For Harrison, it’s a chance to keep her hype train rolling and further strengthen her resume as she possibly heads into free agency. For Guardado, it’s a chance to make history by becoming the first fighter to beat the two-time Olympic gold medal-winning judoka and put a cap on her own unlikely story.
“I do see it as she’s never really fought someone that can wrestle with her,” Guardado said in an interview with MMA Fighting. “She fights people that are scared of her, that forget what they’re doing when they get to the cage, and I have never been scared of anyone that I’ve ever gone face to face with and I don’t plan to be scared now.”
Harrison looks to remain unbeaten and go for a second straight league title when she meets Guardado in the lightweight headliner of Wednesday’s PFL Championship 2021 event at Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, Fla.
Despite the wide gap in the odds, Guardado’s resume compares favorably to Harrison’s; she holds amateur wins over the likes of Raquel Pennington, Ashlee Evans-Smith, and Amanda Bell, as well as a perfect record in the PFL this season. Those past victories, which occurred over a decade ago, aren’t the things that give Guardado confidence as she looks to halt Harrison’s undefeated run. Rather, she’s simply not psyching herself out before she even steps into the cage.
And should she actually do the seemingly impossible and take Harrison out?
“To beat her?” Guardado added. “I think it would be nice to shut up a bunch of people in my DMs that are telling me how I’m gonna lose, but other than that I’m just fighting to lengthen my legacy. I’m focused on me and my goal. Kayla’s just another step in the way of it.”
Guardado’s story is one of the most unique on the PFL roster. A quick glance at her record will tell you she was a standout amateur fighter once upon a time, seemingly destined to be a contemporary of Miesha Tate and Sarah Kaufman and Ronda Rousey (who Guardado has also fought). But after her last amateur fight in 2011, she wouldn’t make her pro debut until 2020.
A knee injury forced her out of a bout at Invicta FC 3, and then life took over as she recovered from the injury and focused on being a mother. Guardado, though, never left the gym for long. It was through MMA training that she met her husband A.J. Guardado, so the sport was always close by, and she always knew her time would come to fight.
“No, I’m so competitive,” Guardado said when asked if she ever thought she’d missed her chance to go pro. “Literally, all throughout the stretch, even when I was pregnant, I’d be like, I want to fight. Especially when I watched events and stuff like that, it just would click in my head that I could still do that and I still have the ability to do that.
“I knew I wanted to, that’s what it came down to. It wasn’t like, people telling me, ‘Yeah, you can do it,’ because I did get a lot of people that did say that, but overall it was me to myself, ‘Hey, I can do this.’ So I just have to apply myself.”
Guardado had stayed in touch with Invicta FC President Shannon Knapp over the years, and when the opportunity arose to compete in one of the promotion’s one-night Phoenix Tournaments, she pestered Knapp for a couple of months for a spot. The bracket was filled primarily with fighters light on pro experience, so Guardado fit right in even if she hadn’t actually fought in almost nine years.
Wins over Claire Guthrie and Serena DeJesus (counted as exhibitions) earned her a spot in the finals, where she fell to Taneisha Tennant by unanimous decision. A year later, Guardado got the call from the PFL to be part of their lightweight tournament, and after notching three straight wins, she’s one fight away from a million dollars.
Guardado could have returned to MMA with less high-profile challenges, but that’s never been her style.
“I got told to take it slow, but I’m a very stubborn person, so I was kind of gonna do things my way anyways,” Guardado said. “And then when I would talk to my head coach about the Invicta tournament, he was all in. Why not? The girls all had less than three fights at the most so he was like, ‘It’s gonna be a tough challenge, but let’s do it.’”
Harrison is expected to walk through Guardado, a career bantamweight who less than two years ago looked like she would be an MMA footnote. Oddsmakers have Harrison marked at around a 30-1 favorite. Among Harrison’s 11 wins, only three opponents have gone past the second round.
That’s all static for Guardado and her team at Xtreme Couture. It’s not that she doesn’t hear what everyone is saying. It’s that if they knew how far she has already come, they’d understand why none of that matters.
“I don’t necessarily buy into it, but I buy into the fact that this is a win-win situation for me,” Guardado said. “I wasn’t even supposed to be here. I was a very last-minute opponent added to this PFL season and now I’m in the finals of two weight classes from what I normally fight at. I’m in a win-win situation.
“I’ve already made it to the finals, I’ve proven myself a worthy opponent, win or lose—Which I don’t plan to lose, but I mean win or lose I’m very proud of myself and so is my camp.”