It was the moment Kayla Harrison’s dream was shattered. Sitting cageside at UFC 269, the two-time PFL women’s lightweight champ watched in disbelief as monumental underdog Julianna Peña took the back of Amanda Nunes, sunk in a rear-naked choke, and forced the Baddest Woman on the Planet to tap.
For months, speculation had been rife that Harrison, at the time testing free agency, would soon sign with the UFC, face Nunes, and perhaps become the first to dethrone the seemingly unbeatable Brazilian. But as she watched Peña beat her to it, Harrison knew that the opportunity of her career—to defeat the GOAT and thereby claim the title for herself—had just passed agonizingly by.
Harrison, a two-time Olympic judo gold medalist with a 12-0 MMA record, has consistently voiced her ambition to become the greatest women’s mixed martial artist of all time. And that’s why, earlier this month, the 31-year-old shocked many fans by spurning an offer to fight the very best in the UFC, and instead, re-sign with the PFL.
Perhaps Nunes’ defeat factored into her decision. The massive spectacle (and payday) that a matchup with the Brazilian promised is now a far less attractive prospect. That aside, it seems there are other compelling reasons why Harrison may have made the right decision—both financially and for her long-term career.
Why Staying In The PFL Is Good For Harrison’s Career
Harrison only made her pro MMA debut in the PFL just under four years ago. Despite her claim that she could beat UFC bantamweight champ Peña with one arm, Kayla is still relatively inexperienced in MMA and, it can safely be argued, untested.
As inexperienced Kayla is, the opponents thrown her way in the PFL are even more so. Her last opponent, Taylor Guardado, had a pro MMA career spanning less than two years and four fights when the duo met in October last year. Her opponent before that, Genah Fabian, had just five fights. And if Harrison’s opponents aren’t inexperienced, they have worryingly checkered records. When she fought Mariana Morais in May last year, the Brazilian was 16-10.
Sure, Harrison has looked impressive, having ended seven of her twelve fights in the first round. But whether she can defeat someone like Amanda Nunes, whose 14-year, 26 fight career has mostly taken place in the UFC, is highly debatable. Fighting Nunes or Peña now would certainly be in their favor, and if Kayla were to lose, it would irreparably damage her star power. Fighting them after a few more years growing as a mixed martial artist in the PFL will surely be in Harrison’s.
And why not stay and work on her game in the PFL, where she’s made $2 million by winning the lightweight tournament in the last two years? And now with her new contract, Harrison is reportedly the highest-paid female mixed martial artist of all time. Despite the UFC offering Harrison a “first-of-its-kind” deal during her free agency, even its president, Dana White, believes the easy, more-than-generous paydays she earns in the PFL are too good to give up.
“They pay her an obscene amount of money to fight over there,” White said of Harrison’s PFL stint in October. “If I was her, I’d stay right where she is and keep picking off the people over [there]. When you come here [chuckles], Amanda Nunes is no joke; Shevchenko is no joke; Rose Namajunas—these are all the best women in the world, the best female fighters in the world.”
The Personal Reasons Keeping Kayla Harrison In The PFL
Part of the reason why Harrison made the decision, it seems, is because she’s motivated by conflicting ambitions. Yes, she wants to prove she’s the best. But having recently acquired legal guardianship of two children, her quest for GOAT status has become complicated by the need for financial security.
“Three years ago, I would have said legacy,” Harrison said of her ambitions in a February interview with ESPN. “That’s all I give a shit about. My advisers, they care about security. Obviously, I have two kids now, so for me, as hard as it is, security comes first. I have to make sure. There’s no guarantees in this life. There’s no certainties. I could snap my neck tomorrow and never fight again. Security is important. But if I can find a way to have security and continue to build my legacy, I think that’s a winner.”
The question is: can Harrison have her cake and eat it too?
The Less Travelled Road To GOAT Status In The PFL
Having been given assurances by the PFL, Kayla Harrison earnestly believes that she’ll get the big, legacy-building fights while fighting in the promotion. And one matchup that she feels will help her on the road to GOAT status is with Bellator featherweight champ Cris Cyborg, which PFL founder Donn Davis has promised to aggressively pursue through a cross-promotion.
“When I talked to Donn, and one of the things that really sort of put my worries about my legacy to rest, was he was like, ‘Listen, ‘I don’t care if we have to do this on the Moon, I don’t care if we have to cross-promote, co-promote, we’re going to make this fight happen. This is the fight to make happen,'” Harrison told The Underground this month. “I was like, ‘Well, hell yeah, it is. Let’s go.'”
Unlike the UFC, which is notoriously unwilling to stage a cross-promotion fight, there’s a good chance that Bellator will, having previously done so with Rizin Fighting Federation in 2019. But even if Harrison were to land a big-money fight with Cyborg, defeating her would by no means confer GOAT status in the eyes of fans.
So, is Harrison sacrificing her prime years in a promotion that many, including Peña, regard as the ‘B-Leagues?’ There’s certainly an argument for that. But by staying in the PFL for a few more years, Harrison will emerge a much more complete fighter. And if she does enter the UFC in the future, she’ll undoubtedly have a much more realistic chance of becoming the greatest of all time.
What do you think? Was staying in the PFL the right move for Kayla Harrison?