Kayla Harrison is one of the top judo athletes in the world, so she finds strength in balance. But between juggling family time, the Professional Fighters League, a 17-day bubble in Atlantic City, and a recent tragedy, Harrison’s balance has been challenged.
Harrison, 31, a native of Middletown, Ohio, is living in Coconut Creek, Fla., and training at the American Top Team MMA Academy for the PFL playoffs. The gym is about 30 miles north of Surfside, a town in Miami-Dade County where a condo collapsed on June 24 and killed 98 people.
The tragedy brought back memories of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings for Harrison, who lived near the finish line.
“Obviously it’s a completely different situation but just the idea of the tragedy,” Harrison said.
Harrison teamed up with Surfside Hardship Fund and The Shul of Bal Harbour Central Emergency Fund to make donations. She’s giving $5,000 with the hopes of raising $20,000. The PFL agreed to donate $10,000, too, so the organization is aiming for $5,000 from the public.
She is training twice a day while also raising her 8-year-old niece and 2-year-old nephew. She gained custody of the two in 2019 after their grandmother, her mother, suffered a stroke.
The kids are her priority. Harrison told the PFL she wouldn’t be in the 17-day bubble in Atlantic City if her niece and nephew couldn’t be there, too.
“I wasn’t going to tell them that something is more important to me than them,” Harrison said.
Harrison called the bubble “tough.” Mentally, she was challenged to perform at her best while having the kids inside a hotel room for the majority of a day.
But you couldn’t tell inside the cage. Harrison’s two regular-season matches ended in the first round. She joked that wanting to get back to her kids might have played a role and added a sense ofurgency.
“We made the most of it, and I think we got stronger as a family because of it,” Harrison said of the situation.
Harrison (10-0) is the favorite in the women’s lightweight division. She’s seeded second based on points and will fight Genah Fabian on Aug. 19 at Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, Fla., on ESPN2.
Fabian (4-1) projects as one of Harrison’s best opponents, but don’t tell Harrison that. She’s not overly impressed with Fabian’s work. The two-time Olympic judo gold medalist is confident in her own abilities.
“I know [the PFL is] doing their best to find and add good competition,” Harrison said. “Obviously it’s not the level I want it to be at, but I understand these things take time, and I hope they continue to help grow it.
“It’ll be interesting to see how our games pan out,” she later said. “[Fabian’s] going to try to knock me out. I’m going to try to take her down. May the best woman win.”
If Harrison wins, she’ll fight top-seeded Larissa Pacheco or Taylor Guardado. Pacheco (15-4) is the only PFL opponent who has gone the distance with Harrison, both in 2019.
“I’m preparing for everyone,” Harrison said. “Selfishly I hope Taylor wins, so I can fight somebody different than Larissa, but it doesn’t matter. I’m going to go out there and beat whoever is in front of me.”