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A Q&A with Kayla Harrison on PFL, Pacheco Rematch and Winning New Fans

Scott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterDecember 27, 2019

Kayla Harrison
Kayla HarrisonGregory Payan/Associated Press

If Kayla Harrison isn't the best women's MMA fighter outside the UFC, there aren't a lot of people stepping up to challenge the notion.

No one expects the line to fight an Olympic double-gold medalist in judo to stretch over the horizon like that of, say, one that leads into a Popeye's, but the lack of worthy competition is a persistent headwind to one of the most promising fight careers in mixed martial arts.

The 29-year-old (6-0) doesn't need to convince anyone of her talent. She's a grappler whose dominance dwarfs those of her predecessors, including former judo training partner Ronda Rousey, whose trailblazing UFC stardom occurred despite her ownership of only one Olympic medal—a bronze one at that (the nerve!).

Bystanders have compared the two since Harrison announced an MMA transition back in 2016. That led to her tenure with Professional Fighters League, an upstart promotion that stages tournaments in various weight classes for $1 million purses.

Those comparisons have tapered off and even become tedious in recent months and years, however, as Rousey moved away from fighting and Harrison's career began to blossom. Since her debut in 2018, Harrison has racked up five stoppages by four methods, suggesting a well-roundedness Rousey and her trademark armbar never realized.

Harrison's weight class may be her central problem; the women's MMA cupboard is pretty bare at 155 pounds, where Harrison competes. She also missed out on a chance for a high-wattage dance partner when Cristiane "Cyborg" Justino chose Bellator over PFL and others when her UFC contract expired earlier this year.

Still, Harrison is a gifted athlete with an everywoman likability, and she will try to take her talents one step further on New Year's Eve at PFL 10 in New York City, where she is set to face the only fighter she wasn't able to finish: Larissa Pacheco (13-3).

Where does she stand in her career? How will PFL 10 go down? Bleacher Report's Scott Harris recently asked Harrison five questions to learn more.

                   

Harris: You're fighting on New Year's Eve. Did you have any unusual holiday planning this year as a result?

Harrison: I fought last year on New Year's Eve for PFL, so I'm not new to it. I'll just have a quiet Christmas at my house, and then I leave the next day for New York.

There's nothing specifically different about prep. But I wouldn't say I took her super seriously last time. I've been working on everything this time. Obviously, she has a lot of experience, and she's a very game fighter. She has more knowledge and depth than me. But I'm more well-rounded, and everything is starting to come together for me.

           

Harris: Fans know you as someone who has an outgoing disposition, sort of friendly and sunny. Would you say that's accurate?

Harrison: I'd like to think so (laughs). But I didn't have any coffee this morning, so don't judge me too much. I like to live life to the fullest. I just feel so blessed. I came from nothing. I've had a really hard life. I've been training in judo since I was six. But I wake up every day and do what I love, and I'm just really blessed and I try never to forget that.

               

Harris: How did you react when you saw that Cyborg went to Bellator? 

Harrison: Disappointed but not surprised. She has worked with a lot of people in that organization before because of [now-defunct] Strikeforce, where she used to compete. And with [former Strikeforce CEO] Scott Coker now at Bellator, it's logical that that would be the kind of promotion she would be used to. I imagine [in Bellator] she might want to have input into who she's going to fight next. I heard she likes to pick her opponents.

                 

Harris: If someone has followed your career but is hesitant to watch you in an MMA fight, what would you tell them?

Harrison: I would say MMA is mixed martial arts, so they'll be able to see judo and notice things—it's just with different martial arts mixed in.

I'd also say that PFL is a perfect place for people who aren't sure about [MMA] because PFL is family-friendly, and it's rooted in respect and being a professional.

I always try to be my best self. If you're a fan of me and a fan of judo, I think you'll be happy you tuned in. It's an honor for me to be a role model.

               

Harris: Now the flip side. Pacheco is the only woman to take you the distance, but it was a pretty dominant decision, with one judge scoring it 30-25. What do you tell fans who might view this as just another Kayla Harrison squash match?

Harrison: I'd tell them that they are wrong (laughs). Don't get me wrong, I definitely want it to be a squash match. But she's a tough fighter. She's only lost to undefeated fighters during her career, she's well-rounded and she's been around a long time. And she only took the last bout [in May] on short notice, so I don't think it was fully representative of who she is as a fighter.

Physically, I'm prepared for a five-round war. I'm getting better and better. I'll want to take her down. But hopefully I'll be able to instill my rule: one minute, one exchange at a time.