Wednesday, February 21, 2024
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Kayla Harrison signs with UFC: Five reasons why the former PFL lightweight champion’s move matters

As MMA fans continue to await in anticipation for the next fight announcement ahead of such a historic UFC 300 pay-per-view card, the update late Tuesday from CEO Dana White came through like a thief in the cover of night.

Two-time PFL champion and double Olympic gold medalist Kayla Harrison would not only be making her Octagon debut as a massive free-agent signing come April 13 in Las Vegas, she would do so at UFC 300. In a star-studded feature fight against fellow female combat sports legend Holly Holm (15-6, 1 NC). And the fight will be contested at 135 pounds. 

Even one week ago, with debates still swirling between Harrison (16-1) and PFL brass over whether she, in fact, did have one more fight left on her contract, a move like this didn’t seem possible. Yet, here we are, with the three-round fight fitting in just nicely amid what is becoming a must-see event (which could still use the inclusion of a third title fight). 

That doesn’t mean there aren’t still questions entering this one, mostly involving the fact that Harrison has almost exclusively competed within MMA at 155 pounds. But as we draw closer, less than three months out from the event, let’s take a look at the biggest reasons why Harrison’s UFC signing matters so much. 

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1. Harrison-Holm is a much more interesting fight than many are realizing

There was a somewhat surprising chorus of groans on social media in the immediate aftermath of the announcement, largely from hardcore UFC fans whose gripe seemed to center upon Holm’s age (42), Harrison avoiding a PFL showdown with legend Cris Cyborg or the fact that they were hoping for a bigger UFC 300 reveal. But Holm’s legendary status as a former UFC champion and International Boxing Hall of Famer, who is also still one of UFC’s most recognizable names, shouldn’t be dismissed so easily. And her longevity and consistency, even at her advanced age, is part of what makes her such a legend. Yes, Holm has lost her fair share of big fights against elite names and hasn’t been able to repeat her life-altering upset of Ronda Rousey at UFC 193 in 2015. But she has also remained the class of the UFC women’s divisions since that time, never falling out of the title picture across two divisions. Holm is also 3-1 (1 NC) over her last five fights coming in, including wins over current champion Raquel Pennington and recent title challenger Irene Aldana. Add to that all of the unknowns that Harrison brings in with the dramatic weight cut, and the extreme contrast of styles and Holm still represents the perfect litmus test to find out whether Harrison is truly ready to make this kind of leap. 

2. Harrison is going all in (and then some) to be great

If you doubt Harrison can pull this off, take a number. But that’s what makes this idea so intriguing. Save for an upset loss to two-division PFL champion Larisa Pacheco in their 2022 championship bout (after Harrison had won their first two meetings), the native of Ohio has been absolutely dominant in MMA. But her success has largely come at 155 pounds, which is a division UFC doesn’t promote (and it barely still promotes a 145-pound weight class). PFL, for example, created their 155-pound seasonal tournament just for Harrison, who became the first American to win gold in Olympic judo by winning both her medals at 172 pounds. The idea of cutting to 135 wasn’t even an option Harrison was considering when she first negotiated with UFC in 2021 as a restricted PFL free agent. She cut down to 145 pounds and fought just once, scoring a dominant TKO in 2020 under the Invicta FC banner while PFL was sidelined during the pandemic but claimed after it’s not something she could safely do more than once. 

But now, at 33, Harrison realized her prime window is closing to find out how great she can be. And it’s a wonder as to whether PFL excluding her from the 2023 regular season after failing to secure a Cyborg crossover fight that was in discussion (which kept her idle for nearly all of last year) led Harrison to realize that it’s now or never, even with PFL’s recent expansion of absorbing the Bellator roster, to reach for that chance of becoming an all-time great. Whether or not Harrison can do that, the intrigue is in her quest to do so and if anyone is mentally tough enough to figure out how to safely shed muscle without compromising speed and explosiveness, it’s Harrison. An outspoken sexual abuse survivor who also recently adopted her niece and nephew to save them from a difficult situation, Harrison is wired to overcome and achieve. And her manager, Ali Abdelaziz, recently told ESPN that Harrison pulled off a test cut before signing the deal and passed without issue. Pulling off a feat like this would only continue to crystalize her growing legend. 

3. This is a shot in the arm to the UFC women’s divisions

Let’s give respect to where it’s due and that’s the UFC women’s strawweight division, which has produced competitive and exciting fights among elites since it first debuted in 2014. Flyweight, however, took a bit longer to evolve from just a showcase of Valentina Shevchenko’s greatness to becoming arguably the deepest division in all of female MMA. But bantamweight and featherweight have noticeably struggled in recent years, in part due to the exit of Cyborg, but also due to the dominance of Amanda Nunes, who retired abruptly last year at 35 after cleaning out both divisions. Hearing the boos during Raquel Pennington’s victory at UFC 297 last week over Mayra Bueno Silva for the vacant 135-pound title was all anyone needed to realize how far bantamweight has fallen. Not only would Harrison’s addition to the division be an instant shot of elite star power, creating a bevy of new matchups, it would be interesting to see what would happen should Harrison find out the cut to 135 isn’t realistic. Most close to UFC believe the featherweight division will likely be sunsetted post-Nunes yet no official decision has been made. If making 135 wasn’t safe for Harrison but making featherweight was, UFC could instantly have a new face to build around. Or, the promotion, could even take it one step further in combining the two divisions into the first women’s heavyweight weight class, comprising of the gap between 135 and 155 pounds. 

4. This might get Amanda Nunes back up in the bullpen

Even though she enjoyed quite possibly the most perfect UFC exit last spring on her own terms, there have been rumblings that Nunes could be back in training and entertaining the idea of making a return. What better fight to build to than her against Harrison, a former teammate and sparring partner at American Top Team in Florida. Originally, the two were close until Nunes left the gym to open her own but not without first accusing ATT coaches of prioritizing working with Harrison above her. Even though Harrison has removed herself from the Cyborg sweepstakes by making this move, it could open the door for an even bigger showdown against Nunes. It’s something to think about. 

5. This is quite the statement from UFC after PFL declared war

Remember when PFL founder Donn Davis declared that his company, which has a TV deal on the same network as UFC, was now ready to compete head-to-head against the industry leader? That has been the talk out of PFL following their acquisition of everyone from Francis Ngannou and Jake Paul to the entire Bellator roster. Because of that, rumors have continued to swirl as to which exiting UFC fighters could make huge free agent signings, especially now that PFL has investment money from Saudi Arabia. Yet, the first two major free agent signings — Kayla Harrison and former Bellator star Michael “Venom” Page — were actually signed away by the UFC from PFL in recent months. Should UFC then establish Harrison as a star, it’s a wonder as to whether it would also look at aggressively fill out its barely existent 145-pound female roster by trying to cherry pick from PFL, which holds an abundance there due to the likes of Pacheco, Cyborg and veteran Julia Budd, among others. For as restrictive as UFC contracts still are, which makes the idea of true free agency difficult (which is why UFC must undergo a class action lawsuit trial this spring amid monopoly claims), the PFL deals aren’t as rigid. This could mean UFC continues to stay aggressive in not just adding to its roster but preventing PFL from fully branching out.

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