As mixed martial arts continues to grow in popularity, so too does the level of talent entering it. Bellator MMA has its highly regarded “Fab Five,” with Aaron Pico, Ed Ruth, Tyrell Fortune, Jarod Trice and Joey Davis; the Ultimate Fighting Championship inks many top regional stars through “The Ultimate Fighter” and Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series; and the Professional Fighters League has a blue-chip prospect of its own: two-time Olympic gold medalist Kayla Harrison.
A number of Olympic medalists have crossed over to women’s MMA in the last few years, most notably Ronda Rousey and Sara McMann. However, Harrison will become the first gold medalist to do so. She has observed the growth of the sport from afar and cites it as one of the reasons why she joined the industry.
“Women’s MMA is something I have been keeping my eye on,” said Harrison, the first American ever to win Olympic gold in judo. “I think it is the fastest-growing women’s sport in the U.S.”
Harrison, who will make her professional debut against Brittney Elkin at PFL 2 on Thursday in Chicago, saw MMA as a chance to continue her athletic endeavors beyond judo. After collecting her second straight gold medal at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, she began training in MMA. She soon realized the daunting task in front of her.
“It turns out MMA is even more of a challenge than judo ever was, and I love a challenge,” Harrison said during a guest appearance on the Fight Strength Podcast.
Competing in MMA was not the only opportunity from which the former Olympian had to choose. The International Judo Federation offered her a role as an ambassador; she was already commentating for the World Series of Fighting; and World Wrestling Entertainment showed some interest. However, those possible career paths did not appeal to her.
“That competitive thing inside of me is too hard to fight,” Harrison said.
In preparation for her bout with Elkin, the Ohio native is honing her new craft at American Top Team. The burgeoning mixed martial artist is jumping headfirst into the sport after foregoing some seasoning in the amateur ranks, although that decision was more about naivety than skipping steps.
“I didn’t know you could be an amateur before you go pro,” Harrison said.
Though she regrets the decision now, you cannot blame the judoka for moving on an opportunity, as she garnered interest from several different organizations after her judo days were officially finished. She eventually signed with the World Series of Fighting as a commentator in October 2016, with hopes of maybe more physical work down the line. When making the transition from a base martial art to the combined chaos of MMA, there is a learning curve. Harrison, like most grapplers, points to striking as the one aspect that has been the hardest to grasp.
“Little things like head movement,” she said. “I never had to move my head in judo. I just went straight forward like a bull.”
Even the differences in posture -- going from a straight-up style in judo to stances with bent knees in MMA -- were unusual for the high-level athlete. Furthermore, Harrison will have to take part in an infamous staple of combat sports: weight cutting. The Olympian did not cut weight during much of her judo career, nor did she ever need to follow a strict diet. With plans to fight at featherweight -- 25 pounds lower than the weight at which she competed during the Olympics in London and Rio de Janeiro -- Harrison will have to make a major adjustment. Despite being hyperglycemic, she does not seem too concerned.
“I want to be the best in the world,” Harrison said, “and part of being a professional athlete is being professional about your weight and nutrition.”
The fighter cited the help she has received from strength and conditioning coach Phil Daru and what she learned during a visit to the UFC Performance Institute as reasons for her positive outlook on making weight, not to mention her general determination to succeed at this new vocation.
“I think it comes down to being a disciplined athlete,” Harrison said, “and if you want something bad enough, you’ll skip the cookie.”
With a year of serious MMA training under her belt and an excellent grappling base upon which to fall back, Harrison will have a solid foundation going into her professional debut. She understands the various limitations she has -- “I’m still not the greatest wrestler yet” -- and that she is entering a very dangerous sport. However, for an athlete that has reached such monumental heights of success, the inner competitor is pushing her into this new journey. Harrison summed it up best when explaining her motivation to engage in combat sports.
“I can’t stand the fact that people think that there are tougher women on the planet than me,” she said, “so I had to fight.”