Former Olympic judoka Kayla Harrison (8-0) is arguably the biggest homegrown star the U.S.-based Professional Fighters League has produced, but she hasn't stepped into the organization's cage since December 2019.
That will soon change.
The PFL, which presents MMA in a unique, season-based format, is ramping back up after a yearlong hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic. The third event of the league's 2021 resurgence goes down Thursday in Atlantic City, New Jersey, on ESPN. Harrison, who won the Women's Lightweight title in 2019—along with the customary $1 million prize for each champ—will co-headline that event opposite 26-fight veteran Mariana Morais (16-10).
"I'm excited," Harrison told Bleacher Report ahead of her fight. "[Morais] is a game opponent. She throws heavy leather. She has a very aggressive style, and she hits hard.
"Everyone knows my game plan—but are you able to stop it?"
While Harrison's focus is glued to Morais, that won't be the case for long.
Things move fast in the PFL. Fighters compete multiple times each season, accruing points depending on the nature of each victory, which in turn determines their position in the year-end playoffs. As such, Harrison's focus will shift to her next challenge almost immediately after her fight with Morais.
The former Olympian respects everyone she's competing with this season but views UFC veteran Larissa Pacheco—who she defeated to win the Women's Lightweight Championship—as the toughest challenge of the bunch.
"I'm excited to have all the women [in my division] have their first fights [this Thursday] so I can have a little bit more of an idea, just to see how everyone looks," she said. "I'm excited about the new competition this year, but I do think Larissa will probably be the biggest challenge again. I think she's a very formidable opponent. She doesn't get the props she deserves just because her UFC run was so short, but she was so young and she was fighting killers."
Still, the 26-year-old Pacheco, who had two UFC bouts in 2014 and 2015, is not the biggest fight available for Harrison in the PFL. That title goes to a potential matchup with Claressa Shields, a three-division boxing champion who, like Harrison, is an Olympic gold medalist.
The PFL signed Shields in late 2020. The boxer isn't competing in the league's 2021 season but will participate in two special-attraction bouts in the PFL cage before the year's out, debuting June 10 vs. Brittney Elkin.
A potential fight between her and Harrison is likely a ways off, but it's one that fans are already drooling over.
"I'm super pumped [for her PFL debut]," Harrison said of Shields. "I think it's a good move for her—I know Claressa—and it's a good move by the PFL. It was a good move businesswise.
"She hasn't even had an MMA fight yet, so it's a little early [to be talking about a fight with her]," Harrison continued. "It's the same as when everyone was going, 'Are you going to fight Amanda Nunes?' when I was two fights in [to my MMA career]. She's got to go out there and get experience, get some time in the cage, feel that feeling. Who knows? Maybe she loves it, maybe she hates it. We'll see what happens."
While Harrison feels a fight with Shields is still some distance away, she recognizes the appeal of the matchup and the significance it would have within the combat sports industry.
"I think it would be a huge fight," she said. "She's already a bigger star than me in the sense that boxing is already much more popular in the United States than judo is. ... I know that if we do ever fight, it'll be done with mutual respect, it'll be done as business women, and hopefully we will make a hell of a lot of money doing it."
Harrison also views a potential matchup with Shields as a throwback to the halcyon days of MMA, when athletes from different disciplines were often pitted against each other.
"It would be grappler versus striker—we're talking UFC 1," she said with a laugh. "Obviously we're both developing our skill sets in other areas, but if we were to fight, I'm not even sure I'd throw a single punch."
As alluring as that matchup is, Harrison is focused on the task at hand: mowing through her competition and capturing the PFL Women's Lightweight Championship once again.
"Ideally, I go out there and get some quick finishes—knockouts, TKOs, submissions—and just pile up the wins and take as little damage as possible, because the season is shortened this year.
"I would like to showcase off some of my new skills, but that's not the priority. The priority is to go out there and win, and win in dominant fashion."
If Harrison can achieve that goal during the late-April to June 25 season and subsequent playoffs, she'll cement herself as one of the best female fighters in MMA—though she admits she prefers to leave such debates up to others.
"There are so many great women out there fighting," she said. "I'll let the fans decide [who's best]. My job is to go out there, win fights and cash checks, and my goal is to statistically be one of the best to ever do it—if not the best to ever do it.
"I know I have a long uphill battle, a long road to get there, but I'm just going to keep chipping away one fight at a time."