On a Long Climb to the Top, She Makes Short Work of an Opponent

Kayla Harrison’s second bout of the Professional Fighters League regular season unfolded as predictably as the betting odds — tilted heavily in her favor — suggested.

Harrison, who has won the P.F.L.’s women’s lightweight title each of the last two seasons, needed only two minutes, 35 seconds, one body slam and a series of punches on Friday night to dispatch Kaitlin Young and qualify for the postseason.

On Aug. 20 in London, Harrison, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in judo, will face Martina Jindrova for a berth in the P.F.L. final.

Beyond that fight, the prospects of a high-profile match with either Amanda Nunes or Cristiane Justino (a.k.a. “Cris Cyborg”), the two best-known fighters in Harrison’s weight range, remain murky. Nunes is under contract with the Ultimate Fighting Championship and is slated to face Julianna Peña on July 30, and Justino is aligned with the mixed martial arts promotion Bellator.

A series of fights involving Harrison, Nunes and Justino remains an alluring, if remote, possibility, and Donn Davis, the P.F.L.’s chairman and co-owner, maintains he would promote an event jointly with Bellator or the U.F.C. But for now, existing contracts take precedence, and Harrison said she is focused on transforming herself from a judo expert into an all-around mixed martial artist.

“I’m just a much more evolved fighter. I’m a much more evolved person,” Harrison said at a news conference before the fight. “Every day I get a little bit better, and I’m still just scratching the surface.”

Harrison, who is now 14-0 in professional M.M.A., had been slated to face Julia Budd, whose kickboxing expertise suggested she would be Harrison’s toughest pro opponent yet. But Budd withdrew from the bout after an injury late in training camp, and the P.F.L. replaced her with the 36-year-old Young, who entered Friday’s bout with a 12-12-1 record.

After touching gloves at the opening bell, the fighters circled each other cautiously. Harrison, in a southpaw stance, crept forward, feinting and gauging Young’s reactions.

And then she charged, bulling Young into the fence before slamming her to the mat. Then came a grappling sequence, which favored Harrison, the judo expert, and finally the punches that prompted the referee to stop the bout.

Harrison, taking down Young, is in the first year of a two-year contract with the Professional Fighters League.Credit…Cooper Neill/Getty Images

“The goal is to go out and dominate,” Harrison, who turned 32 on Saturday, said in a television interview after the bout. “Sometimes you just feel it.”

Early in the fight, which took place at the Overtime Elite Arena in Atlanta, broadcasters noted the lopsided betting odds, and said one gambler had wagered $2.7 million on a Harrison win.

Given the circumstances — a two-time Olympic champion against a last-minute replacement — that seven-figure pledge was less a bet than an investment. Just before the opening bell, oddsmakers listed Harrison as a minus-6,000 favorite, meaning a $6,000 bet would yield a $100 payoff. At those odds, the $2.7 million bet would have netted $45,000.

The P.F.L. hopes the money it has poured into Harrison’s career will pay similar dividends over the long term.

Harrison’s contract covers two seasons and pays her roughly $1 million per bout. Back-of-the-napkin math suggests she made about $6,450 per second on Friday night, if you don’t count the time she spent training. The P.F.L. figures the money is worth it considering the boost Harrison lends to the P.F.L.’s profile.

The U.F.C. is to M.M.A. what the N.F.L. is to pro football — the biggest brand and moneymaker, and the undisputed industry leader. In 2016, the talent agency Endeavor paid $4.2 billion for a majority stake in the fight promotion, and the company is now targeting a $10 billion valuation.

The P.F.L. aims to solidify its position in second place.

While the U.F.C. will stage its July 30 event at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, the P.F.L. held its recent Dallas-area fight card at a 2,500-seat arena in Arlington.

Davis points out that the P.F.L.’s broadcast partnership with ESPN gives it the same broad distribution that the U.F.C. enjoys, but acknowledges that it’s an underdog that benefits from having Harrison under contract. He says Harrison is poised to become the sport’s next brand-name fighter.

“Imagine if the U.S.F.L. had discovered and developed Tom Brady,” Davis said in an interview before the fight, referring to the United States Football League.

Still, the bouts that could vault Harrison and the P.F.L. to new levels of prominence remain elusive and hypothetical.

Nunes, Harrison’s former training partner, has said she welcomes a bout, provided Harrison signs with the U.F.C. And Nunes is herself a former champion, scheduled for a July 30 rematch with Peña, who won the U.F.C. featherweight title from her last December.

Justino, who last competed in April, is reportedly negotiating a boxing match against undisputed lightweight boxing champion Katie Taylor.

“I’ve been coaching and training boxing for one fight. I’m looking for one fight,” Justino told reporters after her most recent M.M.A. bout. “I’ve done everything. I did wrestling. I did jujitsu. I did a muay Thai fight. It’s the only one I haven’t done, is boxing. It’s one of my dreams.”

Next up for Harrison is the semifinal bout against Jindrova and, potentially, a spot in the 2022 P.F.L. final.

The only guarantee beyond those bouts: one more season on Harrison’s P.F.L. contact.

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