Kayla Harrison exited the cage in tears. The two-time Olympic judo gold medalist was walking with her head bowed, eyes slammed shut, her reddened face a picture of dismay. One of her coaches at cageside stopped her and offered a hug, and Harrison buried her face on his shoulder, her back heaving as she sobbed.
Must have been a horrible loss, eh?
Actually, Harrison had just won a lopsided unanimous decision. It was her first fight in the 2019 PFL women's lightweight season, just the fourth MMA fight of her life, and she had dominated Larissa Pacheco to such a degree that one judge scored the bout 30-25.
Why was Harrison so upset, then? She had been taken the distance for the first time by a more experienced opponent, and for a brief time she had found herself in a bad position on the canvas. Other than that, it had been an impressive performance for an athlete new to MMA.
But Harrison expected more of herself.
"People underestimate my desire to be the best, to be perfect," Harrison said later that night when asked about the tears.
That season-opening bout and Harrson's emotional reaction to it foreshadowed the dominance that would carry Harrison to win the $1 million PFL championship on New Year's Eve 2019. And the scene offered a glimpse of what makes Harrison a must-see fighter as she kicks off the 2021 season against Mariana Morais on May 6 at Ocean Casino Resort in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Harrison, a 30-year-old native of Ohio who won gold at the 2012 and 2016 Olympic Games, is going to be a handful for anyone who steps in the cage with her. While the PFL was taking 2020 off because of the coronavirus pandemic, Harrison was in the gym getting better every day. She trains at American Top Team in Coconut Creek, Florida, under one of the best head coaches in the sport, Mike Brown. One of her training partners is the best in the game, two-division UFC champion Amanda Nunes.
How can the lightweights of the PFL possibly hang with an improved Harrison?
Pacheco, who also went the distance with Harrison in the 2019 final, is back for another try. The 26-year-old Brazilian got to that season final with a signature victory over Sarah Kaufman, the Invicta FC bantamweight champion and a former Strikeforce champ.
And among seven new signees, the PFL brought in another judoka, Cindy Dandois, whose MMA resume shows fights in the UFC, Bellator and Invicta. The Belgian, 36, has won four bouts in a row, all by submission.
But for those women and the seven others who'll be setting their sights on Harrison and the $1 million check, 2021 is going to be an uphill battle.
Season favorite: Kayla Harrison
The leading contender: Larissa Pacheco
Aside from the two 2019 losses to Harrison, Pacheco has just two other defeats in her career -- to UFC bantamweight title challenger Germaine de Randamie and former UFC strawweight champ Jessica Andrade. Pacheco may not have what it takes to defeat Harrison, but she should have enough to fight it out with Dandois for second best.
Fight to watch on opening night: Kayla Harrison vs. Mariana Morais
This projects to be a mismatch, just like every fight Harrison has been in. But just like when Nunes steps in the cage to smash another overmatched UFC challenger, it's always a must-see moment. There surely will be more competitive bouts on the season-opening card, but don't ever take your eyes off greatness.
How to watch the PFL fights
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PFL 2021 Night 3: Thursday, May 6
ESPN2, 9 p.m. ET
Fabricio Werdum vs. Renan Ferreira | Heavyweight
Kayla Harrison vs. Mariana Morais | Women's lightweight
Ali Isaev vs. Hatef Moell | Heavyweight
Genah Fabian vs. Laura Sanchez | Women's lightweight
ESPN+, 5:30 p.m. ET
Mohammed Usman vs. Brandon Sayles | Heavyweight
Denis Goltsov vs. Justin Willis | Heavyweight
Larissa Pacheco vs. Julija Pajic | Women's lightweight
Ante Delija vs. Bruno Cappelozza | Heavyweight
Cindy Dandois vs. Kaitlin Young | Women's lightweight
Olena Kolesnyk vs. Taylor Guardado | Women's lightweight