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Kayla Harrison, MMA hype and the lessons to be learned from Ronda Rousey

Judo - Olympics: Day 6 Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images

Kayla Harrison got a crash course in what it meant to be an MMA star long before she even considered fighting in a cage.

The two-time Olympic judo gold medalist is a friend, former roommate and longtime training partner of Ronda Rousey, who remains one of the most famous mixed martial arts fighters to ever live. A few years ago, Harrison did an interview and the reporter asked her about something people didn’t know about Rousey. Harrison casually dropped that Rousey liked to hang around the house naked.

“The next morning, like all over the New York Daily News or something it was ‘Ronda Rousey loves to be naked,’ or something — ‘former teammate says,’” Harrison told MMA Fighting. “I was like, what the f*ck. I think I just learned you have to be careful what you say and also once this thing starts, once this train gets a going, there’s no stopping it. They’re gonna push and push and push and push. I feel like they pushed her so hard and so fast it was kind of detrimental for her. I’m gonna learn from that. I don’t want that to happen to me.”

Harrison, 27, will make her MMA debut against Brittney Elkin at PFL 2 on Thursday in Chicago after training for the last year, most recently at American Top Team in Coconut Creek, Fla. At first, Harrison was very hesitant to try mixed martial arts, because of the sometimes slimy aspect of fight promotion. She loathes trash talk and hates that fighters get chances because of how much money they can generate, rather than their skills alone.

Once she started training, though, the competitive juices took over. Harrison joked that she almost took it personally that people didn’t think she was the “baddest bitch on the planet.” Being part of PFL, which has a structure that looks more like a sports league than a fight promotion, was a big deal. Harrison, who will fight at 155 pounds Thursday, won’t be in a season like the other fighters this year, but the plan is to have her do that next year.

“Every single year, there’s going to be a champion,” Harrison said of PFL. “It’s not based on how much shit you talk, it’s not based on how pretty you are, it’s based off how you do in the cage and that’s it. For me, that was a huge thing. That’s something that still bugs me about MMA. I look at all kinds of guys who are super talented, but because they’re not shit talkers, they don’t get any opportunity. And I hate that. It drives me crazy. It’s just not right.”

Harrison is already on guard about all the things MMA can grow into — for better or for worse — because of Rousey. She said the main guidance Rousey has given her is to not care what people are saying.

“Her number one advice to me always, even when I was thinking about it a long time ago was to grow a thick skin, because people are mean,” Harrison said. “And she knows I’m a very sensitive person. So, she said you’ve gotta get a lot tougher. She said the fans will love you or they’ll hate you, but it doesn’t really matter what people you don’t know think about you. As long as the people closest to you agree with what you’re doing, then you shouldn’t give a f*ck.”

Rousey dominated in the UFC as its first women’s champion until getting knocked out by Holly Holm in 2015. She was never the same. Harrison believes that her friend was emotionally drained going into the fight with Holm, because of all the exterior pressures put on her, from fight promotion to book promotion to doing Hollywood films. Rousey never said no to anything early on, which was part of why she became a pop culture phenomenon, but also likely contributed to her losses.

“That’s not necessarily a good thing,” Harrison said. “It changed the course of her career, I feel like. And even for me, I feel like one of the biggest mistakes with Ronda was she started to believe some of her own press. Some people got close to her and told her, ‘Yeah, you can strike with the best strikers in the world. You’re one of the best strikers in the world.’”

While Harrison, from a competitive standpoint, has her sights set on Cris Cyborg, the best pound-for-pound women’s MMA fighter ever, and her 145-pound division, she does not want to be pushed quickly from a marketing standpoint. Not like Rousey.

“I understand people are excited and they want me to be good or they want me to be the next Ronda, but I’m gonna take my time and do it right,” Harrison said. “And hopefully watch my words and not say anything too stupid.”

Harrison has an ally in this regard in PFL president of fight operations Ray Sefo, who said he has no interest in stretching Harrison too thin. Sefo said he has high expectations for Harrison — Olympic gold expectations — but won’t ask more of her on the promotional side than she wants to do.

“She’s gotta get in there first, get her feet wet and then make adjustments from there,” Sefo told MMA Fighting. “But 100 percent, we as the PFL, we won’t want to push her too quick too soon. We’re gonna let her get her feet wet and see how she deals with everything. She’s definitely not afraid of the limelight or afraid of the lights, because she’s been underneath those lights many times. Been in front of the world. I think that’s not the part we would be careful about. We would be careful on how she adjusts to a different kind of game.”

The lessons Harrison has gleaned from Rousey’s rise and descent in MMA are mostly of the outside-the-cage variety. But they extend onto the fighting surface, too.

Rousey tore through the UFC women’s bantamweight division over the course of two years. But there were flaws in her game. And Harrison is intimately familiar with them, because she believes they are common in judokas coming over to mixed martial arts.

Harrison said she has committed herself to wrestling at ATT and she’ll go into her MMA debut very confident in that part of her game. Harrison said her judo instincts could leave her open in scrambles with MMA grapplers and that has been a concern.

“One of the big things that I really didn’t want to make the mistake of that I kind of learned from Ronda Rousey’s career was like I live and die by the underhook now,” Harrison told MMA Fighting. “There’s not gonna be any head-and-arm shit. If I do that, that means that I wasn’t listening and I didn’t learn anything.”

As good as Rousey was — and she was a force of nature — she left herself open sometimes because of judo techniques on the ground. Liz Carmouche famously took her back and put her in trouble in the first women’s fight in UFC history. Harrison has been putting the work in wrestling wise to avoid such a thing.

“I work with collegiate-level wrestlers every day in training,” Harrison said. “And it’s like probably one of the most frustrating things, because I’m just so not used to getting taken down. In judo, nobody touches your legs, so it was a big change for me. I had to learn how to have a good sprawl. My instincts are always to grab and throw, so when they come in, maybe I throw them, but they end up on my back because maybe I don’t have good control. Your instincts are not exactly right.”

Another thing Harrison will likely have in common with Rousey is a tie to Cyborg. Harrison is open about wanting that fight down the road, because she had no intention of dipping a toe into MMA. If Harrison was going to do it, she was going to go full bore.

“Absolutely, I think that if you’re in MMA and you’re our size and that’s not your goal, then you’re not really in MMA,” Harrison said of Cyborg. “I want to be one of the best there ever was and right now she’s the best woman fighter that there ever was. Obviously.”

Of course, as Harrison noted, she hasn’t even had “one friggin’ fight yet.” Yet still, as much as she wants to slow down, her perfectionism takes root.

“Definitely not tomorrow,” Harrison said of fighting Cyborg. “But I want to be the best. Maybe not today, maybe not this year, but eventually.”

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