Countless mixed martial artists have stemmed from a background in Judoka and found great success, but the current trajectory of Kayla Harrison is unmatchable in comparison.
Since the birth of women’s MMA in the UFC and the accomplishments of Ronda Rousey, no other Judo based athlete has made such significant waves in their transition to professional mixed martial arts competition.
31-year-old Harrison is the most accomplished American Judoka in sports history, winning the World Championships, Olympic Games (x2), and the Pan American Games. Furthermore, she became the youngest ever rokudan (6th Degree Black Belt) to be awarded this rank.
Then, in 2016, the Ohio born standout wanted to test her skills in the cage. Despite the announcement, Harrison would train vigorously for the following two years before making her debut. And with her former training partner being Ronda Rousey, a small part of the spotlight was already hyped for what she had to offer.
Formerly known as WSOF (World Series of Fighting), the Professional Fighters League (PFL) welcomed Harrison with open arms. While working as a commentator, she revealed that her position in the company also involved a contract to fight.
Following her 2018 MMA debut that ended via an armbar submission in round 1, Harrison began sharpening her skills at one of the most recognisable mixed martial arts gyms globally - American Top Team. And although following the footsteps of her friend and fellow Judoka Ronda Rousey wasn’t going to be easy, Harrison soon proved her worth.
Between her debut in 2018 and 2019, Harrison accepted and competed in seven MMA contests. She sure made up for lost time and, of course, dominated every opponent towards lifting the PFL Lightweight Championship.
Separating her legacy from Rousey’s was effortless, with a vicious ground and pound finishing ability residing within her MMA skillset, and the MMA community began to take notice. Harrison’s name has been continuously thrown in the conversation with the world's best, and many have suggested she needs to test her abilities outside of the PFL promotion. There aren’t many mixed martial artists who receive such swayed betting odds, but Harrison has undoubtedly become a favorite for online bookies with prices rarely lower than 1/10.
Another dominant performance in the PFL 2021 season further proved that Harrison required a higher level of competition to establish her MMA legacy truly. This, in fact, could be a matter of time, given the media coverage that’s pitted Harrison in dream matchups against the likes of Cris Cyborg, Amanda Nunes, and Julianna Pena.
Speculation isn’t justifiable, but the rumor mill became a reality when in December of 2021, the UFC president Dana White confirmed his promotion was in talks with Harrison.
Ironically, Dana White initially showed zero interest in signing Harrison, eerily similar to his stance on women’s MMA before Ronda Rousey changed his mind.
Aged 31 and upon becoming a free agent after her winning PFL 2021 season, there’s no better time for Harrison to take her skills to the next level. However, inking the most idealistic deal won’t be simple when PFL has offered her life-changing money. The likes of the WWE, Bellator and a re-signing with the PFL are all on the table for Judoka’s most notable athlete but fights with Amanda Nunes, or Cris Cyborg are unquestionably the most significant moves to level up her legacy.
However, signing with the UFC doesn’t offer much longevity for Harrison. Despite being two of the biggest potential fights in women’s MMA, after the likes of Julianna Pena and Amanda Nunes, the 145-pound weight class doesn’t offer a roster of competition.
On the other hand, Bellator’s 145-pound division is alive and kicking; they have a top 10 list of active fighters and could undoubtedly provide Harrison with a longer tenure. But the facts can’t be skewed, and for Harrison to genuinely etch her name into the WMMA Hall of Fame, a successful appearance in the UFC would be necessary.
There’s no alternative MMA promotion on the planet that has garnered and maintained the status and success of the UFC, but with a Nunes-Pena feud ongoing, where would this leave Kayla Harrison?
Whether Harrison signs with the UFC or decides to wipe out Bellator’s top-10 for an eventual Superfight with Cris Cyborg, her accolades and achievements will have still levelled her as one of Judo's greatest.