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Kayla Harrison hopes PFL tournament leads to flood of heavier women’s talent: ‘You have to start somewhere’

Kayla Harrison will vie for $1 million this summer in PFL’s second season.

For perhaps the first time ever in the modern era of mixed martial arts, the oft-forgotten women’s lightweight division will take center stage this summer when the Professional Fighters League kicks off its second season on May 9 with a 155-pound all-female tournament centered around two-time Olympic gold medalist judoka Kayla Harrison.

Harrison headlines an eight-woman field that also features former Invicta FC and Strikeforce champion Sarah Kaufman, along with UFC veteran Larissa Pacheco. Similar to PFL’s inaugural season, the competitors will compete in an eight-month, multi-stage tournament that culminates with a championship extravaganza on New Year’s Eve where $1 million will be up for grabs for the winners of each weight class. And for Harrison, a blue-chip prospect who has rattled off three consecutive stoppage victories to begin her MMA career, the setup to what may become a life-changing 2019 campaign couldn’t be more perfect.

“This is the opportunity of a lifetime,” Harrison told MMA Fighting. “Not only when you talk about money-wise, but career-wise.

“I love, number one, that every girl has a winning record. All of the girls come from successful backgrounds. There are some beginners in there, like me, who are 1-0 or 2-0, and then there is obviously one of the most experienced, decorated female fighters out there: Sarah Kaufman. So for me, that’s exciting. I want to step up, I want to rise to the occasion, I want to fight the best in the world. I train with the best in the world, so why wouldn’t I want to fight the best in the world? And I’m excited to showcase and show people that I’m becoming a very well-rounded, dangerous fighter.”

Joining the trio of Harrison, Kaufman, and Pacheco in the eight-woman lightweight tournament field are undefeated prospects Bobbi Jo Dalziel, Genah Fabian, and Svetlana Khautova, plus Bellator veteran Roberta Samad and Morgan Frier. Like PFL’s first season, the fighters will be ranked for the initial tourney bracket — with Kaufman and Harrison claiming the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds, respectively — then compete in a points-based system that incentives stoppages over decision wins. The earlier the stoppage comes, the more points an athlete receives.

It’s a structure that is music to Harrison’s ears.

“I feel like we’re changing the game,” she said. “More and more, you look at other big organizations and I feel like it’s becoming a circus. It’s a literal shit show. And that includes guys from my gym. Three-piece and a soda. Dude, I mean, [Jorge Masvidal]’s my hero, I was like, ‘Oh my God, that is the greatest line ever,’ but he is coming off losing two fights and now they’re like, ‘Oh, title shot, title shot.’ I’m like, wait, what? How does that work? I know he’s been around for a long time, he has a very impressive career. I’m not talking shit, I’m not coming at Jorge at all. But I’m just saying, that’s not a sport to me.

“You can’t talk your way into a title shot. You should have to fight for it. So long story short, PFL is amazing. I’m pumped about it. I think this is going to be a step-up in competition for me and it’s going to be a good opportunity for me to show people that I’m not here to play around. I’m not here to take part. I’m not here to, ‘Oh, let’s have some fun.’ No, I’m here to kill people.”

The inclusion of Kaufman into the tourney field was perhaps the biggest surprise once the PFL announced intentions to move forward with a 155-pound female bracket.

Kaufman is one of the most decorated women’s fighters of her era, having captured titles in multiple major organizations, but 135 pounds has always been her natural weight class. Nonetheless, with a dearth of viable opponents available in Invicta FC to challenge for her bantamweight title, Kaufman jumped at the chance to not only compete for PFL’s $1 million grand prize, but also to simply keep an active schedule in 2019.

Since making the move, Kaufman told MMA Fighting that she “100 percent” believes PFL officials want Harrison to win the tournament, but she intends to be a “party pooper” when it comes to those plans. And that is a challenge that Harrison very much welcomes.

“It was really funny, (UFC fighter Anthony) Rocco (Martin) and I were listening to an interview and she was like, ‘I’m going to win a million dollars,’ and I was like, holy shit, I had no idea they were going to pay her 500 and 500 for her first two fights. That’s really a lot of money. I should be upset with them,” Harrison said, laughing. “But no, I think good for her. You have to have goals. I think it’s great that she thinks what she thinks, I think what I think, and that’s why we get to fight at the end of the day, if she makes it to the finals.”

Kaufman is by far the most experienced competitor in the eight-woman field. The list of opponents she has faced over her 13 years in the sport reads like a who’s who of women’s MMA history: Ronda Rousey, Miesha Tate, Marloes Coenen, Roxanne Modafferi, Shayna Baszler, Molly Helsel, and Liz Carmouche, just to name a few.

Harrison, by contrast, is still a newcomer to the game. The combined 14-9 record of her past three opponents, and the ease with which Harrison dispatched them, signifies a promising start for one of women’s MMA’s brightest prospect, but her résumé still pales in comparison to a pioneer’s like Kaufman. But even still, the 28-year-old judoka believes she is ready to tackle a test like the one Kaufman can present.

“I train with Amanda Nunes every day. You know what I mean? Like, if I’m not ready now, I’ll never be ready,” Harrison said. “So no, I’m young in the sport, but I’m mature. I think I have the mental capability to deal with that kind of pressure.

“Obviously I think it would be amazing, like, the young up-and-comer [against the] seasoned vet — I think that’s the finals that they’re going to want and I think that’s the finals the fans are going to want to see. Now it’s just up to us to make it happen.”

The aspect of PFL’s second season that Harrison is most excited about, though, is the mere fact that a 155-pound women’s tournament exists at all.

Whether it’s featherweight or lightweight, the heavier divisions in women’s MMA have long been considered to be wastelands devoid of any significant talent, other than former UFC champion Cris Cyborg. Even Harrison herself was legitimately surprised the PFL committed to staging a women’s tournament at 155 pounds — she was prepared to need to compete at 145 pounds. But she has hopes for the lightweight division now that there is a viable place for women in the 155-pound range to ply their trade, and she wouldn’t be surprised if PFL’s second season lays the groundwork for a flood of female talent to arrive in the future.

“Dude, it’s nuts. It’s crazy,” Harrison said. “Like, it’s one thing to say all of these things, like I don’t believe in weight cutting and I think that women should be treated equally. And I do truly believe all of those things. But to have an organization that’s willing to have my back on all of that, it’s like, people dream about this stuff. People dream about their bosses actually listening to them. That’s what people want, and I get it — I’m really lucky. And I don’t believe in cutting weight. I think it’s a terrible message, especially for young girls. I think that you see so many fighters moving up now because they’re finally catching on, like, ‘Oh my God, this is really bad for my body.’

“And especially for women, there’s not a lot of depth in women’s MMA right now, and I know a lot of people are talking crap about that and saying, like, ‘You’ve gotta fight cans, blah, blah, blah, 135ers moving up, that’s a joke.’ But there are seven female weight classes in judo and seven male weight classes in judo, and now they’re almost 50/50 in terms of how many competitors compete in each tournament. But it wasn’t like that 20 years ago. Twenty years ago, there were five girls in each weight class and 50 guys. But you have to start somewhere. If you don’t start, then it’s not going to ever grow. So yeah, talk shit now, but let’s see who’s laughing 10 years from now, okay? Like, I’m in it for the long game.”

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