Kayla Harrison always cuts a fiery promo whenever she has a microphone in front of her face but at the same time she’s never going to intentionally stir up drama just for the sake of attention.
Outside the cage, the two-time Olympic gold medalist in judo and two-time PFL champion likes to think of herself as an incredibly hard worker who is often praised by her training partners and teammates as a real asset in the gym at American Top Team in Florida.
Back in May, UFC featherweight champion Amanda Nunes addressed her split from the same team and she noted that Harrison’s arrival played at least some part in her decision to leave. According to Nunes, it became a “weird situation” where she felt “I’m not even safe in my own territory” with other top women’s fighters training alongside her.
In response, Harrison has nothing but the utmost respect for Nunes and praised her for the work they did together while both training under head coach Mike Brown, even if she was surprised by the comments.
“I have nothing negative to say about Amanda,” Harrison told MMA Fighting. “Again, great teammate, I really enjoyed the time we got to train together. I really enjoyed learning from her, growing with her, pushing each other. I feel bad that’s how she feels because I always tried to be up front and respectful about my wishes and my goals. I never shied away from it or tried to pretend.
“I feel bad that she felt that way. But I also feel like that’s not my responsibility. I can’t control how she feels. She’s also in the gym training, watching me train and getting better. I was not worried or offended or nervous.”
At a gym the size of American Top Team, there are dozens of fighters from different promotions who all cross-train with each other while also competing in the same divisions.
Dustin Poirier, Mateusz Gamrot, Grant Dawson and Thiago Moises all compete at lightweight in the UFC while former UFC champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk often spent time on the mats alongside fighters such as Amanda Ribas, Tecia Torres and Nina Nunes, who were also strawweights in the same promotion.
While some situations have boiled over the past — most notably a volatile relationship between Jorge Masvidal and Colby Covington — Harrison notes that it’s quite common that fighters from the same division will work with each other even if there’s a possibility they may clash one day.
“Look at 185 [pounds],” Harrison said. “We have Johnny [Eblen], Dalton [Rosta], Austin [Vanderford], all in the same division, all in the same promotion. They train [together]. I’m sorry if she felt that way but I can’t control that.
“All I can do is be me, be real and I made it no secret. I was pretty up front and honest and I still have nothing but good things to say about her as a teammate and a training partner. I still wish her nothing but the best. Absolutely nothing but the best. I can’t speak for her. I don’t know why she said it, where she’s coming from. All I can do is control me and I’m still chasing greatness. I have nothing but positive things and good vibes to send to her and that’s it. I don’t want start some drama bulls***. I’m not doing it.”
Speaking of former teammates, Harrison also addressed a recent interview from ex-UFC champion Ronda Rousey. The two previously spent time together as part of the U.S. Olympic judo team.
Rousey was the first American woman to claim a medal in judo at the Olympics after she won bronze in 2008 with Harrison then becoming the first to claim gold in 2012 — and then she went on to win a second gold four years later.
Rousey eventually became one of the biggest superstars in UFC history, but her career ended with back-to-back knockout losses before she retired from the sport. Speaking with Daniel Cormier on Tuesday, Rousey admitted that she stuck around longer than she wanted because was fighting for the wrong reasons.
“I got to that point where I didn’t want it anymore,” Rousey said. “I kept doing it for everybody else.”
With a remarkably similar path from judo into MMA, Harrison admits that Rousey’s comments really had an impact on her because she sympathized with the way her former teammate felt about the latter part of her career. At the same time, Harrison says Rousey’s remarks helped her re-examine why she’s so passionate about fighting after initially having some hesitancy about even competing in MMA after winning her second Olympic gold.
“It actually spoke to me,” Harrison said. “I was like I heard that, I felt that. I fight for a lot of different reasons but the No. 1 reason I fight — I fight for my children, I fight for my legacy, I fight to inspire — but the No. 1 reason I fight now is because I love it. I enjoy it.
“I enjoy the process of testing myself, of pushing myself, of seeing how far I can go. It’s not about the girl who’s in the cage with me. It’s not about her or the next opponent or the next opponent or the next opponent. It’s about me. Personally, I far can I push it? How high can I climb? What are the limits to my potential? What can I do with this life I’ve been given? Fighting is a piece of that.”
Well known as being her own worst critic, Harrison was not overly enthusiastic with her last performance — a decision victory over Marina Mokhnatkina — but she also recognizes that a bad night at the office that ends with a win still isn’t all that bad.
“After much review, and a couple nights without sleep, I’m going to go ahead and say the performance was lacking in luster but you can’t be a sharp, sharp tack every time,” Harrison said. “When you fight as often as I fight, the caliber, the girl is a seven-time Sambo world champion. She obviously knew what she was doing. She did everything she could do to survive. She wasn’t trying to win. She was trying to survive but she did it well and I was flat.
“For whatever reason, I came out a little flat but I still got the ‘W.’ I found a way to do what was needed to be done.”
Harrison expects more out of herself every single time she competes and that’s no different than the expectations she has for her fight against Young. In fact, Harrison doesn’t expect she’ll ever see the day when she’s completely at peace with any performance.
“I prepare myself that even on my worst night, I’m still the best in the world,” Harrison said. “I have an internal desire to be the best possible version of myself and the day that I wake up satisfied, is the day I should probably hang up the gloves.”