Kayla Harrison is on the cusp of stardom in mixed martial arts.
She is already the poster girl for the Professional Fighters League, competing as a lightweight, “which is essentially the heavyweight division for women,” ESPN recently said.
Harrison, an athlete with a powerful upper body who fights on solid legs, is a head-kicking, judo-throwing, armbar-submitting Ohioan who fights out of the famed American Top Team in Florida.
As a former judoka who transitioned into MMA, she was perhaps destined for comparisons to Ronda Rousey.
Harrison, however, now laughs them off, as she says she is the far more accomplished judoka of the two. And, judging by the way she talks, she wants to eclipse Rousey’s achievements in MMA, too.
“For me, the comparisons are like, OK, we both did judo and we both have blond hair,” Harrison told Business Insider. “But, really, when you look at it, I’m not trying to talk down, at all, but Ronda won a silver medal at the world championships and she won bronze at the Olympics.”
She added: “I’ve won every single tournament there is to win, twice. I won the Olympics, twice. I won the world championships. I was number one for six years, or something ridiculous. I’m the most decorated athlete that the US has ever seen in the sport of judo, and I’m one of the most decorated in the world.
“So when you compare us in judo, it … tickles me a little bit,” Harrison said. “It’s like the number 10 player to Serena Williams or something, and I don’t even mean it in a cocky way.
“She retired from judo very early to pursue MMA and she went on to be so successful. I’m not on her level yet in MMA, when every fight ends in 10 seconds. I haven’t been that dominant.
“But I don’t think we’re the same in our mentality or the way we carry ourselves.”
Harrison credits Rousey for being so good at mixed martial arts that it provided a platform for future female athletes to compete in the UFC, as Dana White once said he’d never promote women’s fighting but changed his mind once he saw Rousey.
“For sure, Ronda blazed that trail,” Harrison told Business Insider. “She was so good they couldn’t ignore her! Are you kidding? It takes a very special person to do that. She was the perfect person at the right time to make that happen.
“Women’s MMA is one of the fastest-growing sports in the world now, and I’m lucky I fight in an organization that has total equality. The women get paid the same as the men. If you keep winning, everyone walks away on New Year’s Eve with a million dollars.”
With a PFL finals win and a $1 million paycheck, Harrison would see her status worldwide raised considerably. But regardless of whether that fame eclipses Rousey’s, one thing she would do with that platform is raise awareness for a cause that means more to her than fighting: child sex abuse.
When Harrison was a young teenager, she was groomed and abused by her judo coach, who was convicted of illicit sexual conduct and sent to prison for a decade.
Through her exposure in the sport, Harrison hopes to promote a charity she launched in 2012, Fearless Foundation, in an effort to enrich the lives of sexual-abuse survivors through sport.
Reaching for a $1 million paycheck
The PFL is different from other MMA organizations like the UFC, Bellator, and ONE FC.
Those MMA firms are based on a rankings system, meaning that if you keep winning, you keep climbing the rankings until you eventually challenge the champion for that organization’s world title.
PFL, while still an events company in the MMA landscape, operates more like traditional American sports leagues like the NFL, the NBA, and MLS. There is a normal league season, playoffs, and then a championship match.
Harrison dominated in the regular season this year. She beat Larissa Pacheco by decision in her opening bout of the calendar year before submitting Morgan Frier with a key lock at a PFL event in July.
Watch Harrison get a first-round finish against Frier here:
Her next bout is October 11 in Las Vegas, a playoffs fight against Genah Fabian. Harrison versus Fabian is the classic style matchup of grappler against striker, and it is a battle Harrison’s team is relishing.
“I think my coaches are all pumped for it,” she said. “They’re excited for it because it’s like the old-school MMA thing of a striker versus grapple and groundwork type of fight. She’s a southpaw, strong, it’s great.”
Should Harrison beat Fabian, it sets up a final $1 million prize against probable opponent Sarah Kaufman, in what would be one of the biggest women’s fights of the year.
Is it that stage Harrison hoped to compete on when she left judo behind? “Oh my God, yeah, are you kidding me?” she said. “How lucky am I, to be six fights into my career by the time it’d be the PFL final, fighting for a world title.
“And I think it’s amazing. This journey has been so exciting. I’m so ready. I want to keep building this momentum. I’m not overlooking Fabian. You got to take it one fight at a time, one round at a time, and one breath at a time. But my goal is to be PFL world champion.”
Because of Harrison’s pedigree as a gold-medal magnet in judo, she was considered a hot commodity when word spread she might be looking to turn pro in mixed martial arts. “I was in talks with different organizations,” she told us.
But ultimately, she picked PFL because she didn’t like the rankings system at other fight firms and, she says, didn’t want to have to “talk s—, be a supermodel, or be a sex symbol.”
She wanted to be marketed as an athlete with a story.
“I don’t like the entertainment aspect of MMA,” she said. “I hate that you have to be a s— talker or if the boss likes you, you get a better deal. That’s stupid.”
Harrison is an athlete with a story
Harrison has always been an accomplished athlete, ever since she saw karate on TV and started running around the house, trying to break boards in front of her mother, going “Hi-yah!”
After her mother took a self-defense class in judo, Harrison followed, and from there a passion was born.
“I was a wild child, a real hellion,” she told us. “My mom took me to the local dojo and … boom, the rest is history. From a young age I didn’t want to be a doctor, a lawyer, or a singer … I wanted to throw people, and I wanted to be the best in the world at it.”
Harrison began judo age 6, and she was winning national championships by the time she was 13.
But at 16, Harrison revealed she’d been sexually abused for years by her judo coach. It had left her “crying her eyes out,” she says, contemplating suicide.
Harrison wanted to tell her story because of how appalled she was by the reaction to the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
All these college kids were rioting, flipping cars, and storming the streets because a football coach lost his job. But not one f—— person was rioting for the victims.
Sandusky, a longtime assistant football coach at Pennsylvania State University under Joe Paterno, was convicted in 2012 of 45 counts of sexual abuse of young boys from 1994 to 2009.
“I got into this huge fight with my best friend because she was like posting about Joe Paterno, who was the head coach of that organization, getting fired, because he knew stuff and didn’t do anything to stop it,” Harrison said.
“And all these people were online debating about it, all these college kids were rioting, flipping cars, and storming the streets because a football coach lost his job. But not one f—— person was rioting for the victims, whose lives had been changed forever. No one said s—.
“And I was like, ‘Why? Why are my peers like this? Why is my society like this?’ And I realized it’s because people are like, ‘I’m not Catholic, so that doesn’t happen to me,’ or, ‘I’m rich, white, a guy … that doesn’t happen to me.’
“But it’s not true. It happens everywhere. One in six boys and one in four girls will be sexually abused in some way, shape, or form by the time they are 18. And those are just the kids who say something. Most kids, people, go their entire life without sharing a secret, and let it eat them alive inside. And that’s why I started talking.”
Harrison kept a diary throughout those years. She returned to the diary to turn it into a book which is part-guide, part-memoir, designed to help children, teenagers, and parents alike identify predatory behavior. It was published last year.
Harrison hopes her book will be able to show:
- What grooming looks like
- Why kids stay silent and are afraid to speak out
- What a child may be feeling
- How you talk to your child about what’s going on
- The court process
After serving his time, he was released in 2016.
“The letter went to my mom’s house, my old house in Ohio, literally right before the 2016 Olympics,” Harrison said.
“And so my mom waited to tell me until after I won. But … I’m OK with it. There’s obviously some fear. And a little bit of anxiety. But for the most part, I’ve come to peace with it. I forgive him. I’ve moved on. Everything happens for a reason. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. But I know this happened to me because I’m going to be able to have the voice, the platform, and make a change in the world.”
Harrison first started making those changes in 2012, when she set up her Fearless Foundation.
She also wrote a book, “Fighting Back: What an Olympic champion’s story can teach us about recognizing and preventing child sexual abuse — and helping kids recover.”
“To write about that stuff, to go back and be that 13-year-old suicidal girl again was really hard,” Harrison said. “And to share that with the world is even harder. But … I can’t tell you how many emails, letters, and notes I get saying, ‘Oh my God. Thank you so much for writing this. I’m going to talk to my daughter tonight. I think I’ve seen some signs.’
“Or: ‘Something similar happened to me and after reading your book it has given me hope that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. There is a shiny gold medal. I just have to take a step.’
“So … that’s really my purpose in life.”
Harrison now sees sport, MMA in particular, as a vehicle to spread her message and to provide education and awareness on the signs of grooming and child sex abuse.
“I want to go talk to Congress and have this in every seventh-grade health class,” she said. “I want there to be a curriculum on it. I want people to talk about it and donate. One day at a time I want to change the world. And leave it better than I found it.
“A gold medal is great in the Olympics, you get your 15 minutes of fame, but nobody really cares, especially in judo,” Harrison told Business Insider. “But if I become the best MMA fighter in the world, imagine the reach I will have.
“And I’m not going to use that reach to promote myself and talk about, y’know, how amazing I am and to be on the cover of magazines. I’m going to use that opportunity to say, hey, look, this book is on Amazon.”
Harrison’s next step to gaining that platform she craves is to continue evolving as a fighter.
Over the past three years, Harrison has been evolving her combat style from a single-discipline martial artist in judo to a more well-rounded fighter capable of competing standing up, or on the mat. To date, she has proved to be a highly skilled martial artist, edging closer to the PFL finals, a $1 million paycheck, and a status that could see her heralded as one of the most dominant female fighters on the planet.
But her strive for perfection, something she had since she was the kid who brought judo to the playgrounds at school, has sometimes gotten the best of her, as she told Business Insider she sat victorious yet frustrated in a locker room after a fight in July, feeling as if her striking hadn’t developed to a point that it was useful.
That’s when the former six-time UFC champion Randy Couture, now a color commentator with the Professional Fighters League, told her four words that she carries with her today.
‘F— perfection, be effective’
“I talked to Randy Couture after the last fight as I didn’t feel like I spent enough time fighting on my feet. And he said: ‘Let me tell you something. I know that you want to be perfect. But f— perfection, be effective.’
“I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ My brain exploded. Holy s—. ‘F— perfection, be effective.’ It clicked. I don’t need to be the world’s best striker. I just need good defense. Get to the clinch safely. And once I get there, no one’s going to outgrapple me. No one’s going to be able stop my takedowns. That’s never going to happen. That girl does not exist in this world.
“I am still working on my striking, but it’s basic. I’m not trying to be fancy, cool, or hit flying knees like Jorge Masvidal. I’m just trying to be effective. That’s it.”
She went on: “I’m still a baby. I’m still learning. I had my debut in June, last year. I’ve got time. It’s scary. But every day I learn something new, every day I get a little bit better, and every day I get more confident. I’m going to keep evolving, more well-rounded, and become a dominant force in this sport.
“I have a goal in front of me. I focus on that goal. And I want to be the best.”
Harrison fights Fabian in the playoffs of the PFL 7 event at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas on October 11. The 2019 finals take place on December 31.
- [LLODO] George Floyd case: Derek Chauvin trial jury selection delayed amid wrangling over 3rd-degree murder charge
- [LLODO] De Blasio targets March 22 in-person return for NYC high school students
- [LLODO] Capitol Police ‘understaffed, insufficiently equipped’ to handle violent mob: Lt. Gen. Honoré review
- [LLODO] Supreme Court rejects case over ‘qualified immunity’ for police
- [LLODO] GOP lawmaker tells Cuomo lieutenant governor to ‘stop hiding’ as allegations mount
- [LLODO] Janice Dean: If Cuomo won’t resign, impeachment proceedings should begin
- [LLODO] Rochester police investigate pepper spraying of mother near toddler
- [LLODO] Cuomo closes vaccine site tour to press, avoiding questions on allegations as top Dems call for resignation