Kayla Harrison, after MMA tears, lost toenail, will now fight for $1 million

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When Kayla Harrison finished pummeling her second Professional Fighters League opponent last month, she bolted to the back of the Ocean Resort Casino in Atlantic City, N.J. She didn’t want to be alone.

“I was crying,” Harrison said Monday.

One of the first people to come across the U.S. Olympic judo champion in a temper tantrum (retired from the sport after repeat gold in Rio) was 71-year-old Jim Pedro Sr.

Pedro, along with his Olympic medalist son, Jimmy Pedro, helped Harrison develop into the world’s best judoka. Harrison also credited the Pedros for saving her life, following suffering from depression and considering suicide after being sexually abused by a previous coach more than a decade ago.

Pedro Sr. — “Big Jim” to Harrison — found Harrison in the Atlantic City casino on the night of Aug. 16.

“What the hell are you crying about?” he demanded.

The question was legitimate, even if Big Jim may have already known the answer. Harrison had just landed 79 strikes to opponent Jozette Cotton‘s 12 to improve to 2-0 in her two-month PFL career.

Harrison got the TKO but was dismayed that it took 12 minutes to put away Cotton. Perspective: Harrison’s former judo training partner, Ronda Rousey, went further than five minutes once in 14 of her 15 wins.

“Big Jim, I want to be best in the world, I want to be dominant, and I just went to the third round,” Harrison recalled saying. “I should have broken her arm.”

To which Big Jim responded, “Shut the hell up. Quit your god damn crying.” Harrison cried some more.

“I’m crying because I want to be better,” Harrison said Monday.

The scene paints the rookie’s view of mixed martial arts after her first two fights, but nearly two years into her PFL deal.

That deal has just been extended through 2019 with the debut of a women’s division (155 pounds) and the opportunity to win a tournament and $1 million. Twelve years ago, Harrison showed up to the Pedros with $250 in her pocket.

“I just always thought the transition would be easy, but it’s a lot harder than it looks,” she said while doing media in New York City on Monday. “There’s just so much you have to think about. If you’re too aggressive, you can walk into something. If you’re not aggressive enough, you’re not going to win the fight. In judo I used to fight multiple tournaments a month. Bu there is something to be said of complete, full contact [in MMA] and focusing on only one person, one fight, one moment.

“The lead up to it is completely different from a judo tournament. It really is every, single fight is the most important fight. At judo if I lost a Grand Slam, it was OK because I was really training for the Olympics. In MMA, there are no second chances.”

Harrison, 28, expects to fight once more in 2018. Her 2019 regular season begins in May. If she stays undefeated, Harrison will fight five times next year.

Recent buzz in the sport has centered on a potential fight between Harrison and Cris “Cyborg” Justino, considered by many (and by Harrison) to be the world’s best fighter.

“My goal is to be the best, but I’ve only had two fights,” Harrison said Monday. “To expect to be able to compete with the best right now is unrealistic. I know she [Justino] has a wealth of knowledge and experience, much more than me.”

Harrison said having a female division in PFL — albeit 10 pounds heavier than where Justino fights in UFC — will help bring the fight closer to reality. For now, it won’t happen with the two women under contract with different promotions and fighting at different weights. Both could change by the end of 2019.

Harrison said she considered not signing her 2019 contract with the PFL in case it means she wouldn’t be able to fight Justino until 2020 at the earliest. And that Justino, who turns 34 next year and whose UFC contract is believed to end in March, could retire before then.

Harrison noted that Justino, once banned a year for steroids, never came down from her 145-pound division to fight at Rousey’s insistence at 135 (or a 140-pound catch weight).

“[Justino] is complaining about me being too heavy already,” Harrison said, noting it’s a bit like the pot calling the kettle black after the Rousey instance. “But I’ll be happy to fight her at 145 just to prove a point.”

Judo is still on Harrison’s mind. It remains part of her Twitter handle. The world championships are wrapping up in Azerbaijan (the U.S. earned zero medals in 2017 and has none so far this year). Harrison watches, but there is no urge to return.

“I miss the security of it,” she said. “There’s something to be said for having the confidence and the experience of being No. 1, trusting that you are the best in the world and having faith in that. I’m sort of in this new realm where mentally I know that I want to be the best and what it takes to be the best, but I still don’t have the confidence yet. Whereas judo, it was muscle memory and ingrained in the system that I knew I was going to win.”

Harrison has been waiting for somebody to ask her about injuries as a fighter. Close friend and Olympic teammate Marti Malloy recently brought it up.

The day that she asked me, my big toenail fell off completely,” said Harrison, who tore her left MCL five months before the London Olympics and underwent reconstructive knee surgery in June 2013, watching Netflix for six weeks in a straight leg brace. “I have no idea how that fell off. I was horrified.”

Harrison sent Malloy a video, joking that she was “seriously wounded.” 

Harrison has learned that MMA is mentally harder than judo. The physical punishment? Just different.

“Judo is hard on your body,” she said. “MMA, you’re getting kicked in the head, so, it’s also very hard on your body.” 

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Cyborg to Kayla Harrison: ‘She knows where she can find me’

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Kayla Harrison wants to fight UFC champion Cris “Cyborg” Justino, eventually. The feeling appears mutual.

“She knows where she can find me,” Justino said in a radio interview published Thursday.

“She’s supposed to be the next Ronda Rousey, judo girl,” the Brazilian said. It was unclear whether it was a statement or a question. “I don’t know if [Harrison] can take a punch.”

Harrison, who switched to MMA after repeating as Olympic judo champion in Rio, is 2-0 since debuting in the Professional Fighters League this summer.

Harrison has repeated in interviews that she wants to be the world’s best female fighter, and that would require beating Cyborg. Harrison said Justino is “considered the best, probably, pound-for-pound” female fighter ever.

Harrison brought up the idea that Justino could switch from UFC to PFL after her contract is up.

“I don’t think I’m ready yet [to fight Justino], but I know I will be,” Harrison said after an Aug. 17 TKO in her second fight, according to ESPN. “I’m not going to make guesses on the future, but I do know I will fight Cris Cyborg.”

Harrison is in PFL’s 155-pound division and will fight at least once more this year. Justino fights in UFC’s heaviest division, max 145 pounds.

Justino is 20-1 with one no contest since debuting in 2005. MMA fans and Dana White craved a fight between Cyborg and Ronda Rousey, Harrison’s former judo training partner, but it never happened.

White said they would have fought if Rousey won her last bout against Amanda Nunes on Dec. 30, 2016.

“I had a dream the other night that I was fighting Cyborg, and I got her in an arm bar and I broke her arm,” Harrison said in 2016, according to The New York Times. “But she wouldn’t tap, so I choked her unconscious.”

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Kayla Harrison pummels another MMA opponent in PFL fight

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Kayla Harrison now has as many MMA wins as she does Olympic gold medals. She’s looked just as dominant in her first two Professional Fighters League bouts as she did at times during the peak of her judo career.

Harrison pummeled a floored Jozette Cotton (8-2) from a standing position, forcing a TKO with three minutes left of a three-round, 15-minute fight in Atlantic City, N.J., on Thursday night.

“I’m still trying to get all the issues out of the game plan, but overall I’m happy,” Harrison said on NBCSN. “I never want it to go three rounds, but it’s good to know that I can go three or five or 10 or however long it takes to put somebody away.”

Harrison routed Cotton in total strikes landed — 79-12 — many coming with Cotton lying on the bottom of the cage in each of the three rounds.

The 28-year-old Harrison switched from judo to MMA after repeating as Olympic champion in Rio.

She debuted June 21, forcing Brittney Elkin to submit via arm bar after three minutes. That’s the same move made famous by Harrison’s former judo training partner, Ronda Rousey.

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