Fight week is a dreadful time for many mixed martial artists. Travel, weight cuts and other time commitments all add to the stress of the actual competition the fighters signed up for.
Throw in the prospect of a $1 million championship prize, such as the one the Professional Fighters League is offering this week, and you get a set of stoic fighters focused on a daunting five-round task ahead with life-changing consequences.
And then there’s Kayla Harrison.
Sure, the two-time Olympic gold medalist in Judo is focused on her matchup with Larissa Pacheco for the inaugural women’s lightweight title at the PFL Championship on Tuesday at the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden. But there was no dread in Harrison’s eyes as she spoke energetically at a fight week press event ahead of her first championship fight, and there was no doubt in her mind that the PFL is where she belongs after transitioning from Olympic competition to MMA.
“Yeah, I just love making history, don't I?” said Harrison with a laugh. “I think a happy fighter is a dangerous fighter, and I tell you I am muy peligrosa right now, muy.”
As capable at finishing a fight in a timely fashion as she is at capturing the attention of a room with her personality, Harrison quickly has separated herself from the rest of the PFL roster as the young promotion’s most ready-made star, regardless of weight class or gender.
“This is the time to shine, you know, all the hard work's been done. I've been training my whole life to be in the spotlight,” Harrison said. “The Olympics is a great practice run for what I'm going to do with the rest of my life that's how I look at it, and if I'm winning gold medals in my practice runs, imagine…this is just a little spark. Y'all haven't even seen me glow yet, okay, this is just a little spark.”
Harrison signed with the promotion when it was known as World Series of Fighting in October 2016, a few months after her second Olympic gold, working as a commentator for the promotion while beginning her MMA training. After winning a handful of featured bouts during the rebranded PFL’s first full season in 2018, Harrison was victorious over Pacheco and Morgan Frier in the 2019 regular season as the centerpiece of PFL’s new women’s 155-pound division, the first in major mixed marital arts. A semifinal playoff victory over Bobbi Jo Dalziel set up a championship rematch with Pacheco on Tuesday.
Starting the 155-pound division was key for Harrison, an outspoken critic of weight cutting who wants to open doors for other female fighters unwilling to shed excessive weight a day before a fight.
“I don't believe in cutting weight, I don't believe it's healthy,” Harrison said. “I think that a lot of fighters that fight at 145 or 135 weigh the same amount as me, and I hope that we start to change the game, not just with fighters being able to control their destiny but also with how fighters approach their destiny in a healthy way and in a safe way.
“Women's MMA is still a little bit behind men's but it's growing exponentially, and to be a small part of that history and to add a new weight class, it's exciting for me.”
No matter what history is made, however, the most important thing for Harrison is getting the win. A fierce competitor in everything from fighting to fantasy football, Harrison will face Pacheco for the second time this season with a chance to right some wrongs from the first matchup in May at NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum. Harrison won the bout, but it remains the only decision of her career, something that disappointed her that night and still hangs over her head.
“I would definitely say I didn’t take Larissa as seriously as I should have. She’s an amazing fighter, she’s been fighting a lot longer than me, since she was a kid. She’s a very game opponent, she’s game everywhere,” Harrison said. “But the strides that I’ve made since May, the ground that I’ve covered, it’s exponential. You can’t stop me. You know what I’m going to do, you can try to stop it, but there’s not going to be any stopping me.”