There’s no way around the fact that Kayla Harrison’s return to PFL on Friday for the first fight on a new contract is disappointing for many fight fans who were hoping to see the two-time Olympic gold medalist judoka in the cage with the biggest names in the sport. Ask Harrison, however, and her new deal with PFL is a simple matter of the reality of contracts.
Harrison, who faces Marina Mokhnatkina in the main event of Friday’s PFL 3 card (9 p.m., ESPN+), also said she was set for a clash with Bellator featherweight champion Cris Cyborg on April 22 before PFL executed their contractual rights to retain her fighting services.
“I think a lot of MMA fans don’t understand the way that contracts work,” Harrison told Morning Kombat’s Luke Thomas. “To be quite frank, I did test restricted free agency and I sort of bet on myself and I got a great offer. I got a great offer from Bellator and I was supposed to fight Cyborg last week. It wasn’t like a, ‘Oh, we’re going to give her a tune-up fight and we’re going to do this and do that.’ No, it was like, ‘Hey, we’re going to give you a shit ton of money and you’re going to fight Cyborg on April 22 in Hawaii.’
“I said yes and accepted that offer and PFL had the right to match that offer and they did. I’m not sad about it. I’m very happy to be with PFL. They are also pushing very hard to make a fight with Cyborg happen in the future. Everything happens for a reason and I’m good with it. I’m pleased with how it played out. I will admit there were a lot of emotions. You go from thinking you’re going to fight a legend in the sport to not. There’s a lot that goes into it but I’m focused and I’m ready. This is a long game for me.”
Can’t get enough boxing and MMA? Get the latest in the world of combat sports from two of the best in the business. Subscribe to Morning Kombat with Luke Thomas and Brian Campbell for the best analysis and in-depth news.
Harrison has twice won the women’s lightweight tournament in PFL, taking home a $1 million prize both times. Business is good, even if the major fights with the likes of Cyborg, Amanda Nunes or UFC bantamweight champion Julianna Pena have been largely taken off the table.
Harrison has left no doubt as to her skills, trouncing the competition every time out. Of 12 opponents, Harrison has finished 10, five by submission and five by knockout.
In that respect, Harrison’s status as one of the best fighters on the planet is undeniable. She has accepted that, for better or worse, the path she’s on is one that won’t lead to her being seen as the best of the best. But, Harrison said, that’s not what drives her.
“This is the catch-22 that I’m facing. In order to be the best, I need to have a consensus that everyone around me thinks that I’m the best as well,” Harrison said. “But do I? Do I? I think that I’ll get it. I’m pretty confident in my ability to leave no doubt. I guess what I’m saying is that that part of it is not going to be what makes me satisfied. Everyone knowing I’m the best is not what’s driving me any longer. Maybe it did in the beginning but I’ve done a lot of growth with age and as a person. That’s not what drives me. What drives me is the internal desire to reach my full potential.”
One thing is for sure, even the slightest slip-up against an opponent like Mokhnatkina would not only serve as a major setback in the lightweight season standings but would also leave fans and fellow fighters doubting how good Harrison truly is.
This is the burden of a great fighter swimming in what’s seen as a shallow pool.
Harrison knows the threat Mokhnatkina presents as a multi-time Sambo world champion and says she’s prepared for the challenge, even if her coach has some thoughts about Mokhnatkina’s fighting background.
“She’s a little bit unorthodox. We watched some film on her,” Harrison said. “She’s a six or seven time world Sambo champion. She throws a lot of spinning back stuff. I’ve seen a lot of leg locks and kneebars from her. I feel like, again, all these new opponents make me a better fighter. Stepping my game up and learning more about leg locks and defense. I’ve also never really seen a lot of spinning back shit. Becoming aware of that and prepared for all that stuff was good for me. I’m looking forward to the fight.
“My judo coach Big Jim said when we were watching the film, he was like, ‘Oh, Sambo.” I was like, ‘Yeah, she’s a seven-time Sambo world champion.’ He said, ‘Sambo? Sambo is for people who couldn’t make it in judo.'”
PFL 3 fight card
- Kayla Harrison (c) vs. Marina Mokhnatkina, women’s lightweights
- Ray Cooper III (c) vs. Carlos Leal, welterweights
- Anthony Pettis vs. Myles Price, lightweights
- Rory MacDonald vs. Brett Cooper, welterweights
- Larissa Pacheco vs. Zamzagul Fayzallonva, women’s lightweights
- Dilano Taylor vs. Joao Zeferino, welterweights
- Genah Fabian vs. Julia Budd, women’s lightweights
- Sadibou Sy vs. Nikolay Aleksakhin, welterweights
- Gleison Tibau vs. J. Al-Silawi, welterweights
- Olena Kolesnyk vs. Abby Montes, women’s lightweights
- Vanessa Melo vs. Martina Jindrova, women’s lightweights
It’s hard to imagine picking anyone on the PFL roster to beat Harrison. That’s not a knock against Mokhnatkina, who is a capable fighter. Instead, it’s a realization of how dominant Harrison is against fighters of the PFL level, similar to Cyborg against the field in Bellator.
Mokhnatkina will look to surprise Harrison with unorthodox attacks. The problem with such an approach is that is leaves openings for Harrison to get her hands on her opponent, at which point a takedown feels like a formality. Mokhnatkina will have trouble on the ground because of Harrison’s dominant positional approach in the grappling game, which means the Sambo leg locks are probably not a path to victory. Can Harrison get the finish? It seems more likely than not and the stoppage could come when Mokhnatkina puts herself in a bad position trying to attack a leg, leaving her head open for heavy punches. Pick: Harrison via TKO2