The past 18 months have been life-altering for Kayla Harrison, one of the most promising fighters in women’s MMA. Harrison took her niece and nephew, Kyla and Emery, into her home when her stepfather, Bob Nichols, died in May 2020. At that time, the biggest breakout fighter in the Professional Fighters League had her mind on anything but fighting, and as the 2020 PFL season went by the wayside in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Harrison still had plenty on her plate as she was thrust into the role of mom.
Earlier this month, Harrison officially adopted Kyla — a moment the two-time Olympic judo gold medalist described as “the best day of my life” — and the paperwork for Harrison to adopt Emery is already being processed.
In the midst of this happy news, Harrison is on the brink of her second $1 million PFL women’s lightweight championship. She is set to fight Taylor Guardado in the main event of the 2021 PFL Championship event on Wednesday in Hollywood, Florida, and she is a 30-to-1 favorite to repeat at some sports books.
From the start of Harrison’s career in the PFL, she has been vocal about wanting to be the best fighter in the history of women’s MMA. That goal has not changed, but her responsibilities have increased and evolved.
There may be more changes ahead. The women’s lightweight final is the last bout on Harrison’s PFL contract, and she will surely have multiple suitors because of her abilities, potential and overall popularity. And while the PFL is actively trying to re-sign her, the UFC and Bellator are likely to have interest, too.
Early in Harrison’s PFL tenure, a jump to the UFC in 2022 seemed like the natural progression. It would be the fastest path to reaching her goal of being the best ever. But that avenue is no longer a lock as Harrison’s vision for balancing her personal plan has shifted, at least in the short-term.
Harrison told ESPN that she has “a number in my head,” and if a promotion reaches that price tag — it’s in the seven figures, she said — that is where she will sign.
“If I’m offered this number, I will choose the security of that number over the uncertainty of free agency,” Harrison said.
Harrison (11-0) is adamant, though, that she has not thought much yet about where she will end up next year. The focus, she said, has to be on Guardado right now.
“My job isn’t finished,” Harrison said. “The work’s not done. I’m gonna go out there and instill my will — one round at a time, one minute at a time, one exchange at a time, one breath at a time. I’m gonna make Taylor quit. That’s all I really think about and I know that the rest will work itself out.”
With that being said, the 31-year-old Harrison has embraced the fact that the storylines going into this bout have as much to do with the many questions about her long-term future as they do with her trying to beat Guardado and win $1 million for a second time.
“I worked hard to become MMA’s biggest free agent of all time,” Harrison said. “This isn’t something that just happened this year. People may now just be tuning in. But I’ve been busting my ass since I was 6 years old to get to the point where I’m the most sought-after free agent in the history of the sport.”
What are Harrison’s most likely options? Let’s propose some odds about where she ends up:
Kayla Harrison describes her evolution as a fighter ahead of her bout with Taylor Guardado in the main event at the PFL World Championship.
Harrison’s manager, Ali Abdelaziz, told ESPN’s Brett Okamoto in a recent interview that he spoke with PFL CEO Peter Murray and he’s confident they “will figure something out.” Now, that does not mean Harrison is a lock to go back to PFL. But it’s abundantly clear that PFL is trying to do everything in its power to keep her.
Last month, PFL signed former Bellator women’s featherweight champion Julia Budd, who has lost to only three fighters in her career: Amanda Nunes, Ronda Rousey and Cris Cyborg. If you’re keeping score at home, those are arguably the three greatest women’s MMA fighters of all time. Budd would be the toughest challenge of Harrison’s career to date if they were to meet next year in PFL. And stepping up Harrison’s strength of schedule is a key — along with financial incentives — to bringing the promotion’s biggest star back to the only company she has ever fought for in MMA.
“I have no complaints with the PFL,” Harrison said. “I’m happy fighting for the PFL. I truly believe in the format. I believe that this is the future of MMA. I believe in it being sport-based and merit-based. And I’m proud of what we’ve built. Again, you don’t say PFL without saying Kayla Harrison. I’ve been the face of the promotion for a while.”
Not too long ago, it seemed like Harrison to the UFC was a foregone conclusion. And it still very well might happen. But it is no longer the slam dunk it once appeared to be. The UFC barely has a women’s featherweight division, which is the only existing weight class that would be a fit for Harrison. There are some interesting fights there for Harrison, against the likes of Holly Holm or Germaine de Randamie. But both of those women prefer to fight at bantamweight, and Harrison cannot drop that low. Harrison joked to ESPN that maybe she could make 135 pounds for $1 million. But that’s not going to happen.
The opponent that would make the most sense for Harrison in the UFC would be Nunes, the women’s featherweight and bantamweight champion. There’s a bit of a problem, though, since the two are teammates at American Top Team in Florida, train together under coach Mike Brown and are friends. Harrison would not rule out a future fight with Nunes, but she said it’s not one she wants to think about at this juncture. Harrison and Nunes see each other every day and share stories of motherhood. It’s not an idea that excites them and certainly doesn’t thrill anyone at American Top Team. Gym owner Dan Lambert said on “The MMA Hour” last week that he would “do everything I could to avoid it.”
“Of course, [the UFC is] where the greatest of all time have fought,” Harrison said. “Would I like to fight there? I think that each fighter has their own journey. I have my journey and I think there are a couple different paths I could take to go down as the greatest, and the UFC is one of them. But I don’t think it has to be. We’ll see.”
Out of all of Harrison’s options, Bellator has the deepest women’s featherweight division. Harrison fights at lightweight now, but it’s clear that no matter what is next, her future will have to be at featherweight. There are just too few women in the sport who are natural lightweights. Harrison has mostly fought women who have moved up in weight for PFL. Bellator, unlike the PFL or the UFC, has a fully stocked women’s featherweight division with a top-10 ranking.
While Cat Zingano, Arlene Blencowe or Leslie Smith would represent a step up in competition from what Harrison has faced in the PFL, the fight everyone would be clamoring for in Bellator is Harrison versus featherweight champion Cyborg. That’s probably one of the biggest MMA fights outside of the UFC that could be made right now. Cyborg has lost to only one woman since her pro debut in 2005 — Nunes — and has won titles in the UFC, Bellator, Strikeforce and Invicta FC. Harrison called Cyborg a “pioneer” and has made it no secret that is a fight she wants.
“I think she’s accomplished a lot,” Harrison said of Cyborg. “I think she’s had an uphill battle to get where she is. I think she’s a very good fighter and I think I want to fight her someday.”
— All Elite Wrestling (@AEW) September 16, 2021
All Elite Wrestling (+5,000)
This one is a long shot and would be a complete departure from what Harrison wants — to be viewed as the best women’s MMA fighter of all time. On top of that, Harrison has made it clear she is not a big fan of pro wrestling and would prefer to fight for real. Despite that, there are some factors she’d have to consider.
AEW is backed by billionaires Shad and Tony Khan, who also own the Jacksonville Jaguars. Harrison has already appeared on AEW’s cable television programming as part of a storyline with Lambert and American Top Team invading the wrestling promotion. When she was on-screen in front of thousands of fans, Harrison’s charisma came across very well — she seemed to feed off the boos and was basically a natural.
Harrison was complimentary of the AEW crowd, saying she has a “newfound respect” for pro wrestling fans. Harrison also told ESPN that Abdelaziz has been in talks with a pro wrestling promotion — she would not say which one — and that Harrison and Abdelaziz have discussed her doing it. But this seems like something she’d do sporadically now or in the future, if at all.
“I don’t know how I feel about pretending to fight,” Harrison said. “I kind of like really fighting. I enjoy it. But we’ll see. Never say never.”