Kayla Harrison is the biggest success story coming out of the 2021 PFL season. She now sits at a bit of a crossroads as a promotional free agent. Harrison, 31, made the move to MMA in 2018 after capturing her second gold medal at the Olympics in judo. With 12 pro wins under her belt (only two of those reaching judges’ scorecards), she’s quickly rounding out her skillset as a true powerhouse at 155 pounds.
Harrison captured her second consecutive PFL Women’s Lightweight Tournament title in October, earning a second $1 million grand prize in the process. The question now becomes: what’s next? Let’s take a closer look at the three potential options on the table from the three largest MMA promoters in the U.S.
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Option 1: Stay cozy in PFL
Pros: An easy million-dollar payday, no need to cut to 145 pounds.
Cons: A lack of competition that won’t build a legacy.
PFL’s attempts to romance Harrison for another season is the promotion’s most enticing storyline. Harrison weighs legacy over money, but an arrangement probably exists that would convince her to stay. PFL recently acquired inaugural Bellator women’s featherweight champion and Strikeforce veteran Julia Budd (16-3), a valuable addition to the company’s shallow women’s divisions. A fight against Budd would certainly be the most significant fight of Harrison’s MMA career. It may not be the most breathtaking option on paper, but it serves as an important test for Harrison and better prepares her for a run with UFC or Bellator down the line. It also may require the promotion adding another name, like recently released former UFC title challenger Megan Anderson to make the run more legitimate. Plus, cashing in a third $1 million playoff paycheck never hurts.
Option 2: Head to Cyborg’s domain in Bellator
Pros: A marquee super-fight with Cris Cyborg.
Cons: Halfway step, weight cut.
If Harrison and PFL part ways, the next logical step in progression would be a move to Bellator. Cris Cyborg is still among the bigger names in the sport. Cyborg (25-2, 1 NC) has just one loss in the last 15 years and that came in a wild shootout with UFC two-division champion Amanda Nunes in December 2018. Cyborg vs. Harrison is the biggest fight to make for the Judo Olympic gold medalist outside of a clash with Nunes. Cyborg presents a brain-rattling power threat that Harrison has yet to face and more than twice the pro fights. Harrison has historically had difficulties making featherweight, but she has said she could do it for the right fight. Alternatively, Harrison may have an easier time negotiating a women’s lightweight or catchweight fight in Bellator than she would in UFC. If Harrison can ground Cyborg en route to a decision or finish, it will leave no doubt that conquest of Nunes’ kingdom should follow suit.
Option 3: Take UFC’s ultimate challenge
Pros: Legacy, superstardom
Cons: A tough out and tough weight cut
Nunes vs. Harrison is the hardcore fan’s fight to make, whether UFC president Dana White agrees or not. The list of meaningful, enticing contenders for the two-division UFC champ is fleeting at both women’s bantamweight and featherweight. A fight against Harrison is the most exciting matchup for Nunes outside of a trilogy bout with UFC women’s flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko. Harrison always ventured into MMA with the intention to carve out a meaningful legacy. The biggest concern with leaping from Taylor Guardado (3-2) to Nunes (21-4) is the absurd jump in competition level. Nunes’ hit-list includes Cyborg, Ronda Rousey, Holly Holm, Miesha Tate, Shevchenko (twice) and Germaine de Randamie. Harrison’s most impressive win is arguably a pair of dominant decisions over Larissa Pacheco. The necessary weight cut to 145 may also leave Harrison compromised against the greatest female MMA fighter in history. But, hey, maybe Julianna Pena renders this entire point moot by upsetting Nunes at UFC 269 on Dec. 11.
Harrison is a stellar acquisition for any MMA company on earth. With brains, brawn and business savvy to boot, Harrison appears well-positioned to cash in however she sees fit.