Kayla Harrison and Claressa Shields tend to get linked together a lot. Considering they both fight under the PFL banner and share four Olympic gold medals between them, it’s not surprising to see why. Harrison and Shields even defeated the same opponent for their MMA debuts — Brittney Elkin — though their respective wins were very, very different.
Back in June 2018, Harrison made her professional debut against Elkin nearly two years after announcing her intentions to transition from judo to MMA. All that extra time to prepare served her well — Harrison won in a rout, submitting Elkin with a first-round armbar after just three minutes of action. Shields, on the other hand, made her MMA debut this past June, less than a year after announcing her intentions to transition from boxing to MMA, and struggled mightily. She was repeatedly taken down by Elkin and lost the first two rounds before mounting a thrilling come-from-behind victory via TKO in the final frame.
Though Harrison has immense respect for Shields, the former judoka also is a competitor. And her takeaways from watching Shields’ MMA debut were exactly what you’d expect from someone with as decorated of a track record as Harrison’s.
“She has holes,” Harrison said Wednesday on The MMA Hour. “She has holes.”
“I think they were expected, [but] I think I was surprised a little bit. I don’t know. My mentality was just always to be as prepared as possible for whatever challenge I get myself into. So I was surprised she took the fight so quickly after transitioning to MMA. I expected her to train for a little bit longer. I think it’s a very tough task to be boxing and doing MMA at the same time. I think she’s going to have to devote a lot of time to her grappling game if she wants to be one of the best in MMA, and I don’t think she’s going to have time to do that if she continues to box professionally. So that’s my opinion.”
Harrison is, in many ways, the face of PFL. Nine of her 10 fights have been held under the PFL umbrella and she’s already captured one tournament title with her flawless run to $1 million during the promotion’s second season. Not just that, but Harrison now sits two wins away from notching her second $1 million payday — her season three semifinal matchup against Genah Fabian is set to headline Thursday’s PFL playoffs event.
So even if Shields continues to collect headlines and ESPN segments detailing her every move, Harrison is more than happy to share the spotlight with her fellow Olympian.
“When you get bitter about things like that, and when you think, ‘Oh, why not me? It should be me. I’ve done this, I’ve done that. Look at me, look at me,’ you kind of take your eyes off the prize,” Harrison said. “And I’ve seen it happen countless times. I’ve seen fighters make the mistake. I’ve seen people in my gym make the mistake of worrying about what somebody else is doing. It’s just a waste of time. I have a job to do. I’m not on SportsCenter, I’m not at the ESPYs, I’m not doing all of these crazy things. But I’m in the gym, I’m working hard, I’m being a good mother, I’m doing what I love around people I enjoy being around. And I’m keeping my head down. And I know that when the time comes and when it is my moment — and my moment will come — everyone will say, ‘Wow. Damn. Look at Kayla H.’
“It’s coming. I’m not in a hurry. Good things take time. It will be there. And also, I’m proud of Claressa. I admire her as a human being, as a fighter. I think that strong women build strong women up, and I would never want to take away from anything she’s accomplished. To me, that’s amazing. Everything that she’s done is amazing and I have nothing but respect for her. Her journey is her journey, my journey is mine. We’ll get to where we get to.”
For now, Harrison’s journey starts and stops with Fabian on Thursday. It’s a critical matchup for the two-time gold medalist in more ways than one — not only is a spot in season three’s finals on the line, but Harrison is nearing the end of her current PFL contract.
The stakes are simple: If Harrison wins her next two fights and becomes a two-time PFL champion, she could stroll into free agency as one of the most intriguing female talents to ever hit the open market.
“They reached out to (my manager) Ali (Abdelaziz) and said that they wanted to start negotiations, and then I said OK. And then they asked me today not to talk about free agency, just focus on the fight, and I said, ‘Well, OK. But send me an offer or we all know what’s going to happen,’” Harrison said.
“It’s not in my hands. My job is to fight. That’s it. I know that if I fight well, do my job, go out and instill my will, that good things will happen, wherever they may be.”
Harrison and Fabian were previously scheduled to meet in 2019’s tournament semifinals, however a bad weight cut forced Fabian to withdraw from the bracket.
This time around, both women are fully healthy and ready to battle for a spot in the finals. And though Fabian is the much taller woman, as evidenced by their recent pre-fight staredown, Harrison refuses to be deterred from accomplishing her goals.
“Big trees fall hard,” Harrison said. “I’m excited.”