, we have seen three events culminate in heart-crushing moments. Walt Harris rallies through unimaginable personal circumstances only to come up just short. Anthony Smith dealt with a home break-in (and was made fun of for it?) only to have his Light Heavyweight contender status (and teeth) smashed to pieces. Tony Ferguson’s eight-year unbeaten streak was rendered useless when Justin Gaethje pummeled him into an unrecognizable mass (watch it).
Last night’s outcome was unfortunate, but not unexpected. It quickly becomes apparent while following MMA that the sport chews up story lines and feel good moments with such upsetting regularity that a bit of apathy is almost required to remain a fan. Perhaps that’s why a certain portion of the fan base is obnoxious.
MMA can create powerful moments like few other sports, but they all depend on perspective. If Alistair Overeem is your favorite fighter, it was probably pretty tremendous to watch him recover against all odds. For the rest of us, however, UFC on ESPN 8 serves as a reminder to ready yourself for the many painful moments endured in combat sports.
For complete UFC on ESPN 8 results and play-by-play coverage click here.