Kayla Harrison’s Judo Journey: From Olympic Gold to MMA Stardom | Awakening Fighters

Kayla Harrison’s Judo Journey: From Olympic Gold to MMA Stardom

by Rew MitchellPosted on
Article Thumb 2023 Kayla Harrison | Awakening Fighters


Kayla Harrison was met with atypically high expectations upon her decision to transition from mixed martial arts to judo.

Harrison's historic achievement of becoming the first American to secure a gold medal in judo at the 2012 Summer Olympics and subsequently repeating that feat at the 2016 Olympics ignited the globe. Harrison replaced her Judogi for the MMA gloves after concluding she had nothing else to prove in judo.

Harrison has thus far demonstrated that the transition is effortless, having won 15 of her 16 bouts under the aegis of the Professional Fighters League. However, the path to MMA glory has not been straightforward; her ascent to the pinnacle of combat sports has been fraught with difficulty.

A Dark Start

Shortly before winning her first gold medal in 2011, Harrison disclosed that a former coach had sexually assaulted her when she was a child. The act of expressing oneself was not as prevalent during that time.

It is possible that years of sexual assault prevented her from participating in athletics. She opted to relocate from her Ohio residence to the Boston suburbs, where she attended a dojo operated by the father of two-time Olympic medalist Jimmy Pedro, rather than remaining in Ohio. In addition to reinstating her enthusiasm for judo, they also scheduled her in therapy.

Eventually, at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, Harrison won the women's 78-kilogram division and became the first American to achieve an Olympic gold medal in her discipline. Four years later, she effectively defended the title in Rio de Janeiro.

Presently, the 33-year-old has executed a mid-career transition by establishing herself as a prominent figure in the nascent Professional Fighters League's mixed martial arts women’s division.

Kayla Harrison in The Professional Fighters League

When she became familiar with mixed martial arts, her abilities shifted. As per the American fighter, her passion for mixed martial arts (MMA) may be even more intense now than her judo devotion, dating back nine years ago.

MMA, which resembles kinetic chess, has tested every fiber of her being. During the 2019 and 2021 seasons, she dominated the lightweight division of the Professional Fighters League (PFL) twice, collecting the $1 million reward.

As the betting community grows within professional MMA, utilizing a BetMGM Massachusetts bonus code isn’t unusual. However, in Harrison’s case, she’s evolved into one of the most profitable female MMA fighters in the realm of sports wagering.

With a 90% win rate, as of December 2023, Harrison has competed on 16 occasions for the PFL, winning 15 of said bouts behind a 77% finish rate. To say she’s perfectly transitioned from Judo to MMA would be an understatement.

The Ronda Rousey Blueprint

The legendary UFC fighter Ronda Rousey also contributed to Harrison’s journey. She became the first female champion of the UFC and the first female icon of MMA following her transition from judo.

Harrison said: “We spoke briefly after my second Olympics (2016). She was still with Strikeforce then, and I remember her messaging me saying, ‘My boss is following your career,’ meaning [Bellator president] Scott Coker.

“The number one thing she always told me was that if I ever did MMA, I would need a thicker skin. She was very right.”

Ronda was, of course, referring to the savagery sometimes displayed by the MMA fan base. Champion or not, wins or losses, fight fans will always find faults and aren’t scared to share an opinion. For example, despite Harrison’s huge success in the cage, fans are calling for super fights versus the likes of Cris Cyborg or Amanda Nunes before giving the former Judoka a position as an all-time great.

That said, with the adversity Harrison has dealt with during her combat sports career, the distasteful opinions haven’t affected her thus far, evidenced by the emphatic performances she continues to deliver, fight in, and fight out.

With two PFL tournament wins under her belt, equalling $2 million in prize money, and a 15-1 record for the promotion, what remains for the 33-year-old? Only time will tell, but whatever the future holds, it’ll likely involve success because that’s precisely what her career has projected over the last decade.

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