Olympic judo champ Harrison set to prove she belongs in PFL

December 30, 2018

Take a stroll around New York for the holidays or grab a seat at Madison Square Garden and the promotional videos for the PFL Championship nearly rival the hype for the Rockettes: "Six weight classes, six world championship fights, plus the biggest name in women's mixed martial arts."

UFC two-division champ Amanda Nunes would surely resent that declaration.

But Olympic gold medalist Kayla Harrison can take another step toward one day staking claim to that title in her headline fight at PFL 11 on Monday night. Harrison in 2010 became the first American woman to win the judo world championship. No U.S. judoka — man or woman — had ever won an Olympic gold medal before Harrison beat Britain's Gemma Gibbons to win the women's 78-kilogram and under division at the 2012 Olympics in London. She won gold again four years later at the Rio de Janeiro Games. She made her MMA debut this year and won both fights (by TKO and submission) for the Professional Fighters League.

Harrison takes on Moriel Charneski in a 155-pound bout Monday at the Hulu Theatre in Madison Square Garden.

"I was born to be a fighter," Harrison said.

The PFL season wraps on New Year's Eve with six championship fights and a $1 million prize awarded to each winner; the total purse for the card is $10 million. The championship card for the PFL, which emerged from the ashes of the World Series of Fighting, will be televised at 7 p.m. on NBC Sports Network.

The league was formed when Donn Davis, Mark Leschly and Russ Ramsey invested $25 million into the WSOF in 2017 and rebranded the organization into a tournament-style league. The PFL format rewards early finishes, and a win earns a fighter three points. The fighter gets three more for a stoppage in the first round, two points for a second-round win and one point in the third. Even a draw is worth one point. The PFL opened with 72 fighters in six weight-classes, competing in seven regular-season events. The playoffs started in October.

Kevin Hart and MGM Television executive Mark Burnett are among the celebrity investors who believe the PFL can thrive in the growing field of MMA promotions. UFC is the undisputed champion, but PFL, Bellator, One Championship (which is on a spending spree of former UFC stars) and even Cage Fury Fighting Championship are competing for consumer dollars in a sport with global appeal.

Harrison certainly has the name value to attract viewers to try out PFL in the same venue where the band Phish will play Monday night in the larger arena. The 28-year-old Harrison said she never considered making the move to MMA until she was all tapped out with her judo career.

"Wrestling's been a lot easier for me to pick up than striking," she said. "Striking is definitely where I need to improve the most. It's where I need to get more confidence. It's where I need to get comfortable. It's little things like head movement. Those are things I never thought of before I did MMA."

Harrison has found a passion in MMA she never felt in judo.

"I never loved judo, I just loved winning," she said. "I'm excited that I get the same feeling from MMA that I get from judo. I started judo when I was 6 years old. You don't get rich or famous. There's no glory in being a judo player from the United States. But judo is what my mom signed me up for and I wanted to be the best at something."

A former training partner of Ronda Rousey, Harrison is in the only female fight on the PFL card and understands that to one day actually live up to the billing as "the biggest name in women's mixed martial arts," she'll have to move on to other promotions.

"I want to go down as one of the greatest to ever do it," she said. "If that means I get to stay at the PFL and do that there, that's great. But at the end of the day, I have personal goals and that's to be the best in the world. We all know what that means."

After she won gold in Rio, her coach, Jimmy Pedro, said he doubted that Harrison would turn pro, adding she was "too nice of a person" to compete in mixed martial arts. Harrison is now expected to become the centerpiece of the 2019 season, and her weight class will be eligible for a $1 million payout in the finale.

PFL is happy Harrison found her mean streak.