Kayla Harrison is bidding to retain her Professional Fighters League (PFL) lightweight title on Wednesday night, with Taylor Guardado standing between the undefeated American and another $1million in prize money.
Harrison, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and former world champion in judo, was crowned PFL women’s lightweight champion in 2019 by storming to four straight wins in the promotion’s unique league and play-off format.
That achievement also saw the 31-year-old claim a $1m cheque, while establishing her as one of the biggest names in women’s MMA.
With coronavirus seeing the 2020 PFL season cancelled, Harrison was permitted to fight in rival promotion Invicta last November, when she extended her unbeaten record with the eighth win of her career – and sixth by stoppage.
That record has only improved with the return of the PFL this year, with Harrison again reaching the final of the women’s lightweight tournament. Three consecutive first-round finishes have set the American up for Wednesday’s clash with compatriot Guardado, who takes on a Harrison buoyed by recently acquiring full custody of her niece Kyla and nephew Emery.
With Harrison’s sister struggling with personal issues, Kyla and Emery were living with Harrison’s parents, until the martial artist was forced to step up due to the sudden death of her stepfather and illness affecting her mother.
It means Harrison is now a role model not only to young martial artists around the world, but also to Kyla and Emery in a much more direct way.
“I often think: ‘Would I want Kyla to follow someone like me?’” Harrison tells The Independent. “She’s seen a lot of my fights, my mum has let her stay up to watch, she’s coming to the fight this week since it’s right here in Florida.
“She’s done judo before, we talk a lot about how ‘you only use judo on the mat, it’s not for school, this is mum’s job and she’s not going in there trying to hurt someone.’
“We pray for my safety and my opponent’s safety. I’m not going in there with bad intentions as if I want to physically harm my opponent; I just want to find a way to win effectively and quickly.”
Harrison’s 11-0 record as a professional mixed martial artist – she did not have an amateur career – consists of five knockout wins, four via submissions and two decision victories. Of those nine finishes, seven have come in the first round, proving Harrison certainly has developed a method of winning “effectively and quickly”.
For all of her dominance, however, Harrison is not accustomed to bloody contests. In fact, it wasn’t until she fought in Invicta last year that she made an opponent bleed for the first time.
Harrison’s contest against Courtney King, which ended via second-round TKO, allowed her to throw elbows, a technique banned in the PFL.
“I’ve only had 11 fights, and that’s the only time I got to get in there and feel: ‘This is what a fight is like,’” Harrison admits.
“I’d never thrown an elbow before that fight, I’d never made someone bleed in a fight before that! I was like: ‘Oh, this is why my fights don’t have blood! This is why it takes forever to put them away on the ground!’ You just put a little ‘dink’ and it’s like, ‘this is great!’”
Despite Harrison getting a taste for blood in Invicta, she is very much suited to her environment in the PFL, which presents MMA in a manner more familiar to the general sports fan. The promotion’s league and play-off format and emphasis on statistics make it more akin to modern sports in America and worldwide than their chief rivals: the UFC.
“I truly believe in the format of the PFL, I believe this is the future of MMA,” Harrison says. “I think the more you put the destiny of the fighter in their hands, the better it’s gonna be.
“And I come from a sport background, so it feels more comfortable to me than me having to talk a bunch of s*** to promote a fight. I do talk s*** in the gym, constantly, but it’s all in good fun!
“That WWE and boxing style of promotion is not really for me. I think MMA has come to that point where it needs to make a decision: Are you gonna be like the NFL, MLB, NBA, or are you gonna be a kind of crazy circus? Are you gonna be entertainment, or are you gonna be sport?”
It’s possible that fans wanting Harrison to take on dual-weight UFC champion Amanda Nunes might not have to wait long, with the PFL champion’s upcoming bout the last on her contract with the company. Still, Harrison preaches patience.
“Amanda’s the greatest of all time, there’s no disputing that; she beat everyone when they were in their prime and made it look easy most of the time,” Harrison says.
“Of course she’s that rabbit that I’m chasing, but I know there are steps to what I want to achieve. Next is Taylor Guardado, one more belt for the collection, another $1m in the bank – then I’ll be one step closer to solidifying my place among the greats in MMA.
“One of the hardest things as an athlete is being patient. I wish I could wake up tomorrow and be like, ‘I’m the baddest b**** on the planet,’ but great things take time.”
Harrison doubles down on the notion of not overlooking Guardado, despite the 30-year-old’s 3-1 pro record.
“She’s coming out there to take everything from me, there’s $1m on the line. She had a great amateur career where she only lost to Ronda [Rousey]. I have nothing but respect for her, but I know that I train harder than anyone and deserve to win.
“I’m gonna be a calm, cold and calculated killer. I’ll take it one round at a time, one minute at a time, one exchange at a time, one breath at a time until I instil my will and break her.”
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