Walt Harris was ranked ninth in the world in the UFC fight game as he entered the fall of 2019. He was on a four-fight winning streak, heading for a possible shot at the heavyweight championship.
But then, Walt’s beloved 19-year-old stepdaughter, Aniah Blanchard, a college student in Auburn, Alabama, vanished without a trace in October 2019, and his meteoric rise instantly came to a crashing halt.
The emotionally charged episode of “48 Hours,” revealing what happened to the young woman, is reported by CBS News special correspondent James Brown. His exclusive report, “Fighting for Aniah,” airs Saturday, August 28 at 10/9c on CBS.
“The moment that you found out that she was missing?” James Brown asked.
“My gut sank … the feeling of helplessness just came over me,” Walt recalled.
Fighting was instantly the furthest thought from Walt’s mind, but he overcame his initial shock and then kicked into gear, spending day after painful day searching for his missing Aniah and praying for her safe return.
Then the awful news eventually arrived. Authorities found Aniah’s remains in the woods 55 miles away from Auburn, and were charging Ibraheem Yazeed, a 30-year-old with a lengthy arrest record, with murdering Aniah. He was free on bond at the time, after being charged for allegedly severely beating an elderly man before Aniah was killed. Yazeed has pleaded not guilty to all the charges against him.
Without his biggest fan to support him, the 6’5″, 250-pound UFC fighter said he was ready to throw in the towel on his career. “I didn’t even know if I would fight again,” Walt said.
That was before Aniah came to him in a dream … and embraced him.
“She was sitting in our living room, and there was just a beam of light on her and she had her arms out and I hugged her, and she said, ‘Keep going.’ And I just woke up, like with a renewed vigor, I felt fresh.”
Against all odds, including the pandemic, Walt found renewed inspiration from Aniah, and he bravely fought off the anguish of losing her. Walt returned to the gym and finally climbed back into the UFC Octagon, the steel cage where the sport’s fiercest athletes compete. And as a UFC ring announcer would later observe, every father in the world was in Walt’s corner when he fought again.
Incredibly, one of Walt’s fights would be October 24, 2020 — on the first anniversary of the murder of his stepdaughter.
“When he first told me … I said, ‘Are you sure?'” Walt’s wife and Aniah’s mother, Angela Harris, recalls. “And he said, ‘I’m sure.’ And so, I knew how important that this was to him and how important that this would be to her, to Aniah, and that she would want him to do it.”
A split-second mental mistake cost Walt the bout. But he vows to be better the next time.
“I will always fight for my baby girl,” Walt Harris said.