Kayla Harrison’s victory tears hadn’t yet dried. The national anthem hadn’t played and she hadn’t received the judo gold medal she won Thursday before answering the question she knew was coming.
“I know you all want to know if I’m going to MMA or not,” said Harrison, whose title at 78 kilograms (172 pounds) made her the first two-time Olympic champion in U.S. judo history. “But tonight I’m just going to live in the moment, be Olympic champion. And tomorrow I’ll decide what my future holds.”
If that future includes the mixed martial arts, it’s one that probably would include a number of multi-million-dollar fights. Ronda Rousey, Harrison’s former training partner, became the best-known, best-paid athlete in the sport after winning a bronze in Olympic judo eight years ago.
Harrison has two golds plus a telegenic smile, outsize personality and emotional back story after overcoming sexual abuse at the hands of her first coach. It’s a compelling package.
What she doesn’t have is a future in judo after formally announcing her retirement from the sport in the wake of her victory against Audrey Tcheumeo of France in the gold-medal match.
“Two-time Olympic champion,” Harrison said with obvious relief. “That’s it.”
There were few peaks Harrison, 26, failed to climb during a 10-year international judo career. In addition to her Olympic titles, she won a world championship and four Pan American championships, spending much of the last four years ranked No. 1 in the world.
“It’s been probably the longest four years of my life,” she said. “I fought with a separated shoulder, I fought with a fever, I fought with knee pain, I fought with hand pain. There were a lot of moments when I didn’t want to practice and I didn’t want to go get the crap kicked out of me.”
But her coaches, Jimmy Pedro and his father Jim, wouldn’t let her quit.
“We put her through hell,” said Jimmy Pedro, who earned Olympic bronze medals in 1996 and 2004, making him the only U.S. judoka other than Harrison to climb the podium in multiple Olympics. “But she just kept getting stronger and stronger.”
The huge gap between Harrison and the rest of the world was evident Thursday when she rolled through the Olympic field, winning all four of her fights — including the final against the No. 2 judoka in the world — by ippon, a dominant move or hold that immediately ends a match.
Referring to her coaches, she said, “They pushed me to the point where, when I showed up today, I knew that I had worked harder than everyone. No one was going to take it away from me because the misery and the pain, I had to have done it for something.”
Off the mat, Harrison has launched a number of endeavors that she says need her attention. She started a company, signed with a management firm, landed several endorsement deals and started a foundation to support survivors of childhood sexual abuse.
And then there’s mixed martial arts. Harrison said that she has already received offers from several MMA organizations she declined to identify. But it’s no secret that UFC is eager to add Harrison to a growing stable of fighters that includes Rousey, former boxer Holly Holm, former wrestler Miesha Tate and Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino.
Harrison currently fights at 165 pounds, 30 pounds over the heaviest women’s weight class in UFC, though she started her international judo career at 138 pounds. UFC might be willing to meet her halfway since the organization has talked of adding a 145-pound division for Justino, who has struggled to get her weight below that.
Adding Harrison at that weight would create a natural rivalry.
So will it happen? Harrison playfully said she wasn’t ready to answer that question Thursday.
“Maybe a month from now. Let me sit on the beach for a while,” she said before turning introspective.
“No matter what, my judo legacy is fulfilled,” she continued. “I’m happy with my career and now it’s time to go and continue to have a legacy off the mat and try to change the world.”
Staff writer Lance Pugmire contributed to this report.