Kayla Harrison is back.
The 2019 PFL Lightweight Champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist is set to face Mariana Morais on May 6, marking her 2021 debut after a year in which she only fought once due to the COVID-19 pandemic. All eyes will be on her this season, with fans and fellow fighters alike knowing that this isn’t your average MMA fighter.
Harrison, a highly decorated lifetime judoka, made a smooth and impressive transition to MMA in 2018, when she won her PFL debut with an armbar. She’s currently undefeated in her eight fights, finishing all but two of her opponents. Her hard work and skill led to her winning the $1 million grand prize in the 2019 PFL Lightweight Championship, and everyone was waiting to see if she’d repeat the performance in 2020.
Then, of course, COVID-19 happened. The 2020 PFL season was canceled, and Harrison’s only fight of the year happened for Invicta. The absence of opportunity was a new challenge for the champion, who’s spent her entire life preparing for the next chance to compete.
“It was a hell of a year last year,” Harrison told the Jiu-Jitsu Times. “I think the blessing and the curse of it was that it was a hell of a year for everyone. I tried to keep that in mind when I was getting frustrated or upset or depressed — that I wasn’t alone and that it could be a lot worse. I could have not just won a million dollars, and I could be struggling financially.”
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Even though the world seemed to stop turning last year, though, Harrison didn’t let it bring her world to a standstill. She calls 2020 a “growth period” for her and acknowledges the positive development she was able to glean from the challenges. “I only got to fight one time, but fortunately, I did get to fight,” she says. “I got to make my debut at 145. I got to fight for a different promotion and throw elbows for the first time in my career, so I think that was a really big milestone for me… I really got to focus on my personal life, my new family. And just growing overall as an MMA fighter. I didn’t have an opponent to prepare for for most of the year, but that didn’t stop me from training. I was in the gym every day getting one percent better. I feel like last year was a really good year for me.”
The process of getting “one percent better” each day has certainly added up for Harrison, who says that comparing the fighter she is now to the fighter she was in 2018 is like “comparing a newborn to a teenager.”
“I’ve just become a lot more confident, professionally. I think I’ve always had that inner confidence, which is what helped push me to make the leap to MMA in the first place. I think, stylistically, not a lot has changed. I’m still going to go out, I’m still gonna punch safely to the clinch and take you down and break your arm or beat you up, one or the other. My game plan hasn’t really changed, but the tools and the awareness, fight IQ… learning ranges, getting comfortable in a cage, being comfortable getting punched in the face… I’m no longer a judo player in the cage. I’m definitely an MMA fighter in the cage.”
If you look back at Harrison’s first fight, she says, that transformation is obvious. “I don’t even think I threw a punch — I just zombie-walked right at her. And although that’s effective to a certain extent, it’s very dangerous, and against higher-level opponents, it’s not going to be effective at all. Against anyone who has footwork or any kind of knowledge of grappling, knows how to sprawl, knows how to get out of a clinch, or knows how to punch you in the face, that’s potentially very, very dangerous.
“I think I don’t make those mistakes anymore. I like to think I’m a lot more comfortable on my feet, I’m comfortable with my tactics to get to the clinch now or get to the takedown. I feel like I’ve become way more well-rounded in that area. So hopefully, no more zombie-walking for me.”
The “zombie-walking” that Harrison speaks of is a rare example of a habit that was beneficial during her time in judo, but a drawback in MMA. “[In] judo you’re upright — your posture is very important. You’re doing a lot of headlocks and things like that, which are not effective in MMA. It’s not a big deal to give someone your back. There are no points scored for that. Those bad habits I had to get out of very quickly.”
Still, Harrison believes that judo is the best possible base to have for MMA. “It’s a little different from wrestling in the sense that wrestlers can take you down over and over and over again all day long, but they may not know how to submit you. Jiu-jitsu is similar. They can submit you, but do they know how to take you down? Judo, you kind of have the best of both worlds. You have some submissions — you have chokes and armbars — and you also have a plethora of takedowns and throws that you’re able to use to get people down to the ground.”
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It’s no surprise that jiu-jitsu has come so naturally for an athlete who’s spent decades at the highest level of another grappling art. Harrison says that jiu-jitsu has been much easier to learn than striking, adding that the smaller details involved in improving upon techniques are of particular interest to her.
“Like the armbar: something that’s very well known in judo, but there are so many different variations of it. Especially in jiu-jitsu, I feel like they’ve broken it down piece by piece by piece by piece, so the intricacy of it is very exciting. It’s also new. I’ve been doing a lot of ankle locks and foot locks lately, which is cool and different and scary because I don’t want anyone to touch my legs. I love that aspect of it.”
Still, don’t get too excited to see Harrison in any upcoming BJJ superfight events just yet. While she isn’t ruling out the prospect of competing in events like Fight 2 Win or Submission Underground in the future, she says that her current focus is entirely dedicated to MMA, and competing in grappling would require “the right time and the right money.”
“I have two kids now and those ain’t cheap,” she says with a laugh. “Maybe someday. I never say never. I love a challenge.”
A challenge is exactly what Harrison is going to get as she begins this season with the PFL. Her division includes 2019 runner-up Larissa Pacheco, Invicta veteran Olena Kolesnyk, and Cindy Dandois, who would be a particularly interesting matchup for Harrison.
“She used to judo, so she’s gonna be able to stop my takedowns. I think that could potentially be exciting. She’s been in pretty much every single promotion and has been a pioneer for the sport, really. So that’s something I’d look forward to,” she says of Dandois, adding that the striking skills of fellow division fighter Kaitlin Young would also make for a great fight. “I think that would be a really fun classic grappler-versus-striker matchup. I’ll fight anyone you put in front of me.”
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Harrison’s constant craving for a challenge comes from a daily habit of hard work and sacrifice that she’s maintained since childhood. “My mentality was always, ‘It’s not every four years, it’s every day,'” she says. “I don’t do camps. I don’t take breaks. I may take a few days, a week off after a fight, but I’m really obsessed with being the best at what I do, and that comes from years and years and years of waking up at 5 a.m. before I went to high school, before I went to work at a hardware store. It’s just built into me, and I don’t know any other way to be, and I think that Olympic mindset is the biggest thing that’s helped me be successful in MMA.”
Harrison’s passion for hard work and the results that it produces make her a perfect fit for the PFL, which utilizes a year-long tournament structure to determine which fighters come away with the $1 million prizes. “I’m not really into the promotor [deciding] who wins and who fights when and ‘If you’re really pretty, you get a bigger paycheck.’ I’m not really interested in that aspect of MMA,” she says, adding that the PFL’s structure promotes the type of progression that she’s believed in from the start of her competitive journey. “If you win, you get to continue. That’s exactly what my entire career was: you win the tournament, you’re the champ. That’s it. Next year, there’s a new champion crowned. That’s a sport. I’m not an entertainer. I can’t sing, I can’t dance, but I can fight, so let me fight, and let me prove it in the cage. I don’t want to do it outside of the cage.”
In a matter of days, Harrison will once again have the opportunity to do what she does best. From the perspective of a spectator, you could say that her fight against Morais will be the first step on the path to another potential million-dollar win, but this champion knows that the “first step” was taken long ago and has been repeated every day since. Regardless of the outcome on May 6, there’s no question that what we see from Harrison will be the product of hard work, discipline, and the drive of an Olympic champion who still wants to climb even higher.
PFL 3 will take place on Thursday, May 6, and can be watched on ESPN2, ESPN Deportes, and ESPN+.