Rarely does a fight with a result seems like a mere formality draw as much interest as Kayla Harrison’s lightweight final to cap the third season of Professional Fighters League. But that’s the power in her possession as an athlete who’s barely acquainted with any sort of failure throughout her decades in martial arts – mixed or traditional.
Harrison (11-0, nine finishes) arrived in PFL three years ago, not even two years removed from her second Olympic gold medal in judo, and has been nothing less than a terror in the weight class created with her in mind. She’s yet to lose in MMA, rarely permitting opponents to make it back to the stool between rounds. After only squeezing in a lone bout in 2020 amid PFL’s postponed season and logging 9:48 of cage time, she only needed 10:08 to crush her three 2021 foes with bruising ground strikes and a judoka’s favorite submission, an armbar.
Most following PFL this season already budgeted the $1 million prize, up for grabs Wednesday at Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood, Fla., in each of the organization’s six weight classes, to Harrison before the competition started. And few are giving opponent Taylor Guardado a snowball’s chance in hell to keep the season two champion from becoming a rare MMA multi-millionaire. Sportsbooks, as of Tuesday night, pegged her as a prohibitive favorite — DraftKings and FanDuel are offering -3500 on her, which might as well have a “don’t bother” sign attached to it.
Outsiders have plenty of fuel to question the level of competition Harrison has faced to get here, although one must remember that she is still a relative neophyte to the sport who skipped amateur fights and earned her first million dollars just 18 months after her pro debut. For all intents and purposes, this was her “regional scene” aired on ESPN networks.
“I think that everyone’s tough until you beat them,” Harrison recently told The Post via Zoom. “It’s not my job to create matches or to make it an exciting fight. It’s my job to make it a boring fight. It’s my job to go out there and be dominant. That’s no knock on PFL or any of the girls. I think that it’s just gonna be really hard to find anyone who gives me a hard time.
“There’s probably [only] two girls in the world,” she added, not-so-subtly referring to UFC featherweight and bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes and Bellator 145-pound champ Cris “Cyborg” Justino — the two most accomplished women in MMA’s brief history.
Competitively, there’s no drama to be found around Harrison for the event that begins at 4:30 p.m. ET (title fights commence at about 6 p.m.). Same goes for personal drama — she’s an uber-proud single mom with no time for dating who made official the adoption of her sister’s two children this month, including son Emery on Monday. There’s no weight-cutting drama, as she walks around near her fighting weight and came in 1.2 under the 155-pound limit Tuesday. She’s not building a rap sheet like some of the sport’s biggest male stars.
Here’s the real intrigue: Where will Harrison fight next? Does she continue in PFL, where million-dollar deposits into her bank account at the end of the year are viewed by the masses as a certainty? Does her desire to face greater potential challenges in the UFC take her there? Would the lure of facing Cyborg win out?
Harrison’s contract expires once the tournament ends. But she might be the least-interested party regarding where she lands next, at least until she takes care of business against Guardado (3-1, zero finishes), who is green as a pro fighter but holds decade-old amateur wins over UFC veterans Raquel Pennington and Ashlee-Evans Smith. The star leaves the details of sorting out her future, for now, in the hands of manager Ali Abdelaziz, who has been in talks with PFL about a potential return.
“I know they’re trying to work. It’s not my job. My job is Oct. 27, Taylor Guardado,” Harrison said convincingly. “That’s the only thing I’m thinking about.
“I think that’s what everyone else should be,” she continued before interrupting herself. “I know everyone has questions and concerns and all of this, but for me, she’s the No. 1 thing on my mind. All that stuff will work itself out after the fact. I have a job to do.”
While PFL would gladly welcome back its biggest star and both Harrison and Cyborg have throughout 2021 happily planted the seeds which could grow into a huge fight, the market-dominant UFC looks like the most likely alternate destination if this week is the end of her PFL run.
And that’s true in spite of comments from UFC president Dana White on Monday, who suggested she stay in PFL where she is paid “an obscene amount of money.” While one must be careful not to take his words at face value, labeling million-dollar prizes as ludicrous is subtle insight into the type of money the world’s top MMA promotion would prefer to pay even star attractions, if it can be helped.
White also played a tried-and-true card from his deck, touting the UFC’s hefty share of the top fighters in the world, in this case from his women’s divisions. Not that Harrison, who is staunch against weight cuts but ostensibly would compete at 145 pounds — a weight at which she competed last year for the first time — in the UFC, would be expected to ever face name-dropped champions like Valentina Shevchenko (125 pounds) or Rose Namajunas (115).
Nunes’ name came first from White’s lips. But don’t expect that to do anything to sway Harrison in either direction, considering the Olympic champ refers to her and the UFC dual champ as “buds” who have trained together for years at American Top Team and attended each other’s children’s birthday parties — Emery’s is this weekend, the end of a huge week for the Harrison clan. Perhaps no woman on the planet knows what a fight with Nunes would be like better than Harrison, save for Nunes’ past opponents.
In reality, White’s ploy is more likely an appeal to Harrison’s highly competitive nature. “I don’t blame her,” he says. “I would stay there and keep fighting the type of women she’s fighting there before I would come here and fight an Amanda Nunes.”
Will that sway Harrison? Doubtful. Throughout the year, she has told The Post that she’s interested in being appropriately compensated but also seeks the highest-caliber opponent and prove what she already believes: that she’s the best fighter on the planet.
Can Harrison have her cake and eat it too? Hard to say. But don’t bet against her.