Two-time Olympic gold medalist Kayla Harrison is a mere day away from her first fight of the 2021 PFL season. The undefeated MMA fighter will be facing her first opponent of the year when she takes on Mariana Morais in the opening round of the lightweight division, following up a 2019 tournament victory that saw her crowned the PFL Lightweight Champion.
The title and glory were nice, of course, but the PFL also provides a significant financial incentive for fighters to come in with Harrison’s level of skill and dedication, with division winners taking home a million dollars at the end of the season — a sum that Harrison accurately describes as “life-changing money.”
This, of course, is not the norm in the MMA industry. Fighter pay has long been a topic of controversy, with many large promotions being criticized for not paying their athletes a fair amount for the work they do and the risks they take as professionals in a combat sport.
“You look at the average pay for the MLB, the NFL, the NHL, the NBA — all these leagues, they’re the promotion of their sport, and those athletes are making way more than what we make,” Harrison told the Jiu-Jitsu Times. “I know MMA is young. I know it’s still developing and growing and ever-evolving, but I hope that having a promotion like the PFL opens up more opportunities for fighters to go and get paid.”
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Harrison emphasizes, though, that the power to increase fighter pay doesn’t rest solely in the hands of promoters. She’d like to see the fighters themselves step up to demand fair pay and better treatment for the work they do. “You do have all the power. The show can’t go on without a fight. They need you. The promoters aren’t going to step in the cage to fight each other… So use that leverage,” she says. “There’s been a lot of talk about the Ali Act and a fighters’ union, and it’s something that needs to be done, but you can’t do it without the biggest stars, right? So you need to have one super big star stand up and say, ‘Hey, I’m not gonna fight because this guy’s making [$8,000] and his whole camp cost him $16k. So I’m not going to take my $5 million payday because I know that my teammate is making $8,000, and if he loses, god forbid he loses, his family… what are they gonna do?’
“There needs to be some leadership from some of the big stars of the sport, and there needs to be some serious discussion,” she continues. “…The people who are making all the money off these fighters need to sit down in a room with them and hear it out. There needs to be a real discussion, not a dictatorship. I think this is something that takes time, it takes leadership, and it takes fighters, for once in their lives, not being boneheads and coming together and realizing, ‘If I get paid, it’ll help you get paid, and if we all stand together, then we’ll all get paid more, and we’ll all level up together.’ I think that’s a scary concept, and it’s really hard to look at your neighbor and say, ‘Okay, don’t budge. I’m not gonna budge, you don’t budge.’ There’s a lot of scumbags in this sport, so it’s not the easiest thing… to trust someone to have your back. So I think it’s probably a long way away still.”
For Harrison, the relatively low pay that fighters receive is all the more absurd when considering the nature of the sport. “You have career-ending injuries,” she says. “You’re stepping in the cage and someone is trying to basically kill you. Two plus two does not equal four here, in my mind.”
Much like an actual MMA fight, though, Harrison is aware that the fight for better athlete pay won’t happen through the lone efforts of one person, but from an entire team of people working together for a common goal. “I get it,” she says. “I don’t want to put my neck out there. Especially now that I have a family, you think about those things. Charity starts at home. You have to take care of yourself first. So I’m not talking sh*t about superstars in the sport or saying, ‘You guys are a bunch of pansies.’ I’m just saying it’s going to take a lot of people coming together, sitting down in a room, putting their egos aside, putting their fears aside, and saying… ‘I don’t want the next Kayla Harrison to have to get paid $500 to get her leg broken. I want them to have a little bit easier of a path and I want the future to be brighter.'”
This particular struggle is one Harrison is all too familiar with as an Olympic athlete. She says she bought into the “Olympic ideals” as a kid, teenager, and even during her first appearance as an Olympic athlete. But although she still believes in those ideals as an experienced athlete, she has also seen the darker side of the most prestigious athletic event in the world.
“It wasn’t until I got a little bit older that I realized that there are athletes competing from third-world countries with no healthcare, and the Olympic committee is literally a billion-dollar company that’s making ridiculous amounts of money off these athletes that are amateurs, basically, and don’t get paid anything. And money makes the world go round, right?” she says. “At the beginning, I thought the Olympics [were] so pure, but when you cut through all the bullsh*t, it’s really not. It’s the same as MMA. It’s the same as anything that has money involved in it.”
Harrison emphasizes, however, that despite the flaws within the respective sports, she’s had a “great experience” within both the Olympics and MMA. “To be a world champion, to be the best in the world at what you do, there’s no greater high on this earth. And I’ve felt that and experienced that multiple times in my life, so I’m truly blessed.”
Sports haven’t just served Harrison’s need to test herself and reach her full potential, though. She has been open about the fact that, as a child, she was sexually abused by her first judo coach. While judo connected her to her abuser, she says that it also saved her.
“It’s a very weird thing because, obviously, I was abused by my judo coach, but to be honest, if I didn’t have judo after all that had happened, if I didn’t have a goal, if I didn’t have something to wake up for, if I didn’t have my teammates and my new coaches surrounding me, I don’t think I’d be the Kayla Harrison that you see today,” she says. “I think I’d be dead or addicted to some sort of substance or not doing great. Having something to wake up for every day and having like-minded people around me really saved my life.”
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Harrison’s life and judo journey took a turn for the better when, shortly after telling her mother about the abuse she’d suffered at the hands of her former coach, she moved from Ohio to Boston to train under James Pedro and his father, James Pedro Sr., both of whom are retired judokas with extensive and elite competitive resumes. Harrison’s mother contacted the FBI and pressed charges against her abuser, who then served ten years in federal prison for his crimes. Though Harrison was entering a new, brighter chapter of her life, the abuse she’d survived still haunted her.
“I was an emotional wreck,” she says. “I was suicidal. Rock bottom doesn’t even do it justice. So, yeah. Judo save my life. The Pedros, to be honest — the Pedros saved my life. They believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. They became my second family; they took care of me, and they gave me the safety to have confidence again and to realize that what happened to me happened to me, but it doesn’t define me, and I was only a victim if I allowed myself to be. By having judo and having that kind of support behind me, I was able to say, ‘Okay, not only and I not gonna be a victim, but I want to change the way that victims are seen, the way that victims are thought about.'”
In addition to her goals as a judoka, Harrison set her sights on a new mission to “change the world” and put a face to the topic of child sexual abuse. So she started the Fearless Foundation, which describes its mission as “to shine a light on the darkness that is child sexual abuse and to enrich the lives of survivors through education and sport.” She also worked with Harvard faculty members Cynthia S. Kaplan, Ph.D.; and Blaise Aguirre, MD; to write a book about her experience called Fighting Back.
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“I want to take what happened to me and try to make the world better than when I came into it,” she says of her efforts. “I think that’s legacy, and I think that’s greater than any gold medal and greater than any world champion belt and greater than a million dollars. And at the end of the day, we don’t take any of that with us, do we? But what we leave behind can potentially save or change someone’s life, and that’s what I want to do.”
The feedback from Fighting Back has proven that Harrison’s proud vulnerability and willingness to speak up about her experiences have been worth it. “I’ve had a lot of social workers or therapists say, ‘I gave this book to one of my patients,’ or parents who said, ‘I read this book, and oh my god, I had no idea, and now I’m gonna talk to my daughter, I’m gonna talk to my son.’ So the feedback on that has been really positive,” she says.
Even with all she’s accomplished so far with the Foundation, Harrison says she still has a lot to accomplish with it. Much like her goals in combat sports, she views the Foundation as a success while still having plenty of growth potential, and she’s optimistic about the future, especially as her name grows even bigger through her achievements in MMA. “I think one of the reasons I also chose MMA is because it is such a huge platform. The Olympics are great, but you kind of only have that fifteen-minute window. And being a judo player in the US is not… I mean, I’m not Michael Phelps. I’m not a gymnast or a swimmer or a track athlete, so it was a very small platform. And I think MMA gives me an opportunity to have a much bigger more global platform where I can have a bigger impact and reach more people, reach more kids, reach more parents, and try to change the discussion.”
Combatting child sexual abuse, however, can also not be done by one person’s efforts alone… even if that person is a history-making Olympian and undefeated MMA champion. Harrison implores parents to be active participants in their children’s athletic careers from day one rather than relying on coaches to take the wheel.
“My coach Jimmy said one time in an interview, ‘We so badly want our kids to be successful, and we live through them, and we want them to be the next Tiger Woods or Gabby Douglas or Kayla Harrison that we take them to these coaches and say, “Hey, turn them into a superstar.” But you’d never give your car to a complete stranger, so why would we do that with our children?’ We need to be diligent, we need to be aware, we need to have conversations, and our kids need to be comfortable coming to us with something like that. They need to know they’ll be believed, they need to know they’ll be heard, we need to make it a safe environment,” she says.
Harrison also believes that athletic organizations themselves should be implementing better “filtration” for the coaches and staff who work with kids while also having a better system in place in case a predator does slip through the cracks and harm a young athlete. “This world is… not a pretty place. And there are some bad people out there, and we need to have our eyes wide open. That’s the craziest thing. One in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually assaulted by the age of 18. That’s a lot of kids. I’m not the only one. Chances are you know someone, your cousin knows someone. If you go in a room, someone there is gonna have a story like that. It’s important work.”
Tomorrow, Harrison will be taking on Morais. After that, she’ll be putting all her hard work and expertise on the line to try to make it to the top and claim her second PFL championship title and million-dollar paycheck. But regardless of what happens in the cage this year, her legacy is cemented in history not only as an athlete, but as a fighter in every sense of the word.
PFL 3 will take place on Thursday, May 6, and can be watched on ESPN2, ESPN Deportes, and ESPN+.