March 4, 2024

Two-time PFL champion Kayla Harrison returns to competition for the first time in a year on Friday, when she meets Aspen Ladd in a nontitle fight at the PFL Championships in Washington (ESPN+ PPV, 5 p.m. ET).

It has been a quiet, uncharacteristic year for Harrison (15-1). She suffered the first loss of her career last November to Larissa Pacheco in the 2022 PFL lightweight final. She has sat out of competition all of 2023, waiting for the PFL to try to book a fight against women’s MMA pioneer Cris Cyborg, the Bellator MMA featherweight champion. That potential fight fell apart in May, when Cyborg turned down an offer from the PFL and signed a multifight deal to stay with Bellator.

However, with the PFL announcing the long-rumored acquisition of Bellator on Monday, the chance of a Harrison vs. Cyborg matchup is back on the table.

Harrison’s career has been full of the tease of a mega-fight. Cyborg has felt close on multiple occasions, and there was hope of Harrison facing UFC two-weight champion Amanda Nunes at some point. But Nunes, a former teammate of Harrison’s, elected to retire in July.

Ahead of her first fight of 2023, Harrison reflects on the challenges of sitting on a loss for so long, and how she’s handled the ongoing disappointment of missing out on the big fight. — Brett Okamoto

You have to question yourself after a loss. You have to look yourself in the mirror, and there are really two routes you can go. You can blame everyone and everything but yourself, or you can look inward and realize that when you step in the cage and they close the door, whatever happens is on you.

For me, I realized the big reason I lost my last fight was how I was conducting my life outside the cage. I was overstretched, exhausted and self-reliant. That fight was 2-2 going into the fifth round, and Larissa dug deeper than me. The reason she was able to do that was because I was completely spent. And I was spent because I was fighting things outside of the cage that I shouldn’t have been. Drama and chaos were the majority of my life. It was one s—storm after another.

The common denominator in all of that drama was me. You can only blame outside things for so long before you realize, “Hey, dummy, do you want this to be your life? Do you want your life to be one obstacle after another? Or do you want to sit down, buckle up and make things better?” I am the authority in my life, and I have a choice on how I live. I wanted to make a change.

Now, my life is peaceful. My life has a lot of joy and support. I went through a phase where I was worried about this change because I’ve always been so successful as a survivor. So, it was like, “OK, if I’m not self-reliant and I’m not in a s—storm every day, am I still going to be a killer as a fighter?”

“The big reason I lost my last fight was how I was conducting my life outside the cage. I was overstretched, exhausted and self-reliant.”

Kayla Harrison

I’m so grateful because I’ve realized that yes, I was super successful for a long time, but it was all fear-driven. It was, “I have to be the best. I have to win a gold medal. I have to get straight A’s. I have to be perfect because if they see the real me, they will see someone who is unlovable and worthless.” I don’t feel like that now. And coming from this place of peace makes me more dangerous. I know that whatever results happen in the cage, who I am as a person can not be f—ed with.

I’m in the zone right now with my preparations, and I’ve tried to stay hands-off with things I can’t control. I think there was a contract dispute with my original opponent, Julia Budd, and I got a call from my manager, Ali Abdelaziz, and he said, “How would you feel about fighting Aspen Ladd instead?” And I literally told him, “Ali, if you don’t get me a fight on Nov. 24, I’m fighting you.” A day later, we had a new opponent.

I haven’t been paying attention to the Bellator rumors at all. I have zero interest in them, and what it means for any particular fight. We have been talking about the Cyborg matchup since before I had my first professional fight. I’m so done with it. I’m over it. I’m past it. If it comes to fruition, I will be ready. If it doesn’t, I’m focused on me. I think there is still a path of greatness for me that doesn’t involve her. There is plenty of opportunity out there for me. I won’t get stuck in this frustration again over whether that fight will happen or not.

Cyborg has done remarkable things in the sport, and I don’t think she’s had an easy road, so I respect that about her. But I don’t believe her anymore. I’m not buying what she’s selling anymore, so she can go sell it somewhere else. She’s not “down to fight anyone.” None of that adds up anymore. Make it make sense — why this fight still hasn’t happened. She says one thing and does another, and I’m tired of talking about it.

None of it ever adds up, so whatever. If that’s what she wants to do, if that’s who she wants to be, then fine. You know, she doesn’t need me. That’s the truth. She has done enough. But I don’t think I need her either.

I haven’t talked to Amanda since her retirement. No correspondence. I respect those boundaries. I respect her choices. That’s her right to retire, and there are no hard feelings at all. I have no ill will, and for the record, I never did. I still look at her and admire everything she’s done and the way she has done it. I think she is the greatest of all time and I’m happy for her. I’m happy she has a beautiful family. There’s nothing but love over here. But hey, if you ever do want to fight me, of course I’m up for it!

There is a big-picture statement I want to make with this fight on Friday, and I don’t always plan that. Everyone thinks I plan my postfight messages, but I don’t. For this one, though, I do want there to be a message of resiliency. Dude, life is hard, you know? Whether you’re a fighter, single mom, battling cancer, just lost your job, life hits hard. I want people to know that it’s gonna be OK.

If you surround yourself with the right people, if you believe in yourself and do the work, it’s all going to work out the way it’s meant to. I do believe that in my core. Oh, and I ain’t done! I still have a lot of s— to say and a lot of things to prove. Everyone will still witness: I am who I say I am.

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