'It's like human chess': Why Kayla Harrison loves fighting in the PFL

Kevin IoleCombat columnist
<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/olympics/rio-2016/a/1160667/" data-ylk="slk:Kayla Harrison">Kayla Harrison</a> waves to the crowd after her win at PFL 2 on June 21, 2018 at the Chicago Theatre in Chicago. (Photo courtesy Ryan Loco)
Kayla Harrison waves to the crowd after her win at PFL 2 on June 21, 2018 at the Chicago Theatre in Chicago. (Photo courtesy Ryan Loco)

Kayla Harrison signed with the now-defunct World Series of Fighting in October 2016, two months after she’d repeated as an Olympic gold medalist in judo at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

Harrison, though, was hardly sold on either mixed martial arts or a fighting career when she put pen to paper.

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It took her more than a little time to decide she wanted to compete.

“The entertainment aspect of it all concerned me, quite honestly,” said Harrison, who will face Larissa Pacheco on Thursday in a lightweight bout that kicks off Season 2 of the Professional Fighters League on ESPN.

“You had to be pretty to get a fight or talk s--- to get a fight or do something crazy to get the attention of a promoter. That’s not me.”

But Harrison debuted with the PFL in its inaugural season last year and found its format much more to her liking. It’s a season-long tournament competition with a $1 million prize for the winner in each class.

There are no money fights, so to speak. In the PFL, it’s win and move on or lose and go home. That is much more to Harrison’s liking.

“In the PFL, if you want to talk trash you can, but if it’s not your style, you don’t have to do it,” Harrison said. “If you win, you’re in control of your own destiny. That makes it a sport to me. That’s what I love. I love the competition. I don’t love talking trash. I love competing and winning.

“From the first time I sparred, I knew this was what I wanted to do. I knew this would be the next great chase for me. An Olympic gold medal is amazing and I did it in a combat sport, but there are so many rules and regulations and there’s a little bit of politics involved. MMA is as close to real-life fighting, it’s like gladiators, as you can get. It’s like human chess, and I love it.”

She’s proven good at it so far, going 3-0 with two knockouts and a submission.

Her manager, Ali Abdelaziz, has raved about Harrison from the day she signed with the WSOF and said he believes she’s already become the best female fighter in the world.

Those are big words, considering that Harrison’s teammate at the American Top Team is Amanda Nunes, who holds the UFC’s women’s bantamweight and featherweight titles and is generally regarded as the top female fighter in MMA history.

Harrison laughed off Abdelaziz’s assertion as him just doing his job, but she isn’t doing this as a lark.

“Ali’s going to give his opinion when he wants, and that’s up to him, but I’ll tell you this: My goal is to be the best ever,” she said. “It’s still too early to tell, at this point, but everything I’m doing is working toward that goal.”

Harrison trains with both women and men at American Top Team, which is critical because there isn’t a long list of women competing at featherweight in MMA, let alone at lightweight where Harrison competes.

Her wrestling has proven to be adept and she’s getting more comfortable with her grappling. She sees Nunes often and said she learns a great deal from her, as she said she did from former UFC champion Ronda Rousey, who won a bronze medal in judo at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

“Amanda is so confident and so aware of where she is in her career and what she is capable of doing,” Harrison said. “It’s kind of how I was in judo, where I truly believed I was the best and I’d go out there knowing I was. It’s harder for me to do that right now in MMA because I feel I have so much to learn and I’m a white belt in so many areas. You’re unsure because you don’t have the years and years and years of experience.

“It helps me seeing her and seeing how confident she is in her training and what we do. It gives me that confidence that we’re doing the right things and that I can get there, too. That’s how it was with Ronda. I watched her win that bronze medal and I was like, ‘S---, if she can do it, why can’t I?’ I do the same things she does every day. That’s how I am with MMA. With Amanda, I train with her and I know what she does and how things go and I’m like, ‘Yeah, I can do that.’ Being around other elite athletes, at least for me, makes a huge difference and we have no shortage of those here.”

Harrison will get the chance to show her progress on Thursday, when she takes on Pacheco, a late injury replacement for Svetlana Khautova.

Abdelaziz said it will be a revelation to those who see her for the first time.

“She’s an amazing fighter and she’s just such a good athlete,” he said. “Her potential in this business is off the charts.”

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