WASHINGTON, DC — It was the day before Thanksgiving that the news broke.
In the woods of rural Alabama, authorities found the body of 19-year-old Aniah Blanchard. She had been missing since October 23.
Blanchard was the step-daughter of UFC heavyweight Walt Harris. Harris (13-7-1) was supposed to compete Saturday at UFC on ESPN 7 here in Washington, DC, but he withdrew November 1 to focus on the search for Blanchard (sidebar: a suspect was later charged and faces the death penalty).
The knockout-seeking big man from Birmingham was riding a four-fight unbeaten streak with three stoppages. Saturday would have been the first main event of his UFC career.
The day after Blanchard's body was discovered, a heartrending Instagram post from a seemingly distraught Harris vented his grief. The full post reads:
"My sweet baby girl... I just wanna thank you for helping me change my life for the better... For teaching me how to be a man and a better father! For being my biggest fan win, lose, or draw! For always knowing what to say to put a smile on my face and lift me up when I was down and wanted to give up. You light up my world I'm so many ways. This pain is unbearable... I know you want me to be strong but it so hard baby it so hard. I'm gonna find away I promise you I will. Right now nothing makes sense and I'm so lost. I just want you back. I hope I made you proud... I'm gonna keep going daddy just needs time. I love you so much. Look after us like you always did. We need you now more than ever. My lil mighty mighty tiger is a angel now. I love you baby girl forever and ever!"
It's hard to read that and have anything but sympathy pain. With UFC on ESPN 7 approaching, fighters arrived at Thursday's media day to hold court with reporters. They were getting into the head space they need to do their jobs, but with the tragedy hanging low over the proceedings, several let their guard down just a bit to, in their inimitable fighterly ways, send heartfelt messages to their former card-mate.
"If he was here, I would give him a hug," said Alistair Overeem (45-17-1), who was originally scheduled to face Harris. "What can you say? You can't really say anything to that. It's awful, the situation."
The show went on in DC, but the fresh tragedy seemed to be silently running in the background.
"Yeah, obviously, dealing with the Walt Harris situation was horrible, and it's hard to even express to you how bad that was for all of us here at the UFC," UFC President Dana White said Thursday on Chad Dukes vs. the World, a DC-area sports talk radio show. "He held in as long as he could; he wanted to take this fight, and then it just got to the point where he couldn't. We knew he couldn't take the fight, so we put in [Jairzinho] Rozenstruik, who is an absolute beast. This fight is a great fight, when you look at it."
It's an odd place to be if you're Rozenstruik. On the one hand, he fully realizes the circumstances that led to his being on the card.
"I was really heartbroken," said Rozenstruik, the affable Surinamese bruiser. "I got two daughters myself, so anything like that happens, I don't know. It's hard. I hope the guy's doing better."
On the other, he has a chance to put his name in another layer of the stratosphere Saturday against a decorated veteran in Overeem. (And the two sentiments are not mutually exclusive, by the way.) He got the call thanks to the three knockouts he's compiled—the most recent two in a combined 37 seconds—in three UFC contests. For all the seamheads out there: That's a pretty good batting average. If he could win this, he'd likely put himself on a fast track.
"I gotta focus on my fight," he said, "because that's the most important to me. Everything besides that, I focus after my fight."
Overeem put his own game face back on when asked about whether Harris' situation—including the change of opponent—might affect his performance.
"It changed my focus in the sense that my opponent changed," Overeem said. "Of course, you follow the news." And then he trailed off.
Ben Rothwell (36-12) is one of the more quotable fighters on the UFC roster. Rothwell also fights in Harris' bracket, and on Saturday, he faces fellow heavyweight Stefan Struve (29-11). When asked what he might tell Harris were Harris in the room, Rothwell's gaze went sort of flat for an instant, as if mentally arranging his response.
"I'd tell him, 'I just want to be there for you,'" Rothwell said. "Everyone knows I'm a guy that when they send a contract to [me], doesn't matter who it is, Stipe [Miocic] or Francis [Ngannou], I'm gonna fight anyone in the world. But the one guy I said I do not want to fight is Walt Harris. Out of respect. I want to be there for him, and I'm praying for him."
Yana Kunitskaya (12-4-1) might have encapsulated the collective sentiment. The women's bantamweight, born in Russia and now training in Las Vegas, is scheduled to face Aspen Ladd (8-1) on Saturday's main card. As she met with reporters, suddenly the talk shifted away from training and preparation, and in that moment, her face fell.
"When I come back home from training and I hear what happened, I was crying," Kunitskaya said. "I'm an introvert. I don't say much about it. So it's very hard for me to show any emotion, so I feel so bad, and I'm so sorry for his loss, and no words can say anything for the situation."
Scott Harris is an MMA and feature writer at Bleacher Report.