Kayla Harrison has learned a lot since she began training at American Top Team but perhaps the most valuable piece of advice she received came from the owner of the gym rather than one of her coaches.
As a two-time Olympic gold medalist in judo, the Ohio native transitioned into mixed martial arts with an incredible skill set to build upon but she also understood that her grappling roots were always going to be the most dangerous weapon in her arsenal.
So even as she learned how to become a better striker from the world-class coaches and teammates surrounding her, Harrison never forgot what team founder Dan Lambert told her once upon a time.
“Obviously I’m working on my skill sets. I’m working on becoming a better striker,” Harrison told MMA Fighting ahead of her return at PFL 3 on Thursday night on ESPN. “I’m working on becoming better in all of these areas of the fight game.
“But one piece of advice that Dan Lambert gave to me and we’ve seen time and time again — the worst thing a grappler can ever do is fall in love with striking. It’s the worst thing.”
While becoming a true mixed martial artist involves adding different tools like knowing how to throw an effective punch or the best way to launch a head kick, Harrison knows that ultimately her grappling is going to be better than virtually any opponent who will ever stand across from her in the cage.
She’s seen firsthand what happens when a great wrestler or suffocating grappler suddenly falls in love with striking. In fact, Harrison witnessed a shining example with a former teammate when a UFC title was up for grabs.
“One thing that really stuck out to me in the Colby Covington-Kamaru [Usman] fight was I feel like Colby didn’t wrestle at all,” Harrison said. “I know that Usman’s a great wrestler, he’s a great grappler as well but you know I think that his fight with Robbie [Lawler] where he was just teeing off on him and had the highest punch count or whatever of any fight, I think that made him fall in love a little bit with striking and think that I’m just going to stand and trade. Whereas every other fight before that fight, he was mauling people by grappling them and exhausting them by breaking their will.
“That was like a big lesson for me to see that happen to someone, who at the time was at our gym. I’m like I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to fall in love with striking. I want to win.”
That’s why for all the work she’s doing in the gym to become the best fighter on the planet, Harrison will never forget her roots.
In fact, Harrison is happy to lay out her game plan to each and every opponent she’ll face in the upcoming PFL season or any future fights that will be added to her resume.
She’s going to close the distance, take them down to the ground and then bludgeon her opponents with punches or wrap up a submission.
“The game plan doesn’t change for anybody,” Harrison explains. “You don’t see me changing my style to fight one person versus another person. I think that’s kind of what makes it so great and makes it so exciting in a way that everyone knows what I’m going to do but good luck trying to stop it.”
Harrison is smart enough to understand the averages when it comes to fighting, which is why she doesn’t want anyone to expect her to suddenly start throwing flying knees or Superman punches just for the fun of it.
Her surest road to victory will always be through grappling and Harrison has no problem taking the path of least resistance.
“That’s one of the things that my coaches are so good about and I’m really good at, it is stats,” Harrison said. “It’s all about percentages. If my opponent is a really good striker and maybe I’m 50 percent and she’s 75 but her grappling is 20 and I’m 95, that’s where you have to take the fight. That’s just basic principles that you apply. It’s just like that in judo. If I know you suck on the ground, I’m not trying to throw you, I’m trying to get you on the ground so I can choke you or armbar you or whatever. It’s the same principles.
“I would like to get to the point where my striking is just better than everybody. My grappling is just better than everybody. I would like to get to that point but again, I’m probably going to stand and brawl and trade with anyone ever. Ever. Ever. If I do, play this for me and say ‘Kayla, you said you wouldn’t do this, what the f*ck are you doing?’”