Kayla Harrison explains why she cried frustrated tears after her last victory and the pressures of being a perfectionist
The most indelible moment from the first three events of the 2019 Professional Fighters League season isn’t a highlight-reel knockout, though there have been several of them. It’s not a chaotic back-and-forth fight or an entertaining post-fight celebration either.
Thus far, the moment that has resonated the most came at the end of the opening event of the year following Kayla Harrison’s unanimous decision victory over UFC vet Larissa Pacheco.
Despite earning a clean sweep of the scorecards in her toughest test to date, the two-time Olympic gold medalist left the cage in tears, stopping on the path to the dressing rooms to share an emotional embrace with one of her coaches. If you had simply seen that moment – a fighter walking to the back, sobbing heavy, frustrated tears – there is no chance you would have gathered that the athlete in question had just earned the biggest win of her career.
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But that is what makes Harrison different than her contemporaries and one of the most promising up-and-coming talents in the sport today.
“It’s not a secret that I’m a perfectionist and a Type-A personality,” said Harrison, speaking with Sporting News in advance of her return to the cage on Thursday about her emotional reaction to her last performance. “I’m an Olympic-level athlete and have been for years. I’ve always been my own toughest critic and I know that it was a dominant performance, that I did well, but I didn’t do good enough to my standard, so I was upset.”
The clip went viral and received the kind of responses one would expect in the current social media climate.
Most read the situation completely wrong, casting Harrison as a poor winner, who wept because she didn’t earn another stoppage win. Many compared her to Ronda Rousey, the former UFC women’s bantamweight champion who matriculated to the sport following her own Olympic judo success, but exited after consecutive knockout losses, both of which left her in tears, refusing to show her face in public, yet alone speak with the media.
The comparison is obvious, but lazy and misguided, as Harrison was at the podium following the event, addressing her performance and the tears everyone saw on SportsCenter.
“I think a lot of people were quick to say, ‘This is the next Ronda – look at her; she’s such a baby blah blah blah,’ but it has nothing to do with being a baby or being a poor sport,” said Harrison, who steps back into the cage on Thursday to face Morgan Frier in her second regular-season appearance of the year. “I have nothing against my competitor – she did great, she had a good game plan, she was smart – I just didn’t fight up to my standard of what I expect from myself.
“If people don’t like that or think that I’m a baby because of it – I’m not crying because I’m upset; I’m crying because I want to be better. I’m upset because I want to be the best; that’s it. That insatiable desire to go out and impose my will on an opponent is not something I can explain to people.
“I am who I am; I don’t apologize for it,” she added. “I want to be the best; that’s it.”
Harrison currently exists in a very rare, very difficult to navigate space.
She is both an undeniable talent and MMA novice at the same time; an athlete with an incredible pedigree who was cast as one of the faces of the Professional Fighters League before she ever stepped into the cage, but one that also happens to be just four fights into her professional career.
Her world-class athletic background, Olympic achievements and clear upside, paired with following a similar trail to the one Rousey blazed several years earlier set the bar extremely high for Harrison before she’d even made her professional debut and has a way of obscuring the other truths about the American Top Team product, namely that she just passed the one-year anniversary of her professional debut and has spent just over 30 minutes in the cage through her first four fights.
“I’m not seasoned. I’m not a vet. I’m not a pro in that sense of the word yet,” said Harrison, who earned stoppage victories over Brittney Elkin, Jozette Cotton and Moriel Charneski prior to her decision win over Pacheco in May on Long Island. “I think I’m professional and I carry myself that way and I can deal with everything that comes at me in a professional manner, but it’s different in learning to tie it all together and fight the way I want to fight is still something (I’m working on).
“Everyone is toting me as the next big thing and I like that pressure and I welcome that pressure, but it is pressure and people expect me to go out and be this well-rounded, dominant monster – and I want that too – but the reality is that I’m not even close to my potential yet,” she added. “I’m still learning. I’m still growing. I’m still adapting. I’m still figuring it out.”
That’s the piece people should be focusing on and thinking about, especially when combined with tears of frustration that flowed following her decision win over Pacheco, whose two previous losses came against future UFC champions Jessica Andrade and Germaine de Randamie.
Four fights into her career and while still in the process of figuring out what kind of fighter she is going to be, the two-time Olympic gold medal-winning judo player dominated a 13-fight veteran who holds a stoppage win over rising UFC contender Irene Aldana and was previously only beaten by eventual titleholders.
Now think about how good she’s going to be when she actually figures out what kind of fighter she wants to be and how to put everything together properly.
“Look, I’m a beginner,” began Harrison. “I spent 20 years doing the same thing every single day, over and over and over again and I got really, really good at it and I had a lot of confidence and I really, truly believed I was the best in the world at what I did.
“Now I’m back to that beginner phase, but I’m not six years old. I’m not fearless because when you’re young, you go out there, you do it and you don’t care. I’m not that anymore. I’m a 29-year-old woman – I have fears, I have doubts, I have insecurities, I question if this is my calling and what if I’m just a great judo player and I’m not meant to be in a cage? What if I don’t have what it takes?
“But I love that challenge. I love putting myself in an uncomfortable position. I love feeling that. Being fearless isn’t not being afraid, it’s saying, ‘Despite that, I’m going to go put myself in this scary position where everyone expects me to be this star and be amazing or wants to watch me fail.’ I want to grow and I want to be the best version of myself inside and outside of the cage. I truly believe that I’m meant for something special.”
Harrison was never going to be “The Next Ronda Rousey” because Rousey an anomaly – a rare talent who submitted current Bellator featherweight champion Julia Budd in her fourth professional fight and won the Strikeforce women’s bantamweight title the fifth time she stepped into the cage as a professional.
She was a glitch in The Matrix, like Jon Jones was when he ascended to the top of the light heavyweight division as a precocious 23-year-old dripping with natural talent, oblivious to the fact that what he was doing seemed both preposterous and preordained at the same time.
That being said, all the pieces are there for Harrison to be a great fighter – she works with a great team and surrounded by seasoned, experienced coaches; is a truly world-class athlete who has shown the ability to excel at the highest levels; plus she wants to be great and has the work ethic, drive and desire to make that happen.
But it takes time and Harrison isn’t in a hurry because she knows how good she could be and is willing to do whatever it takes to reach her goals, even if that means crying after a victory that would have made the rest of the field in this year’s women’s lightweight season ecstatic.
“There is nowhere for me to go but up,” she said. “I’m not going to get worse. I’m not going to get slower. I’m not going to get tired or burnt out. I love what I do and I get to wake up every day and go and try to get better and better and better at it, so it’s a scary concept if you think about it because I’m just hungry.
“I’m starting to get comfortable. I’m starting to get a groove. I’m starting to know what I mean when I say, ‘This is going to be my style’ or ‘this is how I want to approach this.’ I’m starting to get it. Things are starting to click. I’m getting comfortable with being a fighter, not just being a judo player.
“S–t – that’s scary.”
Yes, yes it is.
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