Will Wednesday be the last time Kayla Harrison fights in the PFL cage?
When the two-time Olympic judo champion meets Taylor Guardado in the finals of PFL’s women’s lightweight tournament on Oct. 27, it’ll mark the final fight of Harrison’s contract with the promotion she’s called home since beginning her MMA transition in late 2016. Over that time, Harrison has transformed herself into one of the faces of PFL — an undefeated force who stands today on the precipice of her second $1 million payday and tourney title.
So the biggest question hovering over the ATT product right now is a simple one: Is Harrison poised to become one of the most intriguing MMA free agents in recent memory?
“Let me put it to you this way: I do believe in the PFL,” Harrison said Monday on The MMA Hour. “I’m proud to be the face of the PFL. I believe in the format. I believe in what they’re doing. And they have taken good care of me. They have helped me create a career that I’m proud of and continue to be proud of. But there are no friends in business.
“The PFL is not my friend — and I don’t meant that in a negative way. I just mean that I’ve learned the hard way, through life, there are no friends in business. So it’s not personal. It’s just business. Just like if I ever fight someone, it’s not personal, it’s just business. The same thing goes with the PFL — I truly like the PFL, I like everyone who’s sitting in this room with me, I like everyone I work with. But it’s not personal.”
Harrison’s five-year run with PFL has been a fruitful one. After winning gold as an American judoka in the 2012 and 2016 Olympic Games, Harrison announced her transition to MMA in October 2016 by signing a long-term developmental deal with PFL. She debuted in the PFL cage nearly two years later with a first-round trouncing of Brittney Elkin in June 2018, and she hasn’t looked back since. The 31-year-old is a perfect 11-0 in her fight career and has finished all but two of those victories — both over Larissa Pacheco — via stoppages.
In doing so, Harrison has also banked big money by winning PFL’s 2019 lightweight season, which came with a $1 million prize. Now she’s one win away from doing it again, and because of PFL’s tournament setup, Harrison is likely out-earning many of her peers despite fighting competition generally considered to be lesser than that in the UFC.
“The PFL has been good to Kayla, good to me,” Harrison’s manager Ali Abdelaziz told MMA Fighting’s Damon Martin in an recent interview. “The only problem Kayla ever had with the PFL was the pandemic things, and we’re over that. We’re good now. At the end of the day, PFL can write big checks. They have big boy pockets. They have big boy pants.
“Listen, do I care if Kayla stay in PFL for the rest of her career? I don’t care. She can stay there. But it’s all about making money, this is a business and it seems like the PFL, they handle their business well. Somebody might come with a crazy amount of money. PFL, I know what kind of people they are, they’re going to tell me: ‘Go for it.’ But in a way I feel they have as much money as anyone else. They can offer as much money as anybody else.”
If Harrison wins on Wednesday, it’ll only invite further speculation as to how Harrison stands alongside the world’s two best featherweights: Amanda Nunes and Cris Cyborg. With Nunes and Cyborg locked behind UFC and Bellator contracts respectively, Harrison’s stock from a global rankings standpoint has essentially been left to the mercy of the level of talent PFL matchmakers have been able to recruit for her to fight since her 2018 debut.
Harrison has still risen to be the No. 10-ranked female pound-for-pound fighter in the world in MMA Fighting’s Global Rankings, but it’s also fair to wonder whether there are many compelling challengers left for Harrison to test herself against in PFL.
“I know that they’ve signed Julia Budd. I heard that Megan [Anderson] is a free agent. They signed Claressa Shields. I know they’re doing everything in their power to continue to build the division,” Harrison said. “I don’t know, I’m not sure what’s going to happen. I’m very comfortable to fight at 145 [pounds], I’m comfortable to fight at 155. I’m going to go where my heart tells me to go and do what I think is best for me and my beautiful family.”
For what it’s worth, UFC president Dana White told TSN on Monday that if he were in Harrison’s shoes, he’d stay in PFL and “keep fighting the type of women she’s fighting there” for “obscene money” rather than testing her skills against Nunes in the UFC.
It’s an option that certainly appears to be on the table, according to Harrison’s manager.
“I’m not looking to take Kayla anywhere else, but at the end of the day I’m a servant of many masters,” Abdelaziz said. “She is my master. I’ve got to do what she wants. She hasn’t told me she wants to go anywhere else. She wants to make the most money she can when she’s fighting. She is a superstar. People are going to start seeing her, and every time she wins, her star power is going to get stronger. PFL is growing. They’re both growing. It’s about money. I have no doubt in my mind that PFL has this kind of money to pay Kayla.”
Regardless, it’s all just background noise to Harrison — at least for the next few days. She reiterated Monday that her focus lies only on Guardado and another potential $1 million night. She’s a prizefighter ultimately, and she still needs to go collect her prize. Any other questions about her future will have wait until after Wednesday’s tournament final.
“I know that [PFL officials] are talking to my manager and I’m sure that things are being done behind-the-scenes. I’m just not focused on that, you know?” Harrison said.
“Anytime I’ve been stressed or worried about something like that, it’s only affected me negatively. My coach Big Jim said something to me when I was young and I was broke and I had $5 in my bank account, and I was like, ‘Big Jim, I have no money,’ blah, blah, blah — I’m crying, I’m desperate. He said, ‘If you want money, win, and the money will come.’ And he’s right. All I have to do is win and the rest will take care of itself.”