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The story of Aniah Blanchard, stepdaughter of Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight Walt Harris, is heart-wrenching and harrowing. She was driving back to her university in October, when she went missing. A month later she was found shot to death. She was 19 years old.
It’s hard to not be moved by the documentary feature used to promote the UFC on ESPN 8 main event between Harris and Alistair Overeem. It depicts the bond between father and daughter blooming throughout each other’s lives over the last 15 years. She was a pillar of support for him when he struggled early on in the UFC and, cruelly enough, was violently taken from him in the middle of a career high. “According to court records, Aniah fought back and reached for the gun before she was shot in her car,” the documentary narration says. Harris, with tears in his eyes and trembling in his voice, echoes and embodies her struggle at the end of the video: “It’s not about fighting for me anymore. It’s about fighting for her.”
It’s easy to understand why ESPN and the UFC went all-in on this story. Losing a child is indiscriminately nightmarish, the Worst Case Imaginable for people of all temperaments and from all walks of life. Even if they wanted to avoid it, it’s such a life-changing event that it would have been impossible to tell Harris’ story without discussing it. Plus, there’s a good being served by getting Blanchard’s story to the general public, for the individuals affected specifically but also for broader society. Her death exemplifies issues that deserve our conscientious attention but rarely receive it. Kidnappings and random killings happen, so often that we tend to stomp them down into our collective subconscious as tacit acceptance, but it’s important to remember the worlds we live in and how something as seemingly simple as driving alone can be fatal—especially for women. Perhaps smuggling these realities in the form of pre-fight hype was the best way to reach the biggest possible audience and, consequently, create the greatest possible good from such tremendous loss.
Yet something about the whole package felt uneasy. It was stirring and hopeful and powerfully told, all of which made it especially strange as fight promotion. It definitely did not put me in the mood to watch a sport where the most celebrated conclusion is an abrupt facsimile of death, and it did not make it easy to watch “The Big Ticket” get helplessly stretched out and mounted, flailing limply with nothing but a single hand covering the side of his head while he took punch after punch. They clearly weren’t going to knock him out but were nonetheless landing at will. Setting up Harris’ triumphant return and then watching him lose the way he did just felt bad. The real victory—that he returned to the cage at all—ended up lost in the noiselessness.
Although Overeem is an eminent professional and we should believe him when he said, repeatedly, that he was unaffected by playing the spoiler in Harris’ emotional comeback fight, he was still put in an unenviable position. He wasn’t the bad guy, but he definitely was not the guy you could root for with a clear conscience. That’s a shame, since it was the 21-year veteran’s 65th professional MMA fight and took place on the eve of his 40th birthday. In fact, had it gone the full 25 minutes, he would have turned 40 in the middle of the fight. Securing an impressive win against a tough up-and-comer put him in line to perhaps finally claim the one prize that has evaded him throughout his career: a UFC championship. Yet there was little room for any of this, promotionally speaking. It was too incoherent a contrast with such immense tragedy, too frivolous and facile to place next to the somber specter of a recent, untimely death.
Despite all of this, I’m not suggesting ESPN or the UFC did anything wrong, per se, and I’m certainly not suggesting they shouldn’t have told this story the way they did. It was beautifully human, an achievement seldom realized but perpetually sought after in the world of sports. Everyone who watched it was better off having done so. It also took real courage for the family to open up and tell their story publicly. They did an admirable job honoring Blanchard’s memory. The sting of defeat will surely fade, but the unconquerable spirit forged from this tragedy will forever remain.
I’m just not sure how I feel about a death in a fighter’s family being used to sell anything, especially a fight. I wonder if it wouldn’t have been better to run the package some other time, maybe after the fight. It would have maybe made the adrenaline of watching people pound the life out of each other a little less awkward, and it would have made it so Harris’ return, regardless of the outcome, was what mattered. Perhaps more importantly, it would have honored what was lost and inspired hope without the pesky feeling that multi-billion-dollar companies are profiting off of the trauma of one of their five-figure roster fighters.
Eric Stinton is a writer from Kailua, Hawaii. His fiction, nonfiction and journalism have appeared in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat, Medium and Vice Sports, among others. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint, or find his work at ericstinton.com.
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