'Force of nature': Kayla Harrison brings an iron will to UFC 300 (2024)

  • 'Force of nature': Kayla Harrison brings an iron will to UFC 300 (1)

    Hallie Grossman, ESPN Staff WriterApr 10, 2024, 02:30 PM ET

    Close

    • Staff Writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine
    • Joined ESPN The Magazine after graduating from Penn State University.
    • Covers college football and college basketball.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story includes discussions of suicidal ideation.

THE THERMOSTAT ON the wall reads 78 and the air in the gym feels thick as stew, like the South Florida humidity is seeping in through the doors. Body heat only adds to the swelter; a host of looky-loo fighters, still glistening from their own workouts, loiter around the replica octagon, peering in. There's a trio of coaches lining the apron of the cage, yelling out a steady cadence of affirmations -- nice; nice; nice. It's in this thumping, sweating tempest that Kayla Harrison boils over.

"Shut up! SHUT UP!"

She is tangled up with her sparring partner, Rudson Caliocane, launching a flurry of punches toward his ribcage. With the pair cheek to cheek, Rudson whispers plaudits into her ear. Come on, champ. Let's go, champ.

But she can't keep Rudson on the cage. She loses him every time. A champion would keep him right where she wants him, she thinks. A champion would not lose him once. So Rudson's enthusiasm lands like a taunt.

"Shut up!" She yells again.

Harrison has always been this way when she trains. Emotional. Turbulent. Before she began her MMA career on a 16-1 tear, before she went on a history-making run as an Olympian in judo, back when she was clawing her way up the ranks as a judoka, Harrison would scream bloody murder if she couldn't impose her will over an opponent. In practice, she could be facing off against a 220-pound man with many pounds and years of experience over her, and still, she'd let it rip: a high-pitched shriek from deep in her bones. Everyone in the dojo knew that scream. Jim Pedro, her coach back then, would bellow just about every night: Shut the Christ up. Stop your crying and just work out.

She's not crying today. But she is teetering. Barely five minutes later, after the app on someone's phone tolls a bell -- Round 5 of live sparring is now complete -- she lies down on the mat, her face skyward.

"He's too f---ing strong," she says.

"It's good to feel that strength," coach Mike Brown promises her.

She hoists herself off the floor, then takes a seat on the small stairwell just outside the cage. Head in her hands, she asks through her fingers: "That's why I was tired, right?" His strength? The 20 pounds he must have on her? That's why she's so winded?

For all her distaste for the word in this moment, and the way she received it like an epithet, Kayla Harrison is, very much, a champion. The United States' only two-time Olympic gold medal champion in judo. A two-time MMA champion in the Professional Fighters League. But if she sounds and looks vulnerable today, well, that's because she is.

She's on the eve of the biggest MMA fight of her life: her UFC debut Saturday night against Holly Holm. She sought that stage, sacrificed herself and her body in service of it. Harrison intends to add UFC champion to her long list of title exploits, she must kick-start the process by undergoing the most extreme weight cut of her career -- a 20-pound nosedive, to 135 pounds, from her typical fighting weight.

So, yes, sometimes this is all a little unnerving.

"I'm in shape," she says. "I'm in shape," she declares once more, sounding less like she's trying to convince her coaches than herself.

And here, in this moment, is the entire Kayla Harrison story.

THE MORNING AFTER their sparring session, Rudson is back at American Top Team -- the MMA gym in Coconut Creek, Florida, where Harrison has trained for the better part of a decade -- now with a welt blooming on the left side of his face. He rolls his swollen eye and says: "'I love you,' [Harrison] tells me. Yeah, after 23 elbows. 'I love you.'"

Rudson smiles, poking fun at Harrison's about-face during their workout. After berating him to shutupshutupshutup, she embraced him at night's end with a full-body bear hug. But he turns serious, shakes his head, appraising the previous night's work.

"She's so fast," he says. "Strong. Dangerous."

Even in her new, trimmed-down state, the 33-year-old Harrison's muscles have sprouted muscles, so she looks like she's perpetually flexing; she's sculpted with such precision that seeing her in real life feels a little like an exercise in deception. Surely that's not actual flesh and blood. Surely that's just granite. And she has mostly made easy work of the first 17 fights of her MMA career, which is something of a marvel considering the utter disdain with which she first regarded mixed martial arts about eight years ago.

"I was, like, 'F--- this sport," she says.

The seeming randomness -- you get a title shot; now you get a title shot; now this person over here gets a title shot -- didn't sit right with her. If the climb through the ranks in judo was a slog, it at least felt logical. Win, earn points, get seeded. Wash, rinse, repeat. And the fact she had to "sell herself," the popularity contest of it all, sat even less right.

"You don't have to like me," she says. "You don't have to think I'm pretty. And you don't have to think I'm funny or I'm a good s--- talker. I mean, I am all those things. But you don't have to think that."

Still, she dragged herself to a striking class to hit pads for the first time and it didn't just feel good. It felt right. And this sport, which she had written off as gamesmanship, and not necessarily a game she wanted to play, became her refuge. She had just won her second gold medal in judo at the 2016 Games in Rio, and she found herself flailing on the other side of realizing her wildest dreams.

When she lost the pursuit of an Olympic-sized ambition, she lost herself. Harrison had never hit the snooze button; suddenly she wasn't setting alarms at all. She had no time for luxuries like television at one point; then she was glued to her couch and a screen. She couldn't stand this version of herself, didn't even really recognize this new person. Until she found mixed martial arts.

It didn't hurt, of course, that she was very good, very fast.

Brown had never seen a woman who could wrestle with college-level men, and there was Harrison holding her own. "The upper-body strength that takes? That's when I was said, 'Holy s---."

Brown had seen a slew of the sport's champions walk through American Top Team's doors, and there was Harrison beating them, with hardly a drop of MMA experience.

In the end, it was less a surprise than the natural order of things that Harrison went on to dominate the sport, and her chosen promotion, the Professional Fighters League. She lost by unanimous decision to Larissa Pacheco in 2022, but otherwise, her résumé is sterling: 16 wins; 12 coming via submission or knockout; two championships.

"We know how good she is," Brown says. "She knows how good she is. She's the best on the planet, right? But, now, I think she's tired of hearing, 'Oh, she's fighting nobody over there in the PFL.'"

And that? That's the UFC siren song calling.

She signed with MMA royalty in the least regal of locales -- her desk in the laundry room -- and sat there, cowed, "scared s---less," she says. The UFC is the Olympics of MMA, according to Harrison, and now she has to go and actually do the damn thing.

"Am I who I say I am?" she says, sitting with the risks behind this leap to the UFC. "Am I as good as I think I am?"

But being something more than scared is not new for Harrison. Not in her long career as an elite athlete, and especially not in these last six years as a professional fighter. It's a little like enlisting to be a modern-day gladiator, she says. She's signing up to meet someone in a cage, and through sheer violence and brute force, submit them to her will -- or be submitted to theirs. And there's a moment, every single time she makes the walk to that cage. It's fleeting, and it vanishes as quickly as it finds her, but there it is, fight after fight after fight.

"What the f--- am I doing?" she thinks to herself. "Why, Kayla?"

She makes that walk, she asks herself why, and then she continues walking. It's the calmest, most collected, intense, aware, present feeling of her life.

"You're the most alive you'll ever be, in that moment," she says. "It used to be the only time I would feel alive."

FOR A LONG time, Kayla Harrison did not want to feel anything at all.

She sat alone in her room at the Pedros' judo house in Wakefield, Massachusetts, that she shared with teammates, and she scrawled out her private agony in a journal.

I hate my life.

She was 16, living almost 900 miles from home, and hated her life, so she considered taking her life. She cut herself. She stole alcohol. She took too many pills.

I hate my life.

She ran barefoot outside in the middle of a snowstorm in New England. Harrison had locked the door to her second-story room, and by the time her housemates were able to pry it open, her window was open and she was gone, leaving nothing behind but an open bottle and pills splayed out on the floor. She had jumped out onto the roof of a garage, then to the ground. She ran a half-mile to the local high school, shoeless and ankle-deep in snow, where her housemates found her.

I hate my life.

"So many," she says. "So many instances of me screaming for help."

And the one that landed her in a hospital to start the long road to getting it: She procured a burner phone and stayed in contact with the man who, for years, had sexually abused her.

Daniel Doyle had been her judo coach from the time she was 8 years old, just a girl growing up and learning and loving the sport in Middletown, Ohio. By the time she was 13, Doyle -- 16 years older than Harrison -- had begun sexually abusing her; that abuse would continue for more than three years.

So much was shattered in 2007, when Harrison revealed exactly what Doyle had been doing to her, and for how long.

Her teammate and former fiancé, Aaron Handy, smashed the window of the car he was driving when Harrison finally told him the truth of Doyle's abuse.

Her mother took a baseball bat and smashed in the windows of Doyle's car.

Her revelation smashed her world.

People she had considered friends, or at least supporters, in the Ohio judo community turned their backs on her -- unable or unwilling to believe the abuse Doyle inflicted on her. That isolation curdled into shame; for years, Harrison blamed herself, rationalizing that even if she was a child, she must also have been at fault somehow. If he was guilty of something terrible, then she was too, she told herself.

Within a month of telling her mother of the abuse, she packed up a U-Haul and moved to Massachusetts, to live and train with Jim Pedro and Jimmy Pedro, the father and son duo behind one of the preeminent judo training centers in the country. The Pedros had crossed paths with Harrison before -- in 2005, Jimmy had identified Harrison as one of the 20 most talented up-and-coming judokas in the country for USA Judo -- but their roads were about to intersect for good. Her mother, grasping for a way to help Harrison, had called Jimmy with a plea: "I don't know what to do with my daughter. Will you take her?"

When Harrison thinks back now on the dizzying ways her life was upended in 2007, she is 33 and clear-eyed: "The first thing I would do is give that little girl a f---ing hug."

And then she is 16 once more. "Getting shipped off right after something like that happened was almost retraumatizing," she says.

It was, in the end, also her salvation. She hated judo, this sport she had once loved but that did not love her back in her lowest moments. She hated the Pedros for a long time too. But every time they did not give up on her, every time they devised new ways to try to see her through -- therapy, admission into a Boston hospital when they worried outpatient therapy alone was not enough -- a part of her was saved. A part of her grew to love them back.

They did not give up when she sat in a car with Jim -- Big Jim, as she took to calling him -- crying, desperate to not go to Nationals and cross paths with so many people who had refused to believe her. He told her: "Kayla, you know what? When we go there, you stand next to me. Nobody will dare say a goddamn thing to you if I'm there."

They did not give up when they encouraged her to fly home to Ohio to tell her story in court, to be heard, as Doyle pleaded guilty to illicit sexual conduct and was ultimately sentenced to 10 years in prison. Big Jim told her he'd fly back with her if she needed him to, but that she had to be in that room.

They did not give up on her when she drove the 45 minutes from the judo house to Big Jim's lake house, intent on quitting judo. When she pulled up in the driveway, Big Jim was smoking a cigar, and she blurted out that she was done. It was the fall of 2007, she had just won the US Open, but she didn't want to be the brave girl anymore. The strong girl. She wanted to move to New York and disappear into the anonymity of the city. He listened, then he told her: "You know what, kid? What happened to you, happened to you. And it is a terrible thing, but it doesn't define you." She went back to the judo house, then back to practice the next day. She cried the entire time, but still, she was there. She was not done.

"They didn't give up on me. They didn't ship me off. They didn't send me home," she says. "That changed my life."

That didn't mean she left the house and was fixed, nor whole. She turned herself into the best American judoka in history. She decided to be open about her story, published a book in 2018 to share her story, in fact, hoping that openness might change someone else's story. She started over in a new sport, then dominated that too. She became a mother. And all that time, she was neither fixed, nor whole. She still found herself in physically and emotionally abusive relationships, perpetuating a cycle she first witnessed in her own childhood. She still felt like she had to earn love, fight for it, struggle with it, survive it.

Four years and 16 fights into her MMA career, in November 2022, Harrison suffered her first loss. She had taken her children with her to Madison Square Garden, where she came up short against Pacheco, and the defeat rattled her, made the ground feel shaky beneath her feet, like she couldn't quite keep her balance.

Back home in Florida, the bruises still fresh on her face, she checked in with her daughter's therapist. She wanted to know how badly Kyla had been rattled too. Had Kyla talked about the fight? She had. She told her therapist she had gone to New York; ate Thanksgiving dinner in New York City; visited the Empire State Building; watched her mother fight; she lost; they all came home.

The loss -- this huge earthquake for her mother -- had been just a footnote to a family trip for Kyla. And that, more than the fight itself, jolted Harrison. It shook her awake.

"It had never occurred to me," she says. "It had never occurred to me that someone would love me if I lost or I wasn't this high achiever. Because I didn't think I could love me."

When she used to ask herself this question -- could she love herself; like herself, even -- if she was not Kayla Harrison, Olympic champion, or Kayla Harrison, MMA champion, even saying it out loud would make her feel sick to her stomach. She fought and won to prove to herself, to everyone, that she was worthy. But it was her daughter and her son who showed her that she -- Kayla Harrison, champion or not -- was enough, plenty, everything.

"Everything I went through? It got me this far in life," she says. "But I don't carry it anymore. I set that s--- down."

THREE WEEKS BEFORE the fight of her life in Las Vegas, Harrison surveys the life she has built for herself and her kids here, a world away, in Parkland, Florida. She's walking through the muck of the chicken coop in her backyard, doling out worms, checking on the progress of eggs, confirming the animals all have water and food.

"Good job, Kyla Rose," she says to herself, pleased with her daughter's commitment to her chores.

Harrison moved out here, to this one-story yellow house with a sign that reads "JOY" out front, and this sprawling two-acre parcel of land, for her kids. They have a pair of emus, named Emma May (wink wink) and Marshall Mathers, who greet visitors at the front gate; three dogs of varying bulk; a few cats; parakeets; and more chickens than Harrison can keep track of at any given moment.

She still can't quite fathom that this menagerie, in this house, on this street, is hers. She feels a jolt every time she makes her way down the long stretch of road that leads her home, which is often these days, now that she has to walk about 10 kilometers -- a little more than 6 miles -- every day to burn off fat and muscle ahead of fighting at bantamweight for the first time in her career. She used to steal Ronda Rousey's peanut butter in the middle of the night because she couldn't afford groceries, back when they were teammates and housemates at the Pedros' judo house. Now she has a front gate and property on a street lined with palatial estates that look like they've been airlifted in from Bel Air. She used to hate her life and the loneliness that left her hollow, frenzied. Now she looks around at this home that she's built and this family she's filled it with, and she's full. Settled.

She's come a long way.

"The thing about healing is it's a never-ending journey," she says, making her way along a creek by the road as she sets out on today's 10-kilometer journey. "I never say I'm healed. I'm healing."

Most days, on her miles-long trek through her swampy patch of South Florida, she'll pass horses, steer, iguanas the size of her chihuahua. On Fridays, her kids will take the golf cart and roll alongside her as she hikes; together, they look for debris scattered along the way to add to the "invention section" her son, Emery, keeps at home.

Harrison and her kids named their house Safe Haven Farms. That's what she wanted to create for Kyla and Emery when she adopted them; that's what they've been for her, in return, since the day they became hers.

Harrison's sister Aura has struggled with personal issues for years, and six months after she gave birth to Kyla, Kyla went to live with Harrison's mother, Jeannie, and Harrison's stepfather; Emery followed suit a few years later. But when Jeannie suffered a stroke in 2019, then her stepfather unexpectedly died in 2020, Harrison flew home to Ohio on a mission. She told her mom she thought she should take the kids for a little while. They packed up a rental car, drove back to Florida and they've been with her ever since. She formally adopted them 2½ years ago.

They became each other's in small ways. Emery is just 5 and has known only Harrison to be his mother, so he has only ever called her "mom." Kyla's older, 11, and used to call her Kayla, but years ago when Emery started talking, Harrison sat her daughter down. She told her she'd probably have Emery call her "mom;" that Kyla didn't have to, but she could if she wanted.

"She called me 'mom,' and that was it," Harrison says. "'Ma' was my favorite stage, though. Like she was a little Italian. 'Hey, Ma! Where are the cookies?'"

They became each other's in the most vital ways. Harrison, suddenly and irrevocably, was responsible for everything. Their physical well-being and their mental well-being, these children who had already been through so much in so short a time. Sometimes, a lot of times, that weight has felt too heavy -- at least to shoulder alone.

"I have chosen a very lonely path," she says. "I'm a single mom. I'm a fighter. I'm a female fighter." Then she keeps walking.

She's had to reset, she admits. She spent a week off the grid in Panama, where her life coach lives, in January 2023. She had just lost to Pacheco two months earlier. She had spent the better part of the two years before that hellbent on being the perfect mother, and it all had left her shellshocked, staggering. She FaceTimed her kids in the morning and night that entire week, but otherwise she tried to be still, and to still the turmoil that was threatening to drown her.

She still resets every day, along the miles and hours she spends walking.

And she resets each time she makes herself remember. For all her children have added to her plate -- and it's a lot; "Oh, I'm stretched!" she says, then laughs -- they have made her let go of more.

"They set me free," she says.

She left New York and that loss to Pacheco a different fighter; less infallible, more mortal. She was not a different person, or mother, to her children. And that unshackled her. They made her realize that she loves to fight. That it's a joy for her to fight, but it's not everything. That she doesn't need to be the best; she just wants to be the best. And that distinction matters. The distance between need and want? That's everything.

"My life is beautiful," she says. "I can't believe it."

Harrison worried, for a time, what that would mean for Kayla Harrison the Champion. She had been surviving -- trauma and hardship and personal demons -- so relentlessly, she convinced herself she needed that pain outside the cage to be a killer inside it.

"So if I don't have that, who am I?" she asked herself. "Am I going to be the same fighter? And I'm not."

"I'm better."

HARRISON WILL TEST this thesis -- she is not just a different fighter, but a better one -- in a way she never has before. She's facing the most extreme weight cut of her fighting life.

The calculus went like this: She wants to be a UFC champion. In order to wear a UFC title belt, she needed to be in the UFC. In order to compete under the UFC banner, she'd need to fight at 135 pounds. The featherweight division has all but been shuttered, and UFC brass assured her it was bantamweight or bust. Which she's done exactly zero times. She's never even gotten close, really. All but two of her 17 professional fights have been lightweight bouts at 155 pounds. One was 145; the other was a catchweight at 150. (Her judo days paint an even starker picture. She competed and won at 78 kilos, or roughly 172 pounds.)

Big Jim told her she was out of her mind to even entertain the thought of dropping down to bantamweight. Jimmy Pedro was only slightly more restrained.

"I have no doubt that the Kayla Harrison that fights at 155 can destroy any girl in the UFC," he says. "But can the Kayla Harrison that has to cut her left leg off to make 135 pounds, can that same girl perform? Because you may be fighting yourself as much as you're fighting the opponent."

Harrison, herself, wasn't all that keen on spending the last years of her MMA career chasing weight cuts. But when she took stock of the landscape ahead of her, she wasn't terribly enamored with the alternatives either. A fourth fight with Larissa Pacheco? A superfight with Cris Cyborg? It's a matchup she says she never once turned down, but had no confidence would ever see the light of day. She felt done chasing Cyborg, which she said she had done for years, felt done chasing any opponent at this point in her career.

So she'd chase the renown of the UFC -- and its attendant weight cut -- instead. She underwent a DEXA scan that measured her bone density; she had her body fat and her lean muscle mass analyzed; she roped in nutritionists; she did a test weight cut, then a simulated fight right after, and she felt like the same Kayla Harrison. All these safety precautions kept saying the same thing: She could safely and healthily lose the necessary pounds. If those tests and those experts had given her a different answer? She says she wouldn't be here today, cutting all this weight.

Andy Foster is the executive officer of the California State Athletic Commission -- MMA's regulating body in the state that's home to the most fighters in the country -- and a former fighter himself. For years he has evangelized to anyone who will listen that weight-cutting, and extreme weight-cutting, in particular, is this sport's most dire issue. Eight years ago, when Cyborg was in the throes of her own weight-cutting battle with the UFC, he said he would not regulate her at 135 pounds. He has no such dilemma with Harrison. The DEXA scan sign-off, the fact that three weeks out, she's already walking around at 150 pounds, that she intends to hit 145, or 147 at worst, by fight week -- these have all the makings of a weight cut he deems safe, measured, achievable.

In the end, Harrison has made her peace with this weight cut. But not the practice of weight-cutting. For years, she was quite clear on exactly how not at peace she was with MMA's most time-honored, controversial pastime.

I just don't believe in it.

Strong is beautiful.

You shouldn't change your body for sport, for society, for anything.

Yet here she is, changing her body for sport. She winces a bit, at how to reconcile her distaste for weight-cutting -- still alive and well and leaving a rancid taste in her mouth -- with her current promise to cut the most weight she ever has. She flinches, too, at the notion that the next generation of fighters, of young women, who come in any number of shapes and sizes is watching. But she's also adamant that she's biding her time. She's cutting weight now because she's intent on ensuring those next generations won't have to.

"Shhh," she says, putting her fingers to her lips. "I'm here to change the game."

Harrison intends to nudge the UFC back into weight classes beyond bantamweight, she says. If she does, she'll be taking up the mantle for a battle that's vexed the UFC for nearly as long as women have fought in the UFC: how to open the door to accommodate all those shapes and sizes.

"There's nobody out there at 145 pounds," UFC president Dana White said as far back as 2018. "If there were, why would we not build it? If that was the case, if there was this unbelievable amount of talent at 145 pounds, you don't think that I would capitalize on that and I'd make that happen? In a heartbeat."

Still, she figures her best shot to launch an offensive against weight-cutting is to join the UFC, then beat the UFC -- at least into submission -- once she has won (and won and won) and commands the spotlight and respect to do so.

"I'm here to be so good they can't ignore me," she says, more than an hour into her daily walk. "But I have to f---ing win first," she adds, without breaking stride once. One mile left to go; 15 more pounds of fat and muscle to burn off. UFC 300 awaits.

SO, TOO, DOES Holly Holm.

When Harrison steps into the Octagon on Saturday -- after she's made the lonely walk to the sport's biggest platform; after she's asked herself why in god's name she's doing this all again -- she'll be facing who she considers the toughest fight in the division for her. Even if the oddsmakers disagree -- Harrison is currently one of the card's most commanding betting favorites, at -450 -- she, at least, is not underestimating one of the most skilled strikers in MMA history. Or what it would mean to beat her.

"I'm excited for the world to know that I'm a badass," she says.

She's been the face of judo and the face of the PFL and the face of advocacy for survivors of abuse. And, still, this moment and this stage feels, at long last, like her coming-out party.

But here's what she'll have you know: It's also a coronation. Or at least the start to one.

"I'm a two-time Olympic champion; a two-time PFL champion; a judo world champion; a junior world champion," she says. "When I go win the UFC title and then defend it, there's not much to argue."

She'll have won everything. She'll have been everything. The warrior. The wounded. The champion. The upstart. The world-beater. The woman still finding her way.

She's been all of these versions of Kayla Harrison. Now she's set her sights on another. UFC great. And she does like those odds, for here is what she knows about herself, and every version of Kayla Harrison:

"My heart and spirit are unf---withable," she says, then laughs. "I'm a crazy, f---ing force of nature."

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide or is in emotional distress, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or at suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

'Force of nature': Kayla Harrison brings an iron will to UFC 300 (2024)

References

Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Tuan Roob DDS

Last Updated:

Views: 6034

Rating: 4.1 / 5 (42 voted)

Reviews: 89% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Tuan Roob DDS

Birthday: 1999-11-20

Address: Suite 592 642 Pfannerstill Island, South Keila, LA 74970-3076

Phone: +9617721773649

Job: Marketing Producer

Hobby: Skydiving, Flag Football, Knitting, Running, Lego building, Hunting, Juggling

Introduction: My name is Tuan Roob DDS, I am a friendly, good, energetic, faithful, fantastic, gentle, enchanting person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.