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Kayla Harrison is a bona fide American sporting legend. She was the first person from the United States ever to win an Olympic gold medal in judo, doing so in the London 2012 games then, four years later, she gained her second gold medal in Rio before moving into the world of MMA, where she remains undefeated with a record of 10-0-0.
Now, Harrison finds herself in a similar position to where she was at before Rio. On Aug. 19, the mixed martial arts superstar will fight to defend her Professional Fighters League championship and earn her second, $1 million prize purse in the process.
Muscle & Fitness sat down for an exclusive interview with Harrison to find out how she is adjusting to family life, how she approaches the ups and downs of her career, and just how she might spend those winnings.
So, what’s tougher, winning a title for the first time or defending it? “The first Olympics was tough, because no one had done it, you know? It was the unthinkable,” says Harrison. “The ‘am I capable of this’ aspect of it was definitely hard. Then the second time, I think there is even more pressure, if that’s possible, because you have a target on your back. So, they are both different but both equally as hard.”
Moving into MMA from judo, there have been calls for her current sporting discipline to be added to the Olympic Games. On whether Harrison would like to see this happen, she supports the idea, but appreciates that there may be some adjustments required. “First of all, for MMA to be an Olympic sport, you must have one unified set of rules and one world governing body,” she says. “To get everyone in MMA to all agree on one set of rules is going to be a challenge. And then, because of the brutality, it would have to be more amateur based because the injuries that you take in MMA and the damage you sustain are very difficult unless you have head gear and shin guards, and bigger gloves, or something like that.”
Before winning her first gold medal, Harrison was brave enough to share that she had been the victim of sexual abuse, perpetrated by a former judo coach. Now, at age 31, she is learning to draw on life experiences to keep moving forward whenever things get tough. “I think, because of my life story, and because of the ups and downs, I’ve learned that life is a rollercoaster,” says Middletown, OH native. “And, I think that this helps with the bad times and the down times, and the times where I want to quit, or when I feel like I suck, or the times when I just don’t know how I’m gonna get through this. The bad times don’t last forever. The good times don’t either, but it gives me courage to know that nothing I go through now will ever be harder than what I went through when I was 16 or 17. That mental toughness carries me through.”
Like many elite athletes, Harrison is finding comfort in realizing that sport does not define her. “As I’ve gotten older, and as I’ve become a mother and my life has changed … at the end of the day, I love what I do, I’m obsessed with it, I want to be the best in the world, but a fight is just a fight,” says Harrison.
To be a great champion in any sport requires tremendous discipline, and for Harrison, an example was set at an early age because her mom was a black belt in judo. Still, in 2019, Harrison took on an entirely new challenge when she became full-time guardian to her niece Kyla and nephew Emery, but thankfully her fuller household is happy to take on the rigors of the daily grind.
“I feel like a big part of my life, and the kids’ life, is routine,” says Harrison. “I grew up in a routine. I woke every morning, I’d make my bed, I got my clothes ready the night before, for school, and as I got older, I woke up every morning and went for a run or I lifted. Afterward, I would have either cross-country practice, or wrestling practice, or strength and conditioning, and then I would go from there to judo, doing my homework in the car, then come home, sleep, repeat, and do it all over again.
“My kids are no different, Kyla has tutoring and physical therapy, and she has gymnastics. Emery also goes to gymnastics and we all go to church every Sunday. So, I’m a big believer in routine and discipline… I eat good so that they want to eat good. I try and lead by example.”
Now fighting in the 155-pound category, Harrison feels comfortable at this weight. She doesn’t feel the need to do portion control or track macros at this stage of her career, instead preferring to listen to her body. “When I’m getting close to a fight, around three weeks out, I start to clean it up,” says Harrison. “No more pizza, no more ice cream and stuff like that. I eat as much as I want, but just really good, wholesome food. Nothing processed. Simple and straightforward proteins with lots of veggies and fruits if I feel like I need the sugar, and that’s it. I also have single mom status, so I eat when I can [laughs], but I think I have got it down to a science, and my body feels really good. nutrition is definitely something that I have taken more seriously as I have got older. When you are 20 years old, you recover easily, no matter what, versus when you are 30 years old and you just don’t recover the same. So, nutrition is a big part of recovery.”
— ESPN MMA (@espnmma) June 26, 2021
In her post-fight victory interviews on ESPN, Harrison has expressed her belief that she is unbeatable, but don’t mistake her self-confidence for cockiness. “You can call it cocky, you can call it whatever you want, but I just believe in myself,” she says. “I know how hard I work; I know the effort that I put in, I know my capabilities and now that I have become a confident fighter, I am a dangerous fighter and I think that when I do everything right, and I put all those pieces together, I am unstoppable. If people think that’s cocky, that’s fine. I wouldn’t tell you not to chase your dreams or believe in yourself.”
So, when Harrison is done snapping necks in the 2021 PFL Championship, where will she cash those checks? “We grew up very poor, so I don’t live very flashy, I stay in my lane, or probably the lane below, just to be safe (laughs), and I try to teach the kids that money can’t buy happiness, what we have is enough, we have each other and our health, but after the PFL finals, I’ll probably take the kids to Disney Land or something.”
After MMA, what’s next? Would the combat legend ever consider following in Ronda Rousey’s boots and entering the pro wrestling ring? “My agent talked to WWE after the  Olympics, and now I have kids so I am not sure if that’s something that I would do,” says Harrison. “But maybe for a special appearance, or guest appearances. I’ll come and knock some WWE girls out, no problem.”