Olympic judo champion Kayla Harrison is all in on transition to MMA

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL AUGUST 11, 2016-U.S. judo competitor Kayla Harrison takes down China’s Zhehui
Kayla Harrison takes down China’s Zhehui Zhang at the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympics on Aug. 11.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

When UFC President Dana White created the women’s 145-pound featherweight division that staged its first title fight in February, he expressed no concern about how the talent depth would materialize.

The most promising of those positioned to ultimately contend for the belt now belonging to champion Germaine de Randamie is American two-time Olympic judo champion Kayla Harrison.

Harrison, 26, is currently training in Boston as part of a six-month camp to bridge her transition from judo to mixed martial arts fighter.

“MMA is more of a lonely journey, but every day I’m getting more comfortable, feeling better,” Harrison told the Los Angeles Times in a recent telephone interview. “It’s tough to go from doing one discipline, focusing on being the best in that for 20 years of my life, to doing all these other things to transition from what I have a strong base in.


“It’s all exciting, but it’s very hard.”

Harrison has proven with her consecutive gold medals that she doesn’t shy from strenuous work. Now three months into her regimen, she trains in boxing and Muay Thai and wrestles while remaining committed to a strength and conditioning program that intends to cut her judo fighting weight of 172 pounds to a walking-around weight of 155 pounds by July.

“I’m just focused on training hard for six months and then re-evaluate and see where I am,” Harrison said. “If I choose to do MMA after this, my goal is to be the best at it. And I want to be where the best fighters are.”

For now, that transition plan has her committed to a four-fight deal that was signed with the World Series of Fighting before UFC created its 145-pound division that includes former bantamweight champion Holly Holm and dominant former Invicta champion Cris “Cyborg” Justino.


Harrison’s Southland-based manager, Ali Abdel-Aziz, said starting in the World Series of Fighting was a measured decision.

“The priority now is to work and get experience. She’s always had that strategy. She’s won two golds, so we know her work ethic is second to none,” Abdel-Aziz said. “We did the right move. The UFC is not the place for us to learn. World Series of Fighting is a great place to show her talents. They’ve taken care of her, given her a great deal.”

Of course, it’s hard not to project that Harrison will one day be involved in major bouts inside the UFC octagon just as her former year-long training partner, Ronda Rousey, was.

Abdel-Aziz said Harrison once told him, “I love beating up people. I love punching people in the face,” causing him to conclude, “She’s got it, man.”


Harrison’s seriousness in devoting time to the other fighting disciplines is rooted in her own MMA observations, after watching how the UFC women advanced their skills so quickly from the time when Rousey dominated with her judo armbars following her 2013 debut to the December date when bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes knocked out Rousey in less than a minute.

“I have to have a more complex game,” Harrison said. “Judo is my strength, but being able to have a good defense, offense, being able to take a punch, to create angles, are things I have to develop.

“Even the little things like head movement … it’s something you don’t do in judo because no one’s trying to punch you in the face. These are things I need to pick up, so I’m prepared that first time I step in the cage. The good news is I’m a fast learner and I honestly feel I was born to fight. I watch all these guys [training], and the thing I think is most important is that I bring that professional mentality. I don’t take days off. It’s a level of professionalism that will translate and help me transition to MMA because I pick up everything fast. It’s such an exciting time for me now.”

The World Series of Fighting hasn’t yet set a debut fight date for Harrison.


Diagnosed previously with hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), her challenge now is finding comfort and health while trimming to 155 pounds in preparation for the final weigh-in cut.

“I told them from the beginning I want to train hard for a year and see how fast I can pick everything up. Everything’s right on schedule,” Harrison said. “We’ll get to 155 walking around by July and see how I feel.

“There are so many girls out there who haven’t fought because there hasn’t been a division. Women’s judo is so competitive because there’s so many divisions (seven). And now that’s starting to be the case in MMA.”



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