Rivalries are what make professional sports so great. They increase fan interest, they often spur athletes to raise their games to previously unheralded heights and they create the highlights we remember for a lifetime.
Jack Nicklaus was greater because of the towering presence of Arnold Palmer. Muhammad Ali was pushed to raise his game by Joe Frazier. And Justin Gatlin’s greatness helped spur Usain Bolt to become the best sprinter in history.
So it’s fair to wonder who that rival is for Kayla Harrison. The two-time PFL champion, who opens her pursuit of a third PFL lightweight title on Saturday in London when she meets Martina Jindrova.
That rival almost certainly won’t be Jindrova, as Harrison is roughly a 50-1 favorite to improve her record to 15-0.
It could be Cris Cyborg, the reigning Bellator and former UFC featherweight champion who is the only fighter other than UFC champion Amanda Nunes whom the oddsmakers would give even a remote chance of defeating Harrison.
PFL co-founder Donn Davis tweeted that he’d offer each fighter $1 million to show with the winner getting an additional $2 million to make a Harrison-Cyborg fight. Cyborg expressed doubts about Harrison’s ability to sell a PPV, so Harrison went to Twitter to say she’d fight winner take all.
It’s far from a given that fight gets made, so Harrison dominates an organization that has no one close to being a worthy match for her.
But Harrison, who is a two-time Olympic gold medalist, has accepted the situation and is willing to be patient until a legitimate rival develops who could provide the big fight she wants, and needs, to prove her greatness.
“The problem with MMA is there’s all these different promotions,” Harrison said. “There’s all these different organizations. There’s all these banners that you can compete under. In judo, we have an international governing body. And there’s a world ranking list. And that’s it. There’s no, ‘Oh, well, we're going to be the world international.’ There’s no ifs, ands, or buts about it. There’s one international body.
“So of course I would prefer that. I would love that. I would love it. There’s just no choice. You have to fight me. But that’s not the reality. That’s not the case. This is also an entertainment. And this is a business. This isn’t sport in the purest form. This is a business. So it’s just something I have to deal with. And I think that I'm dealing with it my way, the best way that I can. I’m doing my job. I'm doing my part. And my hope is to fight the best while they’re the best.”
As dominant as Harrison has been in her 14-0 run, she knows she has room to improve. She’s still a work in progress, as scary as that may sound for some of her competitors.
So her challenge largely is to compete against herself and see if she’s better at doing things now than she was before. Because if she can continue to improve, eventually, the career-defining fight will emerge from the shadows. It almost always does.
And then Harrison will be able to prove she’s not just beating up on a group of inept, overmatched opponents but is that once-in-a-lifetime athlete who happens to dominate a sport.
“I’m always growing, I’m always changing, I’m always adapting and learning and getting better,” Harrison said. “And you’re absolutely right. It's a very exciting time to be an MMA fighter. Like you said, there are people who have just been training MMA from the start. And the beautiful thing now is there are also coaches. You don't have a jiu-jitsu coach and a wrestling coach. You have an MMA coach who did MMA, who fought in MMA. So it's a really exciting time for the sport. And I think that I’m ready. I think that I am an MMA fighter now.
My coach, Mike [Brown] always used to joke, ‘Once you’re 5-0, you’re a veteran of the sport.’ And I’m like, ‘Are you crazy? You know how many judo matches I had before I felt like a veteran?’ But yeah, at a certain point, you have to own it and accept it and say, ‘You know what? I’m a fighter. I’m a fighter.”
The world is slowly learning that. And on Saturday in London, Jindrova will learn that, too.