Kayla Harrison understands that her journey from judo standout to MMA fighter is linked to Ronda Rousey’s.
It’s not something the Professional Fighters League prospect shies away from. Harrison is simply grateful for her former roommate’s role as a trailblazer.
"If it weren’t for Ronda, I probably wouldn’t have a job," Harrison told amNewYork earlier this month while promoting her upcoming bout at the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden on New Year’s Eve. "I’ve always had a little bit of a chip on my shoulder when it comes to Ronda. I’ve always felt like I’m a little bit behind her, but I look forward to continuing what she started and leaving the world even better for girls like me."
Harrison (2-0), who is three and a half years younger than former UFC bantamweight champion Rousey, is "in the embryo stage" of her mixed martial arts career, in her own words. After earning her second consecutive Olympic gold medal at the 2016 Rio Games in Brazil, she felt she had accomplished all she could in judo. By early 2017, she had committed to MMA as her next athletic pursuit.
Now training with vaunted American Top Team in Coconut Creek, Florida, home of such elite fighters as current UFC bantamweight queen Amanda Nunes, Harrison is rapidly adding to her arsenal and adjusting her decades of judo to a diverse sport.
"One of the things that made me a really good judo player was my posture," Harrison said. "But in MMA, if you stand straight up and you don’t move your head, you get hit. You get kicked in the head."
Before transitioning to her new sport, Harrison was of the belief that a judo match was a fight. That notion didn’t last long.
"You very quickly learn that judo is not a fight; it’s not the same thing at all," said the 28-year-old, who will face Moriel Charneski (3-4) in New York City. "Even though I’m perhaps one of the greatest judo players in the world, it doesn’t mean anything when you step into a cage."
The initial phase of Harrison’s career as a lightweight fighter is off to a great start. She made her debut on June 21 with an armbar finish of Brittney Elkin at 3:18 of Round 1, and followed that up with a one-sided, third-round TKO of Jozette Cotton on Aug. 16.
Although her judo success stemmed from an aggressive, forward-moving style, she has exercised patience in the cage. She engaged the boxer Cotton on the feet for several minutes before shooting for and following through on a double-leg takedown — showcasing wrestling rather than her vaunted judo. Once on the mat, she nearly achieved a second armbar finish but was halted by the bell to end Round 1. The finish came as a result of heavy, measured ground-and-pound.
While comparisons to Rousey may persist for years, Harrison aims to model her game after the top male lightweight in the world, UFC champion Khabib Nurmagomedov.
"He is just relentless once he’s on top, and he never gives up that position, and he’s always just breaking his opponents mentally," Harrison said. "If they get up, he takes them right down. … That’s sort of the mentality that I have. I want to break them."
Like Nurmagomedov, Harrison may already be the best 155-pound fighter of her gender. Women’s lightweight bouts are rare in MMA; even the next weight class down, featherweight, often is considered to be little more than UFC champion Cris Cyborg and whoever stands across from her on fight night.
However, PFL plans to build the division beginning in the spring. The promotion, which will hold the finals of their new, yearlong season format in Manhattan, intends to do the same in 2019 with Harrison’s weight class. Harrison, who also serves as a brand ambassador and has performed commentary and analyst work since signing on with PFL last year, is thrilled to be a part of PFL’s first women’s season, which awards $1 million to each division champion.
"All of the [PFL] fighters are getting life-changing opportunities, and I’ll have that same opportunity next year," she said.