One of the main storylines around the UFC’s past two events — on Wednesday and last Saturday, both in Jacksonville, Florida — has obviously been the return of sports to a world in partial lockdown.
That storyline will give way to a new one on Saturday: the return of Walt Harris.
Harris (13-7) will face Alistair Overeem (45-18) in the main event of UFC Fight Night at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena — the same venue as UFC 249 and Wednesday’s UFC Fight Night.
The event airs on ESPN and ESPN+, with the main card starting at 9 p.m. ET and the prelims at 6 p.m.
This heavyweight fight was scheduled to take place last December, but Harris withdrew because of the disappearance of his 19-year-old stepdaughter, Aniah Blanchard, who was abducted in October. Authorities found her remains the following month in a wooded area in Alabama.
The family tragedy occurred in the midst of what has been, professionally, the best run of Harris’ career. The former college basketball player is on a three-fight win streak, his longest in the UFC. Saturday will mark his first main event since signing with the company in 2013.
Overeem, 39, is coming off a disheartening defeat. He accepted a fight with Jairzinho Rozenstruik in December after Harris withdrew, then lost by knockout in the final seconds of Round 5 in a bout that Overeem had largely controlled. He will be seeking his first victory in more than a year.
By the numbers
73.4: Percentage of significant strike attempts by Overeem that hit their target, the highest among fighters in any weight class in UFC history.
61.6: Percentage of significant strike attempts successfully defended by Harris, the highest among active UFC heavyweights.
9: Knockdowns in the UFC by Overeem, third-most among active heavyweights. Harris has eight, good for fourth place.
6:35: Average fight time in the UFC by Harris, in minutes and seconds, the fifth-lowest among active heavyweights with at least five fights. Overeem is 10th, at 8:47.
2.3: Points per game by Harris during his one season as a 6-foot-5 forward on the Jacksonville State basketball team, in 2003-04.
Sources: ESPN Stats & Information and UFC Stats
A look back
Five vs. five
Alistair Overeem’s most recent results
Loss: Jairzinho Rozenstruik (KO5, Dec. 7, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Aleksei Oleinik (TKO1, April 20, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Sergei Pavlovich (TKO2, Nov. 24, 2018)
Loss: Curtis Blaydes (TKO3, June 9, 2018)
Loss: Francis Ngannou (KO2, Dec. 2, 2017)
Walt Harris’ most recent results
Win: Aleksei Oleinik (KO1, July 20, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Serghei Spivac (TKO1, May 4, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
NC: Andrei Arlovski (Win overturned, Dec. 29, 2018)
Win: Daniel Spitz (TKO2, June 1, 2018)
Loss: Mark Godbeer (DQ for kick, Nov. 4, 2017)
Brett Okamoto’s prediction
Harris has always flashed potential since joining the UFC at age 30. I distinctly remember thinking he was a heavyweight to keep an eye on after his debut in 2013, which resulted in a loss to Jared Rosholt. Thus far, the potential hasn’t quite materialized into a serious title run — but if Harris defeats Overeem, he’ll be in that conversation. Overeem is always a tough style matchup, though. He’s crafty, difficult to take down and still very dangerous at age 39. Heavyweight bouts are always something of a crapshoot, because of the power involved, and this one should be a close, tense affair for as long as it lasts. I’ll side with experience. Overeem via third-round TKO.
Saturday’s fight card
ESPN/ESPN+, 9 p.m. ET
Alistair Overeem vs. Walt Harris | Heavyweight
Claudia Gadelha vs. Angela Hill | Strawweight
Dan Ige vs. Edson Barboza | Men’s featherweight
Eryk Anders vs. Krzysztof Jotko | Middleweight
Song Yadong vs. Marlon Vera | Men’s featherweight
ESPN/ESPN+, 6 p.m.
Matt Brown vs. Miguel Baeza | Welterweight
Irwin Rivera vs. Giga Chikadze | Men’s featherweight
Darren Elkins vs. Nate Landwehr | Men’s featherweight
Cortney Casey vs. Mara Romero Borella | Women’s flyweight
Rodrigo Nascimento vs. Don’Tale Mayes | Heavyweight
What else to look for … beyond the main event
Angela Hill is even more cowboy than Cowboy
Saturday’s fights come on the 137th day of 2020. And on that day, Angela Hill will fight for the third time this year. No other fighter has been as active.
“I love getting in there as often as possible,” Hill, who faces Claudia Gadelha in a strawweight bout, said Thursday.
That way of thinking stems from her early career, when Hill jumped right into the deep end of the pool. She had competed as a kickboxer, going 16-0, but had no amateur MMA background. Her third pro fight was in the UFC.
“I always felt that at the beginning of my career I maybe did a little too much too soon,” said Hill. “So this is my way of bridging that gap and being able to feel as comfortable as the girls who had a long amateur MMA career. This is my way of equaling that playing field.”
Bits ‘n’ pieces
Edson Barboza will make his featherweight debut after losing four of his past five fights. He faces Dan Ige, winner of five in a row. A win for Ige would break a tie with Alexander Volkanovski for the most wins at 145 pounds since the start of 2018 (five).
Marlon Vera and Song Yadong usually compete at bantamweight, but they will kick off the main card in a featherweight bout. Both are unbeaten in their past five fights. Vera has had finishes in each of those wins, good for the second-longest active streak of UFC finishes, trailing only Charles Oliveira (seven). Yadong is unbeaten in the UFC (4-0-1) and is the youngest fighter on the card (22).
A win by Matt Brown, who faces Miguel Baeza, would tie him with Matt Hughes for the second-most welterweight wins in UFC history (16), trailing only Georges St-Pierre (19). Should Brown win by KO/TKO, he would tie Vitor Belfort for the most knockout wins in UFC history (12).
Baeza (8-0) is one of two fighters who will put undefeated records on the line in the prelims. The other is Rodrigo Nascimento (7-0), the lone fighter on Saturday’s card making his UFC debut. He faces heavyweight Don’Tale Mayes in the evening’s opening bout.