Kayla Harrison can be biggest women’s star in MMA since Ronda Rousey
Harrison, the charismatic, trash-talking, one-woman wrecking crew, who coincidentally happens to be Rousey’s former teammate with USA Judo, won her second $1 million PFL championship Wednesday night, beating Taylor Guardado via armbar submission 4 minutes into Round 2.
With the victory, the undefeated Harrison completed her contract with PFL and she’ll likely have several suitors, including the UFC and Bellator. The PFL will do its darndest to bring her back, too. Harrison will be the biggest MMA free agent in some time and command top dollar for her services in 2022 and beyond.
Harrison told me she’s seeking seven figures per fight. With the right promotion, she has a chance to become a big star, potentially crossing over into the mainstream. Harrison won’t even need much help — she does a ton herself, from finishing fights to being a lightning rod (not unlike Rousey) every time she picks up a microphone.
It’s a high bar to clear, of course. Rousey had one of the most incredible runs in mixed martial arts history, and not just with her string of first-round finishes, title defenses and her ability to pull an armbar submission out of nowhere.
From 2013 to 2016, Rousey headlined six UFC pay-per-view cards, all of which sold at least fairly well. Rousey was a dominant UFC women’s bantamweight champion, but she was also, at a time before the rise of Conor McGregor, one of the most bankable PPV stars in UFC history.
Rousey has not fought since a knockout loss to Amanda Nunes in December 2016. In the nearly five years since Rousey has been gone, there have been only seven UFC pay-per-view shows headlined by women. Two of those featured Cris Cyborg, who is no longer with the UFC and currently plies her trade with Bellator.
All of this is to say that the UFC has not had a massive draw in its women’s divisions since Rousey’s departure.
Nunes, who holds the UFC women’s bantamweight and featherweight titles, would be the closest thing the promotion has to a female pay-per-view draw. She has headlined five UFC pay-per-view cards, but one was against Rousey and the other was UFC 200, which was mired by Jon Jones being pulled from the card during fight week due to a failed drug test.
Harrison vs. Nunes would be one of the biggest women’s fights in MMA history, though they are friends and training partners at American Top Team in Florida. If Harrison goes the Bellator route, the Cyborg fight would be a massive one — a pay-per-view main event caliber battle. And if she stays with PFL, Harrison will continue to be featured as the face of the promotion. Perhaps the PFL could even co-promote with Bellator to make that Harrison vs. Cyborg fight.
Who knows? But in any case, Harrison has a chance to ascend to rarefied air among women in MMA, if given the right opportunity. There are issues with her weight class — Harrison has no competition at 155 pounds, and a limited pool of talent at 145 — but, as the saying goes, if you build it, they will come. And Harrison is someone worth building around. — Marc Raimondi
Claressa Shields has work to do in MMA
Claressa Shields is one of the best women’s boxers on the planet. In the cage, she remains a work in progress.
Her split-decision loss to Abigail Montes on Wednesday was her first defeat of any kind since an amateur boxing fight in 2012. Setback aside, Shields showed improvement in just her second MMA fight, specifically when it came to her takedown defense.
Unlike boxing, where a loss often proves to be a substantial career blow, defeats are often viewed far differently in the MMA world. All along, Shields’ team, which includes manager Mark Taffet and boxing promoter Dmitry Salita, knew the PFL experiment was a long-term play.
That plan calls for Shields to compete in showcase fights over the first two years of her three-year deal with PFL before moving up into the regular season competition in 2023.
“Right now, we’re in the laboratory,” Taffet said. “We just do it live on TV.”
When Shields returns to the boxing ring on Dec. 11, she’ll be a major favorite to retain her unified middleweight championship. After that, it’s back to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to work on her MMA game, and she knows there’s a long way to go.
“I think I won the first two rounds … and then the last round she got the ground-and-pound; I’m OK with that,” Shields told ESPN. “It doesn’t detour the gameplan.”
In a way, Shields has already succeed at MMA by trying something outside her comfort zone and finding even a sliver of success. But to truly cross over and dominate in a second sport, she’ll need to overhaul her ground game and avoid the kind of performance that played out in the third round of Wednesday’s fight.
She has two or three more fights to work on it, and plenty of time in the gym to fine-tune her game before the MMA bouts really count. — Mike Coppinger
Ray Cooper III has done everything he can in the PFL — it’s time to take a shot in the UFC
No fighter has built his or her name in the PFL’s four years of existence more than Ray Cooper III. The Hawaii native has been Mr. PFL for the last few years, compiling an 11-2 (1 NC) record in the promotion with nine finishes. On Wednesday, he won his second straight $1 million PFL welterweight championship. He avenged his father’s loss to Jake Shields by beating Shields twice in 2018, only to fall just short of a PFL title with a loss in the final to Magomed Magomedkerimov.
In 2019, Cooper won the PFL welterweight title, and he repeated the feat Wednesday — once again righting a wrong, against Magomedkerimov, the man who beat him for the $1 million in 2018. He also beat Rory MacDonald on the way to the 2021 title.
Cooper has come full circle in PFL, and simply done everything there is to do in the promotion. He is a free agent now, and it’s time he tries his hand in the UFC. Cooper is still just 28 years old, in his athletic prime. It’s unclear if “Bradda Boy” will become a champion in the UFC or even a top contender, should he go. But the things you know you’re getting with Cooper are easily transferrable: action fights, a never-say-die attitude, durability and those grenades in his fists.
Cooper picked up more than $2 million in prize money since 2019 with PFL. The time is right for Cooper to see what he can do in the biggest MMA promotion in the world.
“I know I’m the best,” Cooper said after Wednesday’s victory. “I’d take on the UFC champion, the Bellator champion. We can unify the belts. I’ll take on anybody, just bring them on.” — Raimondi
Julia Budd needs to show more to even threaten Kayla Harrison
The storyline preceded Julia Budd’s arrival. The former Bellator featherweight champion’s PFL debut in a showcase bout early in the evening was built up as a preview of what might soon spice up the PFL’s women’s lightweight division. That is the domain of Kayla Harrison, who has mowed down all competition in winning the championship in 2019 and 2021. The two-time Olympic gold medalist in judo is unbeaten in MMA. She looks unbeatable in the PFL. Budd was brought on to perhaps challenge that.
Before getting to Budd, though, let’s not ignore that the PFL signed an even bigger name in the combat sports world to add luster to its 155-pound division. The unbeaten boxing great Claressa Shields, a two-division undisputed world champion, competed in her second MMA fight later on the undercard. She lost. Shields showed some improvement in her defensive wrestling, and she mostly responded well to her coaches, but she has a long way to go. Let’s see how Shields responds to her first defeat in combat sports.
As for Budd, she showed up in her new MMA home and controlled practically every moment of her fight against Kaitlin Young. But she’s going to have to do more than that to halt Harrison, assuming the two-time champ, now a free agent, is still around for the 2022 season. Budd was measured in her approach, showing no recklessness but still absorbing more strikes than she should have, especially early on. And when Budd got the fight to the canvas, she didn’t unload with ground-and-pound or relentlessly pursue dominant positions. Budd fought steadily, which worked fine against Young. I seriously doubt it would against Harrison.
I say all of this as the only ESPN voter to put Budd in his women’s pound-for-pound top 10. Harrison got votes from two of my colleagues and ended up tied for No. 9 in the rankings. Could that pecking order get flip-flopped next year? Sure it could. Budd has fought women with better resumes than Harrison (Amanda Nunes, Cris Cyborg and Ronda Rousey), while Harrison has faced no one with Budd’s pedigree (other than when she rolls with Nunes in the American Top Team gym). But Shields keeps getting better. The window of taking advantage of her relative inexperience is closing fast.
If Budd gets the matchup for which she came to the PFL, she would need to put Harrison on the defensive, and to do that Budd would need to ramp up the aggression, which is a dangerous way to approach the two-time champ. — Jeff Wagenheim
Wednesday’s most impressive under-the-radar performance
The spotlight shined in several directions on this night, from Kayla Harrison to Claressa Shields to the champion-vs.-champion rematch between Ray Cooper III and Magomed Magomedkerimov. But there were some shining performances outside the spotlight, too.
What a night it was for Brazil, home of three of the six 2021 PFL champions — heavyweight Bruno Cappelozza, light heavyweight Antonio Carlos Junior and lightweight Raush Manfio.
But the fighter who impressed me the most outside of the most prominent spots on Wednesday’s card was Movlid Khaybulaev. The Dagestani featherweight did not put on the most entertaining performance, but his five-round decision over Chris Wade was stunningly dominant.
Why so stunning? Wade was coming off a win in the semifinals in which he controlled the wrestling against 2011 NCAA Division 1 champion Bubba Jenkins. Yet he could not do a thing against Khaybulaev, who took him down eight times and controlled every round on the canvas.
Khaybulaev didn’t threaten a flashy finish like the ones turned in by Harrison, Cooper and Carlos Junior. But he was nonetheless eye-opening. Sometimes the best performance is the one in which you totally shut down what your opponent is best at. — Wagenheim
With the 2021 championship in the books, what could the PFL look like in 2022?
PFL made a big splash early in the year by signing high-profile veterans from other promotions: Anthony Pettis, Fabricio Werdum and Rory MacDonald. Pettis is a former UFC lightweight champion and was a big enough name less than a decade ago to have had his image emblazoned on a Wheaties box. MacDonald is a former Bellator welterweight champion who was part of some of the most memorable action fights in UFC history. Werdum is a former UFC heavyweight champion.
The presence of Pettis, Werdum and MacDonald was a signal that PFL wasn’t going to be shy about signing big-name free agents, and that the promotion had firmly cemented itself as one of the top ones in all of MMA. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out as hoped. Pettis and MacDonald went a combined 1-4 in PFL this year. Werdum fought just once, a loss that was overturned to a no contest. Pettis was unable to qualify for the lightweight playoffs. Surely, putting those men on a card raises the value of any event. But it wasn’t influx of championship-level talent PFL might have been hoping for.
The good news is that fighters like Ray Cooper III and Raush Manfio capitalized on victories over MacDonald and Pettis, respectively, to make a bigger name — and some good money — for themselves this season. And there is further positivity on the horizon. Pettis and MacDonald are both back in PFL for the 2022 season, promotion spokesperson Greg Savage told ESPN on Wednesday night. Werdum’s status is unclear.
But put those names with some new signees, including Budd, the former Bellator women’s featherweight champion who beat Kaitlin Young on Wednesday, and returning champions, and PFL is likely to have its most stacked roster yet next year, even if Harrison does not re-sign. — Raimondi
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