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Kayla Harrison shines in MMA debut, but forecasting her ‘star potential’ is tricky business

Courtesy of PFL

It’s true, Kayla Harrison’s first-round armbar finish of Brittney Elkin at PFL 2 on Thursday night called to mind a certain judoka who discovered a lucrative second life in the cage. The big difference is that when Ronda Rousey tapped poor Ediane Gomes out there in Tarzana, half her audience didn’t even know what the hell a judoka even was — is it like being a taekwondokü? — and plenty gawked at women’s MMA as a kind of experimental abomination.

In other words, comparing anybody to Rousey, the game-changer, is like comparing the difference between a light bulb and electricity. Harrison had a 100-watt MMA debut; Rousey was illumination. Because Rousey existed and did what she did, Harrison — a two-time Olympic gold medalist in judo, and Rousey’s onetime roommate — inherits all the elastic expectations and all the eagerness of a public looking to duplicate her.

Still, Harrison looked mighty comfortable as she took the cage in Chicago. Mighty comfortable. As a pure Massachusetts native, she said she was “wicked nervous” before the fight, but the butterflies never showed. She proved she’s a pro both on the microphone and in the white heat of the chaotic trade. She used her 66-inch reach well when letting her hands go, dominated the clinch, and dominated in general by running everything through her core. The armbar was executed with poise and experience; Elkin was hanging on for dear life for as long as she could, but tapped immediately at 3:18 of the first round when her arm began to rip from its bearings.

And now Harrison is 1-0 as a professional mixed martial artist, with a little bit of history of her own. As a lightweight, she became the showroom condominium in an undeveloped subdivision. The struggle will likely come in finding her live bodies to toss around in the vicinity of 155 pounds while she whittles her frame down towards the more familiar featherweight construct. With the publicity she gets, she is primed to become a target. She wants to partake in the PFL’s season structure to try and win a million dollar prize next time through. Her ultimate goal? A fight with Cyborg. Should she actually string together four or five wins and make that happen, she would have one-upped Rousey in achieving that singular obvious superfight.

Yet, like all end goals involving Cyborg, it’s a fun hypothetical that feels like wishful thinking. Cyborg is never that easy to track down, and nor is there even a clearly marked road to get to her. Still, if Harrison’s “star potential” can be gauged at this early stage, the fact that she looks like looming trouble for the most dominant woman in the game speaks for itself. That means Harrison has the right kind of intrigue. She is both harbinger and prospect.

In terms of that same MMA star power — the magical marriage of the “it” and the “id” to form something special — the 27-year old Harrison has the kind of ability and competitive drive to make waves in MMA. She has the decorated judo pedigree and the smarts, but more importantly she has the example. If anybody understands how to make the most of occurring second in the great chronology of Olympic judokas becoming stars in the mixed techniques, it’s her. She has studied Rousey’s rise and fall, watched her fill up on compliments and ultimately sink by believing in them, and has witnessed firsthand how the public will react to certain behaviors. The fun thing about Harrison is that she enters her MMA career as much as an amateur sociologist as she does an accomplished judo player. She knows what not to do. That’s a nice complement to her skill set.

And it’s great head start to have. Harrison performed about as well as she could have in a fairly highly scrutinized debut. Was she Ronda good? It took Rousey a total of six fights — three amateur fights and three pro — to accumulate 3:18 of total cage time. Not that it really matters, although it always kind of does. Harrison understands that the cage she’s fighting in is deep footprint, just as she knew that that armbar she got Elkin with would instigate some deja vu.

Right out of the gate, her advantage is in that knowing.

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