Kayla Harrison: MMA's Most Authentic Star

Nowadays the headlines in the MMA world seem to be engulfed by whatever the latest shenanigans Conor McGregor or Jon Jones have gotten themselves into. Whether it be the Irishman assaulting Italian DJs and rappers on red carpets or Jones having yet another identity crisis that leads to a run-in with the law, MMA's biggest stars love getting attention for all the wrong reasons.

The sport seems to need a new breath of fresh air when it comes to who it anoints as the faces of it. Enter in undefeated, reigning PFL women's lightweight champion, and two-time Olympic gold medalist judoka, Kayla Harrison. For all the things McGregor and Jones lack when it comes to principle, integrity, character, self-awareness, and most importantly authenticity, Harrison not only oozes but embodies.

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Harrison is not hiding any proverbial skeletons in the closet in the way Jones and McGregor seem to. She's not pretending to be something she's not and has been very open about how hard it is to be human, let alone when you're someone pursuing the sort of greatness that Harrison is currently. She's also been extremely honest and vulnerable with opening up about being a victim of sexual abuse, her battles with mental health, and now is using those experiences as a way to help people through her Fearless Foundation. I don't mean to pile on the former UFC champions, but the contrast between the two and the woman who is currently the face of the Professional Fighters League is drastic, to say the least.

While two of the self-proclaimed, so-called kings of the sport are busy acting like a pair of court jesters, Harrison is paving her way towards the throne of becoming the queen of MMA. I mean she said it herself after beating Mariana Morais via a first-round TKO at PFL 3 in May;

"This isn't a tournament, it's a coronation and I'm the queen."

I don't want to portray Harrison to be some perfect, god-like figure though, because she's flawed like we all are, but she embraces those flaws and wears her scars as badges of honor. That's to me what separates her from the men I mentioned above, her simple ability to not pretend to be something she's not. It's even a big distinction that makes Harrison so disparate in my opinion to another titan of MMA stardom that she's constantly compared to in UFC Hall of Famer and 2008 Olympic bronze medalist judoka, Ronda Rousey.

It's hard to get mad at people for wanting to compare the two, as the pair is so intertwined. Harrison and Rousey were roommates back during their days of training under the great Jimmy Pedro in Boston, Massachusetts before both went on to become Olympic medalists. The surface-level similarities are hard not to notice as well, but outside of their shared hair color and backgrounds in judo, Harrison herself said the comparison ends there.

"We're two blondes who did judo," Harrison told ESPN's Myron Medcalf for a feature he did on her back in May 2019. "That's about where the comparison ends. She's a very different person from me. I mean, we had the same judo coaches. We were teammates. We were roommates. We lived together. I learned a lot from her both on the judo mat and watching her career in MMA, but we're completely different people and we're completely different fighters."

There's no denying Rousey's place in MMA history as a true trailblazer. When UFC President Dana White proclaimed women would never compete in the promotion back in 2011, Rousey not only made him eat those words but she shoved them down his throat with the barriers she busted over the course of her illustrious five-year career. The argument that Rousey is still to this day the biggest star in the sport's history is a very strong one.

Now that she's been away from the sport for several years, my respect and appreciation for Rousey's run in MMA has only grown exponentially. She was a true anomaly, a woman becoming the face of a male-dominant sport, and carrying its biggest promotion on her back was something nobody expected at the time and has yet to replicate. Whether it be the 4,525,000 pay-per-view buys that the six UFC pay-per-view events she headlined brought in or the way her fame crossed over in the mainstream into various television and film appearances or even how after leaving fighting behind, she still managed to blaze another trail for women in the professional wrestling world in 2018 when she signed with the WWE, there's no denying Ronda Rousey's unique place in the pantheon of mixed martial arts icons.

Another part of Rousey's appeal was her fiery attitude and demeanor which made her a likable villain of sorts. She had this I could give a shit what you think about me persona and people loved her for it, plus when she was beating her opponents in 60 seconds or less, Rousey was being hailed as invincible. After getting knocked out by both Holly Holm and Amanda Nunes though, Rousey's persona and the character she had built up came crumbling down. The woman who had come out to Joan Jett's 1980 classic rock ballad "Bad Reputation" that opens with the words "I don't give a damn bout my reputation", a song that was supposed to embody MMA's favorite rebel, actually cared immensely about her reputation.

In a much less self-destructive, yet similar way, Rousey's act had been exposed like Jones and McGregor's now have. The losses to Holm and Nunes seemingly shattered her mystique and Ronda became like the bully who picked up her ball and went home. She didn't acknowledge the losses really, she sort of just ran from them. This is once again where I think Harrison differs not only from the aforementioned trio above but also really where she separates herself from any other fighter within combat sports. She's not pretending to be somebody she's not for any sort of outside validation. Regardless of what my opinion, your opinion, or anyone else's opinion is of her whether it be positive or negative, Harrison isn't letting anyone else define her success or how she presents herself to the world.

She understands the game she's playing, but Harrison isn't letting it consume her in the way it has other combat stars. This is a woman strictly in this to be the best of all time and to help change her family's life, that's it. Needing to be famous or in the spotlight as someone like McGregor does is not really of Harrison's concern, she's far more interested in her new role as a mother to her niece Kyla and nephew Emery. She gained custody of them under some very unfortunate and tragic circumstances in May 2020, but as she told Barstool Sports' Robbie Fox on a recent episode of his podcast My Mom's Basement, her kids don't care about where she's going in free agency or if she ever fights Amanda Nunes, they only care if their mom loves them which puts everything into perspective for the 31-year old women's lightweight star.

"Winning belts is cool, making money is cool, punching people in the face is cool," Harrison said. "I love what I do and selfishly I want to be the best in the world at it. But at the end of the day, my kids don't care. They don't care if I win or lose, or talk shit or don't talk shit. They just care that I come home and love them."

It's that sort of groundedness and self-awareness that is a big part of what makes Harrison so endearing and relatable. But it's what she does in the cage as well that also makes Harrison so unique from her peers and especially when going back to the Rousey comparison. The MMA world bought into the narrative that Ronda was some Mike Tyson-like figure because of the way she was stopping her opponents so quickly. Her 34 second knockout of Bethe Correia at UFC 190 in August 2015 only exaggerated those sentiments.

Rousey however, was never all that threatening as a striker, especially from a technical standpoint. Opponents feared her ability to cause chaos within scrambles and her ability to turn a takedown opportunity into a chance to snatch your arm from you. Opponents fear Harrison's ability to take them down because she can snatch their souls. There's a difference in the ramifications of a potential Harrison takedown for an opponent than there was for if Rousey got you down. Having your arm broken is scary without question, but being pummeled into oblivion with no escape sounds much more frightening in my opinion.

There hasn't been a more devastating display of Harrison showcasing what the repercussions of her taking you down can look like than in her featherweight debut against Courtney King at Invicta FC 43 in November 2020. The fight was the first time Harrison was ever allowed to use elbows in a bout, as they are not allowed in the PFL, and she used them like a seasoned butcher. Harrison bludgeoned King on her way to a second-round TKO victory, leaving the cage looking like a scene out of a Michael Myers Halloween movie. The showcase as violent as it may have been is yet another prime example of why the comparisons of Harrison to Rousey are ultimately so shortsighted.

Harrison now finds herself in a position to become the biggest free agent in the history of the sport following her matchup against Taylor Guardado in the finals of the 2021 PFL Women's Lightweight Tournament on Wednesday night. She has a chance to become MMA's equivalent to LeBron James, Reggie White, Shaquille O'Neal, and Peyton Manning in terms of the way they impacted their respective sports via free agency.

UFC President Dana White seems dismissive of that notion, sending somewhat of a warning to Harrison about considering coming to compete inside of the Octagon. I think it's really White taunting Harrison a little and trying to disguise it behind dismissiveness, hoping to tug at the ultra-competitive side of the two-time Olympic gold medalist. I just don't think Harrison cares all that much what White thinks, and doesn't need the three letters of his promotion in front of her name to define how great her legacy ultimately can be.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that for Harrison to achieve her goal of becoming the greatest fighter of all time, she will inevitably have to fight the competition that realistically only the UFC can offer. However, it's not like the PFL is standing idly by, and doing nothing to upgrade their talent pool. They've brought in former Bellator women's featherweight champion Julia Budd to try and give Harrison more of the big fights she is seeking. They also signed another two-time Olympic gold medalist and three-division world champion undefeated boxer, Claressa Shields, who makes her second appearance with the promotion on Wednesday night's main card against Abigail Montes.

The PFL has built its foundation around Harrison in a similar way to what Strikeforce did with Rousey early on in her career. Plus by staying with them, Harrison could still pave her path to becoming an all-time great, but just in a different way. Whatever potential contract extension she would be offered from the PFL would most certainly be more financially lucrative than whatever the UFC might offer her, and also be record-breaking I would imagine in multiple ways. It also would set a new precedent for what female fighters are paid in the sport and have a ripple effect in terms of making the PFL the premier organization for women's MMA, especially from a financial standpoint.

I'd also like to believe that the brass at the PFL would be much more inclined to do a potential co-promotion event with a company like Bellator than the UFC ever would. This could open up the door for a potential super-fight of sorts between Harrison and current Bellator women's featherweight champion, Cris Cyborg, a matchup both fighters have been clamoring for. It also would seem like the PFL wouldn't hold her back from any potential crossover opportunities into professional wrestling with say All Elite Wrestling. As much as Harrison has shied away from the idea of dabbling into that world, many believe she's already shown a natural knack for the art during her appearances in American Top Team owner Dan Lambert's current storyline on AEW programming.

The restrictiveness that might come with a move to the UFC, combined with the already seemingly contentious relationship with White, might make re-signing with PFL or going somewhere like Bellator make much more sense for a star of Harrison's stature. I don't think watering herself down or diminishing her value is something Harrison is going to do. Regardless of where she ends up competing after the conclusion of PFL's 2021 season on Wednesday night, it's clear Harrison's ascension to rare stardom in MMA is just beginning.

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