From the moment Kayla Harrison announced she’d be pursuing a career in MMA expectations have been high and she’s embracing that challenge.
That’s not at all surprising given that Harrison demolished the competition during her time as a world class judoka, becoming the first American to win Olympic gold in the sport at the 2012 games and repeating the feat four years later. With nothing left to prove in judo, Harrison was naturally pushed to follow in the footsteps of former training partner Ronda Rousey (who went on to become a UFC megastar) and try her hand at professional fighting.
So far, the results have been promising. Debuting at Professional Fighters League 2 in June, Harrison needed less than a round to slap a fight-ending armbar on Brittney Elkin. In her second fight at PFL 6, Harrison faced the more experienced Jozette Cotton and though she picked up another finish, this time by third-round TKO, it took longer than she would have liked.
It wasn’t until Harrison’s team had a chance to speak to her afterwards that she was able to appreciate her own performance.
“Initially, I actually got off the mat, got out of the cage, and I was really upset,” Harrison told Luke Thomas on The MMA Hour. “Really frustrated, really emotional about it because I want to be the best in the world and you can’t be the best in the world if it’s taking you that long to put away people, but once I calmed down, once I talked to Mike (Brown), and ‘Big Jim’ (Jim Pedro Sr.), and I talked to Tony (Martin), sort of let the emotions settle, I realized that’s invaluable experience.
“One of the biggest things I was always concerned with was my gas tank because I always felt like I wasn’t in great shape for MMA for some reason. In judo, I always felt like I could have 20 matches in a day and I would always be in better shape than my opponents; in MMA, I get so tired so fast, so I really had a lot of anxiety about my gas tank. But it’s good to know that I felt just as fresh in the third round as I did in the first, so I’m happy with it.”
Harrison wasn’t perfect. She couldn’t finish an armbar in the closing moments of round one and her standup remains a work in progress. Though she showed a willingness to strike with Cotton, even firing off the occasional high kick, it was her grappling and ground-and-pound that ended up being her path to victory.
Her previous combat sports experience has helped her development, but Harrison noted there’s a big difference between setting up a throw and punching someone in the face.
“Grabbing the gi and holding onto someone and pushing and pulling and that is so much different than having the quick reflexes of throwing out a jab,” Harrison said. “Yes, my hand speed is fast because I’m used to grabbing a gi, but really I’m not anywhere close to what a boxer would be or what a kickboxer would be. That speed is something that I have to learn.”
It will be tough for Harrison to find competition given that the PFL does not have a dedicated women’s lightweight division yet, and while she’s aware that a drop to featherweight could be in her future, it’s not a move she’s in a hurry to make.
But whether the PFL creates a 155-pound title for her or she makes the move to another promotion to challenge the elite at 145 pounds, Harrison is confident that her skills will eventually reach the point where she will hold a major championship by the end of 2019.
“I picture that every night,” Harrison said. “I have since I first decided that I was gonna fight. That’s the end goal. I fully expect by the end of next year I will be one of the best — if not the best — in the world.”