Kayla Harrison still hopes to get in cage with Cyborg

It’s not a stretch to say Kayla Harrison‘s entire MMA career may have changed last Saturday, as she looked on from a hotel bedroom.

Harrison (3-0) was in New York last week for a lightweight fight against Moriel Charneski on the PFL’s New Year’s Eve card. A two-time Olympic gold medalist in judo, Harrison finished the bout via TKO, capping off an impressive debut year in professional fighting.

Two days before that fight, Harrison watched Amanda Nunes‘ spectacular 51-second knockout against Cris “Cyborg” Justino at UFC 232 from her New York hotel.

The result opened a floodgate of emotions for Harrison. She trains with Nunes at American Top Team in Florida, so in that respect she was thrilled. But at the same time, there was a feeling of loss. From the moment Harrison transitioned to MMA, Cyborg has been her target.

“I’m really happy for Amanda, but part of me — my villain is gone now, kind of,” Harrison told ESPN. “That’s always been the difference between me and [fellow Olympic judoka] Ronda Rousey. She never wanted to fight Cyborg. I was always like, ‘I can’t wait to fight Cyborg.’

“The next day, I don’t want to say it affected me, but I was a little crestfallen. The hardest part is, the trajectory of my career probably just changed, and I didn’t do a damn thing, you know? I was sitting in a hotel room when everything changed.”

Harrison, 28, has been fighting professionally only since June, but her name has already been linked to Justino’s from time to time.

Even though they’re not even signed to the same organization, an eventual fight has always felt possible, if not likely. Prior to UFC 232, Justino hadn’t lost in 21 consecutive bouts. She’s been physically bigger than nearly every opponent she’s fought at 145 pounds, but Harrison fights comfortably at 155 pounds.

Justino has said her UFC contract expires in March, and Harrison remains hopeful she could sign with the PFL — even if some of the luster of the matchup is gone.

“The UFC, for whatever reason, I don’t think they like Cyborg,” Harrison said. “I think they wanted Amanda to win. I don’t know the history, but from what I hear, they wanted this to happen and Cyborg might not have a contract come March.

“I still think it would be awesome to fight her. One loss in 10 years doesn’t make her a dud. She’s still a complete wrecking machine. That was the greatest women’s fight of all time, and it kind of pisses me off it was overshadowed by so much stupidity and drama last week. I think the only thing that makes sense for her right now is a rematch with Amanda, but of course I would still fight her. No matter what, I would fight her.”

Harrison is scheduled to be a part of the PFL’s $1 million season format in 2019, in a 155-pound division. Harrison is aware there’s been some criticism around that announcement, basically because there are very few established female lightweights for her to fight.

But after watching an indestructible woman she’s targeted since the beginning fall in 51 seconds, Harrison is focusing only on what she can control.

“Listen, I’m not blind,” Harrison said. “I understand there is a lack of female fighters at this point in time. But if you never start building it, you’ll never have it. I can’t believe it took this long to even get the ball rolling.

“A lot of people say, ‘Oh, she’s just gonna fight nobodies.’ When I talk to my coaches and boyfriend [UFC welterweight Tony Martin], they’re like, ‘Kayla, you can only fight who they put in front of you.’ It’s my job to go out and put on a show and win. And I’m going to try to do it as spectacular as possible.”

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