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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