Kayla Harrison rose to prominence on the strength of consecutive Olympic judo gold medals, but she’s all about that MMA life coming up on three years after her debut in the sport.
Well, except when it comes to trash talk. She’s definitely in the wrong sport for that when squeaky wheels like Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey got the most oil over the years.
“I know. I know,” Harrison, with resignation in her voice, told The Post over the phone earlier this month. “But I’m just gonna do it my way.”
So far, Harrison’s way is working out just fine, as the reigning Professional Fighters League women’s lightweight champion from the 2019 season — last year’s planned third season was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic — prepares to repeat as the $1 million prize winner at the end of this upcoming campaign.
And while Harrison (8-0, six finishes) feels PFL, which conducts its annual schedule as a season with playoffs and a season-ending championship bout at the end of the year, has upgraded the competition in her division from two years ago, there’s one fight she hoped to make happen against a living legend of women’s MMA: Cris “Cyborg” Justino.
According to Harrison, both she and PFL angled to make a Cyborg fight happen even after the former UFC featherweight champion signed with Bellator. PFL also pushed hard to bring her aboard when she hit free agency in 2019. Cross-promotion at the world level in MMA is rare, although there is precedent for Bellator. Alas, the fight never came together.
Thus started a public back-and-forth earlier this year between Harrison, the 30-year-old Olympic hero, and Justino, arguably women’s MMA’s greatest ever, that has planted the seeds for a potential future showdown.
In a video posted to Justino’s YouTube channel on Jan. 6, Cyborg said that if Harrison emerges victorious in this year’s PFL season that “for sure, I would like to make a match with her” and try her hand at moving up to 155 pounds.
Harrison, who said she wasn’t surprised Cyborg chose a “comfortable” landing spot with Bellator in free agency, threw in a bit of a jab because of what appeared to be a missed chance to follow through on the mutual desire to square off.
‘Now, she’s saying she wants to fight me, but she had an opportunity to fight me last year,” Harrison told MMA Mania on Feb. 3. “She does a lot of talking but not a lot of signing on the dotted line.”
Not known to let her honor be impinged, Justino answered on Twitter a day later with a verbal counter uppercut.
“I don’t know…How many times did [Harrison] fight for [PFL] in 2020?!…I just sign my signature when it counts.”
Cyborg won a pair of 145-pound championship fights in the Bellator cage last year, while Harrison was only granted permission by PFL to compete on the regional scene once in November for Invicta FC and see a scheduled Titan FC bout fall through due to her opponent’s hospitalization during fight week in December.
With all that in mind, Harrison concedes she can’t offer much of a retort, given PFL’s postponed season.
“There’s no comeback from that,” Harrison told The Post. “What am I supposed to say? Yeah, you’re right. I didn’t get to fight last year. It’s not for a lack of want, not like I said ‘no’ to any fights. I was begging people to fight me.”
Harrison then interrupts herself to take her answer in a different direction, one purely deferential to Justino that highlights her desire to test herself against the best in MMA after years of doing so in the judo world.
“I hate trash talk,” Harrison said. “I have a lot of respect for Cyborg. I think she is a pioneer of the sport. I think she had an uphill battle her entire career. But I would love to fight her. I have a lot of respect for her, but I fear no one, and I think that my career and time will prove that I fear no one. And I look forward to the day that we can both sign onto the correct dotted line and step in a cage and lock the door because, then, there’s no more talking.”
For now, Harrison vs. Cyborg is fantasy matchmaking. The real fights lie ahead in the coming months as PFL gears up to begin its long-gestating third season in April. Among those on the 10-woman roster with Harrison are 2019 PFL runner-up Larissa Pacheco and UFC veteran Cindy Dandois.
While noting that “no one caught my eye in a big, big way” from the announced roster, Harrison said she believes at this point her toughest challenge will once again come from Pacheco, the only woman to go the distance with the champ and who did so twice. Harrison thinks the 26-year-old Brazilian, who lost her only two UFC bouts at 135 pounds as a 20-year-old to future champions Germaine de Randamie and Jessica Andrade, doesn’t get “enough credit.”
“The amount that this girl has grown as a fighter and evolved, both physically and as a fighter [with] the experience that she has, makes her very formidable,” Harrison said.