Brittney Elkin welcomes being a part of history, even if it’s the part that fight fans tend to overlook.
When PFL star Kayla Harrison made her MMA debut in 2018, she was understandably built up as one to watch. She is the first American to win Olympic gold in judo. And the first to do it twice. That combat sports background made her a shoo-in to pursue a career in MMA and after some initial reticence, she leapt headfirst into cagefighting and defeated her first opponent via armbar submission inside of a round.
A similar level of hype surrounds Claressa Shields when she competes in MMA for the first time this Thursday at PFL 4 in Atlantic City, N.J. Like Harrison, Shields is a two-time Olympic gold medalist, though her excellence has come in the art of boxing, where at 26 she’s already established herself as one of the greatest ever to lace up the gloves. She’s been training with likes of Jon Jones and Holly Holm to prepare for the move to MMA and she’s expected to run through her first opponent.
That opponent in both of those scenarios? Elkin.
Sporting a 3-6 pro record, Elkin isn’t being given much of a chance. If anything, it sounds like the PFL has found a reliable B-side to go head-to-head with these crossover stars that the league has heavily invested in. She knows this.
So how does she keep ending up here?
“I knew the second that we started talking about this how big this fight is going to be for women’s sports,” Elkin told MMA Fighting. “I know who Claressa is and I know what my stylistic difference is, but I think the reason why the PFL calls me is because I say yes. Simple enough. Because I make bold moves, I believe in myself, and I kept a reputable—I’m not an unprofessional person.”
Making Elkin’s decision even more peculiar is that she was done with MMA. She broke her arm in a fight against Bobbi-Jo Dalziel in January 2019 and that was supposed to be that. Her ulna snapped after blocking a high kick (Elkin compares it to the arm version of the leg breaks that Anderson Silva and Chris Weidman) and she elected to pass on an expensive surgery, instead undergoing an alternate procedure in which she says a doctor “squeezed” it back into place.
The procedure was so excruciating that Elkin described it as being worse than all of her fights plus giving birth combined. Painful as it was, it worked, and 18 months later Elkin was back to grappling, which is all that she planned to do for the rest of her life until PFL President Ray Sefo came calling. Elkin had been invited to join one of the league’s regular season fields before breaking her arm, but Sefo kept her in mind and Elkin was hapy to hear it. Now located in Manhattan, Elkin had an inkling that she could get the Shields fight when she heard the boxing star was getting into MMA.
“[Sefo] asked me and I’m not gonna lie, I went through a roller coaster of emotions in my head,” Elkin said. “I’ve been retired for almost three years and yeah, he presented it and I kept on trying to search my head: What have I got going on?
“I’ve got an almost adult kid, who’s doing wonderful and getting good grades, so check. He’s also polite and I don’t have to work on his morals, he’s doing nice things, so great. I’m not injured. … I couldn’t find a reason to say no. I couldn’t find one.”
Elkin, who turns 35 on Friday, has rarely said no when it comes to fighting She recalls how in her earlier days, she was a big fish in a small pond, training in MMA out of a garage in Gillette, Wyo., and cutting weight in the worst possible way by slapping on a sauna suit and driving around in six hours. She would eventually head to Denver to level up her game, but the in-cage success still eluded her.
In her second pro fight, she lost to future Bellator and Invicta FC standout Amanda Bell; in her third, she lost to another future Invicta FC fighter, Latoya Walker, and that fight almost cost her an eye as she suffered a deep poke. But she kept coming back and even managed to win a couple of fights, all the while working as a floor foreman for Fight 2 Win, a promotion that used to put on MMA fights and is now primarily focused on professional jiu-jitsu competition.
Elkin’s work with Fight 2 Win required her to be on the road all year long, a routine she didn’t break for her fight with Harrison. She can’t say if things would have gone differently had she focused solely on that opportunity, but she knows that she didn’t give the PFL everything she had the first time around.
“I’m ready to be great,” Elkin said. “I’m prepared this time. You know what I did, right? I left tour, I never did that with Kayla. I only left tour the last two weeks. I trained all around the country while trying to manage a tour because I thought I could spin all the plates. I had so many plates spinning because that’s how my head works. My head works, ‘Oh, we have a show, we got 600 people coming to that show, let’s get those tickets ready guys, I gotta go do that, I gotta go do this,’ that’s just kind of what I do. … I overtrain, I overtrain for everything.
“I do a three-hour practice roll in the morning and then I go to roughly and two and a half hour practice with the mental added and the communication at the end and then the two-hour drive home and I had to journal about that and I had to be like, ‘Brittney there’s no need for six hours of training right now.’ There’s three very important hours of training right now and then the rest is mental training and doing things like that so I think I did that right this time.”
One change Elkin has made is that she’s added former Bellator bantamweight champion Zach Makovsky to her team. Elkin credits Makovsky (who will be in her corner alongside Bryanna Fissori on Thursday) with helping her to change up her training and analyze her weaknesses.
As self aware as Elkin is, it didn’t make the loss to Harrison or the decision to fight Shields any easier. The Harrison fight crushed her confidence and she admits her fighting career has taken an emotional toll on her friends and family as well. Three years later, when it came time again to let everyone know she’d once again signed on to face another blue-chip prospect, the reaction was chilly, to say the least.
“I think I was the most depressed after Kayla,” Elkin said. “I think I was literally throwing up down a shower drain for eight months, just depression, and yes, that all came back. My mom scolded me—and my mom’s a wonderful person—but my mom’s like, ‘Brittney, I am not talking to you! Do you know what you do to me?’
“She was just so mad at me, I literally had to load my dog in my car and go drive six hours to visit her to get her to talk to me because my family has been through this. My family went through the throwing up down the drain with me.”
According to Elkin, she waited 13 days until after the fight was offered to actually sign the contract. There it was, she was officially a professional mixed martial artist again and, for better or for worse, ready to make history again.
Elkin and Harrison were the first women’s lightweight matchup in the PFL and the most high-profile MMA fight between two women at 155 pounds in North America. As someone who has had to cut down to 145 pounds to get fights and struggled to do so (“My soul weighs 10 pounds,” Elkin said, when explaining why she never wants to fight at featherweight again), the 5-foot-11 Elkin hopes that women get more opportunities to compete at lightweight or even higher at 165 pounds and she’s proud of having any kind of influence on potentially pushing those weight classes forward.
“Me and Kayla’s fight was the first 155-pound bout in the PFL,” Elkin said. “So I feel like it was the opening of the weight class and I couldn’t be prouder. That is my highlight, I got to open a weight class.”
Elkin will always be known as the first woman to fight Harrison and Shields, two superstars in their respective disciplines. Sharing the stage with two decorated Olympians—not to mention Shields currently being an undisputed boxing champion in two divisions—that’s a feather in her cap that Elkin is proud of.
For her family, it sounds a lot better than her humble beginnings fighting out of a garage in Wyoming.
“That’s another list mark I made,” Elkin said. “‘How do you say no to this, Brittney?’ I do a lot of self-talking, I have to to come to these decisions. I couldn’t find a no because it’s such a grand opportunity. And then look how much I’ve grown because I’m preparing for this person. I got tears in my eyes because this is monumental for the sport, for me, I’m getting tears right now. It’s incredible and I’m honored.
“My mom, the delivery of my energy when I’m with her in the room and I tell her these things, she then changes her tune and she’s like, ‘That’s my daughter.’ Absolutely, it’s an honor and I’ve become a Kayla fan. These girls, I usually become a friend, I haven’t yet, I wouldn’t call myself a Kayla friend yet. But I’ve become a fan, I watch them, and I want to aspire to be a champion. She’s a champion, I f*cking am impressed and if I want to be like that, I’ve got a lot of work to do. It’s incredible to be a part of all this.”
It’s not lost on Elkin that almost the entirety of the promotion for Thursday’s main event has revolved around Shields. Shields is a charismatic superstar who seems destined to become a major player in the MMA world if she sticks to it and she’s been front and center when it comes to promoting PFL 4. You couldn’t be blamed for forgetting the other half of the equation.
But Elkin is grateful that Shields is doing the lion’s share of the promotion. She wants Shields to do all the talking. To overlook her. She’s aware of the magnitude of the opportunity, but Elkin has been the B-side before and she’s eager to do it all over again.
“I know they’re promoting Claressa,” Elkin said. “I mean, damn, she’s a f*cking Olympic gold medalist, I know, I’m a fan also. I also think they forgot to look very close at me and I think I have a lot to offer and there is a reason I’m that person. There is a reason I’m in there. I think that I feel it in there, the reason why I’m in there. I think me and Claressa’s gonna be a hell of a fight.”