Is Kayla Harrison the future of women's MMA?

·Combat columnist
·4 min read

The journey, as Kayla Harrison calls it, will resume Wednesday night in Hollywood, Florida, when she attempts for the second time to win the Professional Fighter’s League’s women’s lightweight championship, and the $1 million prize that goes with it.

After a lengthy period of thought following her second Olympic gold medal in 2016, Harrison decided to give MMA a shot.

She made her debut on June 21, 2018, and has gone on to be even more dominant in her new sport than she was in judo. There, she won Olympic gold medals in 2012 in London and 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, and she became the youngest American to be named a sixth-degree black belt.

On Wednesday, she’ll face Taylor Guardado for the PFL title and is an overwhelming favorite to repeat. At BetMGM, Harrison is a -3000 favorite, meaning in order to make a $100 profit, a bettor would have to risk $3,000. Guardado is +1200.

The chances of Guardado defeating Harrison on Wednesday are about the same as UNLV defeating Alabama in college football: not good.

Harrison is now 31 and poised for free agency, in which she’ll be the most sought-after woman ever to hit the open market. PFL will clearly bid big to keep her services, but Bellator and UFC, at the least, will also be heavily involved.

This journey, though, did not begin in 2018 when she debuted.

“I’ve wanted to be the best in the world since I was 6 years old,” Harrison said. “This is the culmination of all of that.”

Kayla Harrison poses with her gold medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics. (REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov)
Kayla Harrison poses with her gold medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics. (REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov)

The problem for Guardado is that Harrison is one of those fiercely competitive athletes who doesn’t settle for just good enough. She scoffs at the gulf between herself after winning the 2019 PFL crown and now.

“One way I try to judge myself is I look at the Kayla of the last fight and what the Kayla of this fight would do to that Kayla, or the Kayla of 2020, and I ask how she would fare against the Kayla of 2021,” Harrison said. “I would eat that Kayla alive, you know. The Kayla who had her debut [in 2018], she wouldn’t last a round in the cage with me.”

Harrison is No. 3 on Yahoo Sports’ women’s pound-for-pound list, behind only double UFC champion Amanda Nunes, one of her training partners, and UFC flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko.

It’s been hard to judge Harrison fairly, though, because while she’s been extraordinarily dominant — she has nine finishes in her 11 fights and only Larissa Pacheco has gone the distance with her (twice) — there is a fair question about the level of competition.

The UFC doesn’t even have enough women to rank at featherweight, where Nunes is the champion, and doesn’t offer a lightweight class (155 pounds).

If Harrison signs with the UFC, which is hardly a fait accompli, she’d have to fight at featherweight. She made 145 for Invicta and looked as invincible as ever, so she could do it. But she’d have the same problem there that Nunes does: There are only a handful of women in the class.

It’s not that there aren’t quality female athletes big enough to fight at the weight. On the WNBA champion Chicago Sky roster are 6-4, 185-pound Candace Parker, 6-1, 170-pound Diamond DeShields and 6-6, 180-pound Azura Stevenson. 

There are plenty of other female athletes with the size to compete in MMA.

The key is to get them to do it. Harrison believes it’s happening, but it’s a very slow process.

“Women come in all shapes and sizes, just like me,” Harrison said. “It’s going to take time, but not as much time … it’s not going to take 25 years. I think in 10 years, we’re going to see this explosion of [female MMA talent]. It’s not just in the United States. You look at a champion like Zhang [Weili] in China. You look at Joanna [Jedrzejczyk] in Poland. It’s a global thing.

“My prediction is that in 10 years from now, there are girls who are starting MMA today who would eat Amanda and Kayla for breakfast.”

That, though, is a ways away and right now, Harrison is about as good as it gets in mixed martial arts. She’ll likely take the work that her friend, Ronda Rousey, did in helping push women’s MMA to the mainstream and move it forward, bringing more women of size into the fold.

It’s going to be a lengthy process, and Harrison may not be active when her dream comes to fruition.

Something tells me, though, Harrison won’t quickly be forgotten when she finally walks away from MMA.

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