Kayla Harrison on PFL Contract, 'Begging' for Cyborg Fight and Single Motherhood

Scott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterApril 1, 2022

Kayla Harrison, right, in action against Larissa Pacheco during their regular season mixed martial arts bout at PFL 1, Thursday, May 9, 2019, at the Nassau Coliseum (NYCB Live) in Uniondale, NY. Harrison won via unanimous decision. (AP Photo/Gregory Payan)
Gregory Payan/Associated Press

Not since Fedor Emelianenko has MMA seen such a heated and protracted courting period for a single athlete. Aaron Rodgers has nothing on Kayla Harrison.

After several months of wheeling and dealing with the UFC and Bellator, Harrison recently re-signed with the Professional Fighters League in a multiyear deal. When PFL's next women's lightweight season begins, Harrison, a two-time Olympic judo gold medalist, will aim for her third $1 million grand prize.

Harrison recently took time off from training to talk to Bleacher Report about that contract process, future opponents and life on the grind. The exchange has been edited for length and clarity.


B/R: Now that you've re-upped with PFL, how do you feel about the way it all went down?

Harrison: I feel good, but it was a little too long for my taste. I'm the type of person who feels much better with a goal, with something in front of me, you know? But it was a roller coaster of emotions; I'm going here, I'm going there, I'm doing this, I'm doing that. There are a lot of things that go on behind closed doors that I don't think people understand.

So to just have the business part of it squared away, I get to do what I love to do, which is get in that cage and fight people.

Chamatkar Sandhu @SandhuMMA

Kayla Harrison is officially the hottest free agent in MMA 💯 https://t.co/ZPhuyi0mqr

B/R: I don't think there was a bigger MMA signing drama since Fedor Emelianenko. What was it like being in the middle of all that scrutiny and speculation?

Harrison: I really enjoyed it until I didn't. [laughs]

In the beginning it's super exciting, because you're getting wined and dined and you're at the center of the discussion in all the MMA news outlets. And also I had just won another million dollars, and I took the first real break I've had since maybe the Olympics. 

But eventually I wanted it to stop. [laughs] All these reporters were always at the top of my text messages. And I was like, you know what? You guys don't love me, you just want the scoop! I just got tired of talking about it. I was stressing. What does this mean, or what does that mean? What am I gonna do? Plus, if I don't fight for more than like two months, I'm antsy.


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B/R: Why was PFL the right fit for you over the UFC or Bellator?

Harrison: PFL ultimately had the right to match whatever proposal I received; they had last right of refusal. I started my MMA career with PFL and they've taken great, great care of me. They've grown exponentially, I believe in the format, and I believe in their system.

I tested the free-agency waters, but they said, "We want to keep you." They stepped up in a big way, so here I am.


B/R: We have to talk about strength of schedule. You've been steamrolling everyone, which is a testament to your abilities, but your opponents in PFL have not always been at the top level. Are you confident that PFL can get you solid opponents moving forward? 

Harrison: Absolutely. That was a big part of what we discussed. That was really the only reason I tested free agency. I want to be the best, and I want to fight the best. PFL has assured me that they're going to do everything in their power to make big fights happen for me. At the end of the day, that's good for them, it's good for me, and they believe that I'm ready to take out the top dogs.

Honestly, I used to get upset about people talking about my level of competition, but when I went and looked at the UFC roster and the Bellator roster at 145 pounds and up, there's really no difference.

You've got three girls in the 145-and-up weight classes, right? Me, Amanda Nunes and Cyborg. There might be others who are big names, but that's really it.


B/R: Speaking of Cyborg, that's been a long-rumored bout for you, with co-promotion between PFL and Bellator mentioned as a possibility. You've mentioned the things that go on behind the scenes. Are the wheels still turning on this matchup? 

Harrison: Well I definitely, for sure want to fight Cyborg. I have the next tournament coming up, so I'll have four tough fights in front of me for that, and I don't take any of them lightly.

But yes, of course I want to fight Cyborg. But now that's PFL's job and Bellator's job to make it happen. I'm kind of tired of talking about that too, to be honest. I've been begging for the fight, and it's gonna happen if it's meant to happen, and if it happens I'll be ready.

B/R: Sorry, I've got one more on Cyborg. How would you break down a matchup between the two of you?

Harrison: I think I would just say that it's a super-fun fight. This is a classic style matchup: We literally have one of the best strikers in the world in Cyborg versus the best grappler in the world. That's not to say we're one-dimensional. I think my striking has come a long way and I think her grappling has come a long way. So I think in all areas there would be a clash.

She's also a little like me. She's been doubted in this sport, and a little overlooked. I think she's taken the long road. I think she has earned every bit of the respect she's got.


B/R: How's training going right now? Are you still at American Top Team? 

Harrison: Yep, still there. Just got done sparring actually. Life is good. I will tell you, I have two kids, and this is all a lot harder as a single mom.


B/R: How so? 

Harrison: I'm tired all the time. Kyla is nine and Emery is three, and they both just had spring break. That was fine, but my son got sick with a stomach bug, and then he got me sick with a stomach bug, and then I thought my daughter was going to miss it, but then she also got the stomach bug. So she was in my bed, he was in my bed and I was throwing up for two days straight. You could see the other moms at school, they were all worn down because of spring break, and just thankful it was over.

I wish a hospital or a spa or something would do like a single-mom special, where you could be induced into a coma for 24 hours, so you could shut down and revive. [laughs] Sometimes when I lay down at night I think about my kids, and my fights, and I can't shut my brain off.


B/R: It can be tough to unwind.

Harrison: I've gotta get better at meditating or something, man. The nine-year-old is getting good, but the three-year-old is, I don't know, Lord help me.


B/R: OK, back to fighting. I saw somewhere that you were maybe thinking about a drop down to 135 or that you might fight at a catchweight of 140 pounds. Is that really something you think you could do?

Harrison: I was joking around when I said that, just kind of being a smart ass. I had just won the tournament and I was like, "Kayla has all this money now, she's gonna hire a chef and go down to 135!" So I said it kind of as a joke, but then that became the headline. 

So, no, I do not want to make 135 pounds. I think if I climb every mountain in front of me and win another PFL belt, if I beat Cyborg at 145 pounds and fight Amanda and take her belt at 145, at that point would I look for another mountain to climb? Probably. But we're talking a long time down the road. And I don't know how much time I have left in this sport. So that's a big what-if. 

Gregory Payan/Associated Press

B/R: There's that cliche phrase: Embrace the grind. You've been on this grind your whole life, essentially. I feel like in this case you have to do more than embrace it. Combat sports are not easy. To do it like you have, you have to really love it. 

Harrison: Yeah.


B/R: Why do you love it so much? 

Harrison: I've been doing two-a-days since I was 12 years old. I started training when I was seven. I spent summers going to camps and competing and training. I moved to Boston when I was 16 so I could train.

But this is the place where I feel the most alive. It's the place where I feel the most me, I guess. I spend a lot of time working on myself, inner work, I guess you could say. I go to therapy every week. I want to be better for myself, and I want to be better for my kids. I want to be a cycle-breaker. I want to get past trauma and love myself.

I think being perfect and being excellent at something was how I got love as a child. But it also became my form of meditation. It became my peace. Going out there and having one person in front of me, and that being literally the only thing you can focus on. In MMA you can get kicked in the face if you're not present in that moment. So that's when I'm the most present. That's when I'm the most Kayla.