Kayla Harrison 1-on-1 with Kevin Iole

PFL champion Kayla Harrison joins Yahoo Sports' Kevin Iole to discuss her reign as the "Queen of the PFL," the biggest problem with mixed martial arts and to preview her Aug. 20 fight versus Martina Jindrova.

Video transcript


KEVIN IOLE: Hey, folks. I am Kevin Iole. Welcome to Yahoo SportS. And I have with me Kayla Harrison. I don't know what to call her the queen of the PFL. She runs through this thing. 14 and 0, 20 for 20 in takedowns, two time PFL champion, starting the playoffs on August 20 against Martina Jindrova. Kayla, how are you doing?

KAYLA HARRISON: I'm good. I'm good. How are you?

KEVIN IOLE: I'm doing great. I guess I was saying before we started recording, I should call you the star of "Impractical Jokers." So obviously, you've got a little side work in addition to beating people up for a living.

KAYLA HARRISON: Well, no, I just beat someone up on TV for that one. No cage involved. But I've done a lot of living in my 32 years, I guess.

KEVIN IOLE: Apparently. When you go out and do those kind of things outside of your normal realm, do you think that that has an impact on your fan base? Does it build your fan base? Does that make your brand better?

KAYLA HARRISON: For sure. I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt. I make this joke all the time, but I'm partially serious that any male from the age of like 12 to 60, they all comment and say, oh, I was lost you throw Merv through a table. I know you're from college. That's what nine out of 10 fans come up and say to me, I know you from college, because it was a line from the show. So for sure, it helps my fan base and my brand, I guess.

KEVIN IOLE: Now, I guess one of the things that maybe doesn't help your brand-- and it's got to be annoying. And I think it's an elephant in the room anytime anybody talks about you. Usually when people interview you, I see interviews, they're talking about fights of people outside the PFL or not inside the PFL. And that's a compliment to you, I guess, as people think you're such a dominant fighter. But how difficult is it for you because you're answering questions about fighters that you're not going to fight? And you even have some of those fighters acting like you're ducking them. That's a funny position to be in. How do you deal with it?

KAYLA HARRISON: I mean, to be honest with you, I spend as little time as possible thinking about it because I have come to the conclusion that I have to control the controllable. What can I control in my career? I can control how I prepare, I can control how I perform inside the cage.

But I can't control what a promotion's going to do I can't. Control what another girl is going to do. I can't control what the fans are going to think or say. I can't control any of that. So I just keep my head down. I work hard. And my goal is to prove to everyone I am who I say I am.

KEVIN IOLE: We have at Yahoo Sports as number two pound-for-pound. And a lot of people agree with that. But I also get a lot of people who say, well, who has she ever beaten? And I guess that's the one argument, that you haven't fought a girl that's been considered at that kind of level, right?


KEVIN IOLE: So do you find that feeling of accomplishment? When you won your gold medals, you know you're beating the best judo players in the world, right?


KEVIN IOLE: You have to get it in the gym in MMA because you haven't fought that kind of competition in the PFL or anywhere that would match your skill?

KAYLA HARRISON: I mean, I think that there's a lot of different-- the problem with MMA is there's all these different promotions, right? 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.

And that's a huge honor for you guys to put me there. I don't think I'm there yet. I tend to agree and be sort of my own harshest critic. So slow and steady.

If you keep working at it, if you believe in yourself, if you surround yourself with people who believe in you, it'll come.

KEVIN IOLE: I don't know if this is the right word to use, but I'm going to use it. And maybe you can correct me. When you came out of the Olympics and kind of stuck your toe in MMA, I think you were reticent to fight at first, right? You were going to announce at the World Series of Fighting that you might fight, you might not fight.

So how has your perception of the sport and your love for the sport changed from those early days when they kind of were trying to drag you in to now, where you're kind of one of the faces of women's MMA?

KAYLA HARRISON: Oh, I mean, I've done a complete 180, I think it's safe to say. I was very vocal. A lot of MMA journalists like to point out in my post-fight press conference, in my post-competition press conference at the Olympics, I said, MMA is not for me and it's this.

KEVIN IOLE: I was there.

KAYLA HARRISON: It's that. Yeah, yeah, so you know. I was very anti-MMA.


And I'm a big enough person. I can admit when I'm wrong. And I was wrong. I think that I wasn't wrong about some things. But the martial art aspect of it, the pursuit of your personal best aspect of it, I am absolutely in love with. I'm more in love with than I was with judo.

I love what I do every day. I get to show up, train with people that I really enjoy being around, learn new things every day. I'm a black belt and a white belt all at the same time. I get to get better. There's no burnout. It's really a beautiful thing. And I feel really blessed to get to do what I do every day.

The other aspect of it, selling a fight or promoting yourself or being a business or being a brand, that part not so much. But I'm learning to deal with it and learning to come to terms with that part of the sport.

KEVIN IOLE: You weren't-- there was a lot of people making a lot of money out of the Olympic movement but not the athletes. So you guys were not getting--

KAYLA HARRISON: I mean, I think that's the other thing. With age comes the realization that everything is not as it seems. And although the Olympics is a multibillion-dollar industry, and although I did it for the pure reasons-- I didn't do it to be famous. I didn't do it for money I didn't do it to be on a Wheaties box or whatever.

A lot of people make a lot of money off the Olympics. So I guess there's good and bad in everything. I haven't found something on this Earth yet that is completely-- except maybe my kids. But other than that, you've got to take the good with the bad.

KEVIN IOLE: So as you've gotten into MMA-- right now, I think one of the great things about the sport is we have fighters coming into the major promotions now who started training as MMA fighters when they were six or seven years old. They weren't judo players or boxers or wrestlers. They were MMA fighters from the beginning.

And to me, that's raised the level of the sport. And it's forced athletes like you to adapt and adjust because you have to add those other elements to your game. Do you feel like you're at the point now-- you referenced before, you don't think you're ready for maybe pound-for-pound. But do you feel like you are a complete MMA fighter at this point? Or do you still have a ways to go to get there?

KAYLA HARRISON: I mean, there's always room for improvement. I'm always growing. I'm always changing. I'm always adapting and learning and getting better. And you're absolutely right. It's a very exciting time to be an MMA fighter. I think a couple--

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 jujitsu 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 always used to joke, once you're 5 and 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.

KEVIN IOLE: It's interesting. You referenced judo. And I was looking at your judo record. And I don't know if this was complete. But I saw at one point your record was 2 and 2. And if that was the case-- most people would think of somebody of your ilk, a two time gold medalist, a two time PFL champion, hey, you're going to run through people, right? But you had that learning period and that adjustment period--

KAYLA HARRISON: Oh, my gosh.

KEVIN IOLE: --at the highest level too, right? And I guess we don't see those struggles in the sunshine. But that has to buoy you as you go forward.

KAYLA HARRISON: That's what I talk about a lot. I had the luxury of making mistakes off-camera, so to speak. No one cared about judo in the United States. You'd go to a tournament, and there's 10 people in the crowd. And no one cared. That was it. If you won, if you lost, if you cried, if you didn't cry--

I had the luxury of making a lot of mistakes in my judo career. And I wasn't initially successful. When I do public speaking, I talk to young kids. And I tell them, I started judo when I was six years old. And a year later, I went to my first competition. And 15 seconds in, I was flat on my back. And then I went to another tournament.

And 30 seconds later, I was flat on my back. And I went to another tournament. And I lasted a whole minute. And I went to another tournament and another tournament. I didn't win a judo match as a child like the first three years.


KAYLA HARRISON: So I was not good. [LAUGHS] And even when I started competing internationally, it wasn't-- I had talent. I had potential. But I lost on the biggest stage in the world multiple times. I've only won the World Champions once, but I competed in it many times.

But those were all valuable lessons for me. The failure was my fuel. And learning how to deal with the loss, learning how to grow in the midst of struggle was big for me, big in my growth as an athlete and as a person.

KEVIN IOLE: When I watch your fights now, I think you have an advantage that maybe you don't think about. And I compare it to Mike Tyson, where, to a lot of fighters, he intimidated them. And before the fight started, mentally they were broken, because there's no way I can beat this woman, right? And I seemed like I wonder if you sense that, that there are some opponents that you have fought in the past that, going in occasionally, eh, I'm not sure I can beat this woman, so let me just get out of here safe?

KAYLA HARRISON: Hmm. There's probably an element of that to it. I don't bank on that. I don't assume anyone is afraid of me. I mean, look, they sign on the dotted line. They sign up to get in a cage and lock the door. So they've got to be a little bit batshit crazy. We all are. Just, it comes with the territory. Every time I get in that cage, I think, what the hell am I doing? I am absolutely insane.

But I would be afraid to fight me, god. I would, for sure.

KEVIN IOLE: Yeah, with good reason.

Now, I was looking at Martina's stats compared to your stats and the Cagenomics that the PFL puts out with all the punch speed and everything. So of course, she has a little bit higher punch velocity than you do.

The one thing that struck me about the stats was were 20 for 20 in takedowns, which is remarkable. Nobody--

KAYLA HARRISON: I didn't know that stat until you said it in the beginning.

KEVIN IOLE: 20 for 20. And she's 0 for 0. So I look at this, and I go well, MMA, it's who gets to fight where they want to get it. How can she possibly defeat you if you're going to be able to put her on her back?

KAYLA HARRISON: Well, I mean, I don't think she can if I put her on her back. I think her goal is to keep the fight standing. And everyone has a puncher's chance. People love to say I've never been hit. I've never been hit. And I'm like, well, you've never seen my sparring.


It's exactly like you said. It's all about who's going to instill their will. Who's going to implement their game plan to the best of their ability and win that battle? And who's going to prepare properly? I think that she's young in her career.

I think that no matter what you do, you only have eight weeks to prepare.


KAYLA HARRISON: And even though she's probably been getting better, probably been working, there's no amount of sprawls. You can't get that much better in eight weeks. It's impossible. So my job is to go out there and instill my will, to be smart, to be patient, to take my time, to pick my shot. But make no mistake about it. The game plan doesn't change, take them down and beat them up.

KEVIN IOLE: One of the things that I've sensed in MMA, like back when Ronda Rousey fought Miesha Tate the second time especially, it was like, hey, Miesha was tough, Miesha was a really good fighter. But you saw a difference in an Olympic athlete to a high school athlete. And that seemed to me-- and it's not that every Olympic medalist comes into MMA and wins a championship. But you see that level of athleticism gives them that edge.

And you have that kind of athleticism. I mean, you have that pedigree and that athleticism. So do you go into your fights thinking, hey, if I don't make mistakes, this should be mine because of your pedigree?

KAYLA HARRISON: No because I wouldn't even argue that I'm the best athlete in the PFL in the women's division.

KEVIN IOLE: Who is then? If not you, who?

KAYLA HARRISON: I mean, I think that when you look at raw talent and athleticism, I think that Larissa has me beat there. But one thing that she doesn't have--

KEVIN IOLE: Larissa Pacheco?

KAYLA HARRISON: Yeah, Pacheco, yep. She doesn't have that dog. She doesn't have that indomitable spirit. I do believe in my mental toughness and my ability to dig deep above all. That is what I believe will win me fights, not my athleticism, not my gifts but the ability to dig deep.

I guess that is a gift that God gave me. I have this will. And I can't be broken.

KEVIN IOLE: But that goes back to what you said before then because in your judo journey as you were losing these tournaments early and everything, you developed that. So maybe it's not something God gave you, it's something that God showed you how to keep pushing through, right?

KAYLA HARRISON: For sure. For sure. I think that everyone has a choice. We all have choices we make every day with our circumstances. And you can choose to be done, to walk away, to say no, to quit. I mean, I can't tell you how many times in my life I've wanted to quit and I've wanted to give up and I've wanted to walk away.

And I mean, not even just from sport, from life. We're talking about-- we're beyond sport at this point. We're talking about--

KEVIN IOLE: --your life, yeah.

KAYLA HARRISON: Yeah. And that is why I know nothing in the cage will ever defeat me because I have been to rock bottom, because I have been to the darkest places, because I've been at the lowest of the low. I know there is something inside of me that doesn't give up. There's a little voice, there's a little whatever you want to call it. There's that thing. I have that thing. And I believe in that thing more than anything else.

And maybe I lose. Some day, maybe I lose. Maybe I get knocked out. Maybe I get whatever, ragdolled. Let's say that I'm not as great as I think I am. Do you think that that will stop me? Do you think that will deter me? Do you think that will define me as a person?

KEVIN IOLE: I think I would be afraid to be the next person to fight you after that.


That's what I think would be the bad thing.

KAYLA HARRISON: [LAUGHS] Yeah, nothing like that could ever define me. Because at the end of the day, look, we get in a cage, and we fight for money. I'm not curing cancer. I'm not-- what I do with that platform, what I do with this opportunity is important to me. But that doesn't define me.

A win doesn't define me. A loss doesn't define me. Maybe to other people, but not to me and the people who matter to me.

KEVIN IOLE: That's interesting. Two other questions, and I'll let you roll. Wanted to ask you about that the bracket. So you mentioned Larissa Pacheco before. You have 2 wins over her. She's on the other side of the bracket opposite you. She'll be fighting in London on the same card you're on.

Break down that fight. How's her opponent's name? Koselnyk, I think it's pronounced.

KAYLA HARRISON: Helen, yeah.

KEVIN IOLE: Yeah. And how do you see that fight going? Who do you think comes out of that one.

KAYLA HARRISON: Yeah. I mean, listen, Helen rocked her the last time they fought. I think that Larissa has knockout power. We know this. We've seen it over and over and over again. Helen is also a big, strong, tough girl who has knockout power.

I think it's about who fights smart. I think pacing is going to be-- I think the pacing of Larissa is in question. I think her conditioning is to be questioned. But she's at an all-time high in confidence. She's sky-high in confidence. She feels good about where she's at. So I expect her to win. I expect to see her in the finals, I think we all do.

We'll see. She's got to make weight, right?

KEVIN IOLE: That's one thing.

KAYLA HARRISON: On hurdle at a time.

KEVIN IOLE: The other thing I wanted to run past you and end on this. Social media is always important for fighters so people know who you are and they can engage with you. But you seem sometimes like-- I love your social media because you just get some of these people sometimes with one-liners and whatnot.

And you've got a very underrated sense of humor. I don't know that--

KAYLA HARRISON: Thank you. I'm glad someone gets me.

KEVIN IOLE: And I'm wondering kind of how you perceive what you want to be on social media. What do you see as your place there? And how do you try to use it to your advantage?

KAYLA HARRISON: I mean, I'm just being me. Realistically, when I look at social media, it is a continuation of the real Kayla. This is an opportunity for people to see me as me. I don't pretend. When I say something to a fan or when I talk shit, that's what I would say in real life to someone's face. When I met [INAUDIBLE], the first thing I said to him was, hey, by the way my name is Kayla, not Kyla, not Kylie, not Kayley. That's just who I am as a person.

But I also want to be a light in this world. I also want to be a positive role model. I also want to let people know that there is hope. It's possible. All things are possible. And again, that's just who I am naturally. I had so many people who inspired me and brought out the best in me when I didn't believe in me.

And they never asked for anything. The Pedros, I use them a lot, but the perfect example. Big Jim is in my corner every fight. He comes down to Florida. He stays with me. He deals with my kids and my three dogs. And he's 75 years old. He has never taken $1 from me. And how--

KEVIN IOLE: Those are the real ones.

KAYLA HARRISON: These are the real ones. He's not a yes man. He'll shoot me straight, which is why, number one, I love him. But number two, my gift to him is to pay it forward. How I can pay him is to do what he did for me for someone else someday.

And that's through social media. And that's through my foundation. And that's through my children. And that's through how I carry myself as a person. So that's how I look at it.

KEVIN IOLE: You just did it for me with a great interview. Kayla Harrison--


KEVIN IOLE: August 20--

KAYLA HARRISON: Always good to talk to you, Kevin.

KEVIN IOLE: --in the UK. Well, good luck to you. I appreciate you. And we will probably talk to you before the finals yet again.

KAYLA HARRISON: Oh, sounds good. Thank you so much.

KEVIN IOLE: Thanks, Kayla.