An Elite Fighter Wants to Face the Best. It’s Not That Simple.

An Elite Fighter Wants to Face the Best. It’s Not That Simple.

COCONUT CREEK, Fla. — If professional mixed martial arts were merely a sport and not a business, Kayla Harrison said she would match herself with Amanda Nunes, the former Ultimate Fighting Championship women’s bantamweight champion.

She would not want an undercard or an audience. Harrison, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in judo, and a relentless grappler in M.M.A. fights, said she would invite a few of the industry’s power brokers so they could verify the fight’s result. And she would stage it in South Florida, so the fighters wouldn’t have to travel far from their training bases in South Florida.

But M.M.A. is indeed a business, one in which contracts often conflict. Nunes is signed to the U.F.C., while Cris Justino, known as Cyborg, the other standout fighter in Harrison’s weight range, competes for Bellator. Harrison fights in neither outfit.

Earlier this year, Harrison was the sport’s most coveted free agent. She re-signed in March with the Professional Fighters League, competing in the 155-pound lightweight division. The multiyear contract made her the highest-paid fighter both in the P.F.L. promotion and in women’s M.M.A. Harrison will gross roughly $1 million per fight, and can earn another $1 million if she wins this year’s P.F.L. championship.

The promotion hopes to position her as the face of its campaign to muscle in on the U.F.C., the dominant player in the sport. But Harrison, who turns 32 on Saturday, knows that fulfilling her potential means bridging the promotional divides that keep top fighters apart.

Harrison’s bout on Friday against Kaitlin Young in Atlanta will have a definitive ending — knockout, submission or decision. Resolving the underlying tension between the sport and the business sides of M.M.A., however, presents a different challenge.

“I want to test myself against the best,” Harrison said after a recent training session. “That’s been a concern in the past. I’ll go down as the greatest. It’s just going to be the way I want to do it.” Referring to Nunes and Justino, she added, “I don’t want to talk about these girls anymore.”

When Harrison became a free agent late in 2021, the U.F.C. seemed like a natural landing spot. It is the sport’s largest promotional outfit — the talent agency Endeavor bought a stake in the company for $4.2 billion in 2016, increased its ownership last year and now plans to push that valuation to $10 billion. And the U.F.C. was also where Ronda Rousey, who, like Harrison, was an Olympic medalist in judo, transformed from a dominant fighter to a global celebrity. The U.F.C. brand name is synonymous with the product category, the way Kleenex is with facial tissue.

The U.F.C. offered Harrison a contract, but were outbid by Bellator, a rival promotion that has a broadcast deal with Showtime. The P.F.L., which formed in 2017 when investors bought and rebranded the World Series of Fighting, exercised its right to match Bellator’s offer, and retained Harrison.

Harrison’s contract suggests money is not an obstacle for the P.F.L. The league boasts a long and varied list of investors, including Ted Leonsis, the owner of Washington’s N.B.A., W.N.B.A. and N.H.L. teams; Glenn Youngkin, the governor of Virginia; the rapper Wiz Khalifa; and the comedian Kevin Hart.

In May, the P.F.L. secured $30 million in funding from a group that included the Alex Rodriguez, the former baseball player who is also part of Minnesota’s N.B.A. and W.N.B.A. ownership groups. The league also has a broadcast deal with ESPN.

Donn Davis, the P.F.L.’s chairman and co-owner, said keeping Harrison, with her undefeated record (13-0) and Olympic pedigree, was critical to provide a link between the league and mainstream sports fans.

“She’s probably the most rising bona fide star in M.M.A., man or woman, period,” Davis said. “Conor McGregor’s a huge name. Jon Jones is a huge name. Kayla’s on her way to that.”

For her part, Harrison was drawn to the P.F.L.’s format, which mirrors a team sports season. For regular-season bouts, like Harrison’s upcoming match against Young, winners earn points — 3 for a decision win, and up to 3 bonus points for a stoppage. After the regular season, the four fighters in each weight class with the most points qualify for the playoffs. Two single-elimination bouts later, the champion in each weight class receives a $1 million payout.

Harrison said the P.F.L.’s win-and-advance structure keeps her focus where she prefers it: on her performance.

“I got sick of it, just because the competitor in me isn’t interested in talking about fighting,” Harrison said of free agency. “I’ve realized through this process that I don’t want to be famous. I just want to be the best.”

The Fighter and the Mother

Before Harrison had even won her first Olympic gold medal, people knew some of her story.

Harrison revealed before the London Games that she had been sexually abused by a judo coach in her hometown, Middletown, Ohio, a Cincinnati suburb. From there, she moved to suburban Boston, where she trained with the veteran judo coach Jim Pedro and his son Jimmy, a two-time Olympic bronze medalist. Harrison says she suffered from depression after the move and received psychiatric care at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass.

She credits the Pedros with reviving her judo career and adding structure to her life.

“They made my mental health a priority,” Harrison said. “I still remember being that 16-year-old girl who didn’t want to get out of bed, with five dollars in her pocket.”

She later established the Fearless Foundation, a nonprofit that provides resources to survivors of sexual abuse.

In addition to training and her duties with the foundation, Harrison has parenting responsibilities. In 2020, Harrison took custody of her niece and nephew after her stepfather, who had been raising them alongside Harrison’s mother, died unexpectedly. She calls Kyla, 9, and Emery, 3, her kids.

Harrison described her abrupt transition to parenthood as “terrifying,” but she has managed to work the children into her routine. Emery recently graduated from a crib to a bed, and Kyla is enrolled in a variety for sports. During busy stretches, like the weeks before a fight, Harrison’s mother flies down from Ohio to help.

“It balanced itself pretty quickly,” she said. “Now I’m a badass mom and a badass fighter.”

Along with head coach Mike Brown and Jim Pedro, who have been with Harrison for years, her team now also features a stylist and a videographer. Their presence signals that, even for a no-nonsense competitor like Harrison, branding matters.

The videographer records training sessions for film study, but also captures interviews and behind-the-scenes footage, in hopes of packaging it as a documentary or Netflix-style series.

And the stylist, longtime friend Laila Carmichael, helps present Harrison for public outings, like events and awards shows — this week Harrison was nominated for an ESPY Award in the Best M.M.A. Fighter category — in ways that align with the fighter’s fashion sense. A recent trip to Aventura Mall in suburban Miami yielded, among other finds, a form-fitting, cream-colored turtleneck dress with exposed arms. Her gold-medal-winning, million-dollar muscles bulged unapologetically.

The stylist approved.

“A lot of people don’t know how to dress athletes; their bodies are just so sculpted,” Carmichael said. “Putting more fabric on an athlete just makes them look bigger, like a clown suit. They have beautiful shoulders. They should show them.”

A Difficult Arrangement

The best way for Harrison to boost her résumé and brand would be defeating Nunes or Justino, but those matchups are unlikely to happen while the fighters are aligned with different promoters. It’s a scenario familiar to boxing fans, who are used to conflicts delaying, or even preventing, significant fights from taking place.

But the divide is even more rigid in M.M.A., where each promoter is also a sanctioning body that ranks fighters and awards championships. In boxing, an organization like the World Boxing Council can order a bout between fighters with different promoters, forcing them to arrange a fight or vacate the title. But there’s no overarching authority to encourage the P.F.L. and the U.F.C. to pair Nunes and Harrison, former training partners at American Top Team in Coconut Creek, Fla.

Nunes has since joined a new gym, citing tension with Harrison. But she’s open to a bout between them, provided Harrison signs with the U.F.C.

“If the opportunity is there and she wants it, cool. I’m in,” Nunes told MMAFighting.com. “A fighter needs challenges.”

Davis, for his part, said the P.F.L. wants to match Harrison with Nunes and Justino, but believes U.F.C. and Bellator don’t want their top fighters to lose to a rival from an upstart promotion.

“She can beat Amanda Nunes and she can beat Cris Cyborg,” Davis said when asked about co-promoting a bout. “The reason why those two promotions won’t agree is they know that.”

But Scott Coker, the chief executive of Bellator, said he’s skeptical, despite Davis’s public pronouncements.

“Doing business on social networks, trying to take shots at us, that’s kid’s play,” Coker told MMAFighting.com. “Pick up a phone. Give me a call if you want to do something.”

‘The World’s Best Grappler’

On a recent Friday morning, Harrison, drenched in sweat but not breathing heavily, peeled off her boxing gloves and shin guards and stretched out on a wrestling mat in a back room at American Top Team’s massive training facility. She had just finished a brisk, 60-minute session with Anderson Franca, an assistant coach at the gym, and earlier that morning she learned her original opponent — Julia Budd — had withdrawn from the fight with an injury.

The league quickly tabbed Young, but Harrison said the opponent switch would not affect her. Either way, she would need a win on Friday to position herself for a run at a third straight P.F.L. championship. She hopes another title would be a prelude to a high-stakes fight with Nunes or Justino.

Harrison did not dismiss Young as a fighter, but maintained that switching opponents would not alter her task or in-cage identity.

“Everyone knows I’m the world’s best grappler,” Harrison said. “I’m going to stick to what I know.”

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Last Update: Thu, 30 Jun 22 11:59:57