The Bottom Line: Kayla Harrison is No Ronda Rousey, and That’s Just Fine

By: Todd Martin
Jun 26, 2018


Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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Since Kayla Harrison announced she would enter the sport of mixed martial arts and through to her debut for the Professional Fighters League on Thursday, there has been a seemingly unending stream of comparisons to another Olympic female judoka who achieved a rather high level of fame. While understandable given their obvious commonalities, the comparisons are often quite lazy. The fact that Harrison and you-know-who share a gender and an accolade tells us only a limited amount about where they came from and where they are going.

Plenty of Olympic wrestlers have shifted to MMA. Those wrestlers have ended up in wildly different spots. Daniel Cormier and Kevin Jackson both debuted as professional fighters in their 30s after prestigious freestyle backgrounds. Cormier became an all-time great even with the late start, while it took Jackson only six bouts to recognize MMA wasn’t for him. Jackson was the one who had accomplished more at the Olympic level.

There has been variance not only in success but also in fighting style. One might think wrestlers would end up primarily utilizing takedowns, but that hasn’t always been the case. Sara McMann and Matt Lindland relied heavily on their grappling bases, while Yoel Romero and Dan Henderson ended up as knockout sluggers. Personality-wise, they have varied wildly, too, from the soft-spoken Henderson to the brash Ben Askren. Just knowing a fighter comes from an Olympic wrestling background doesn’t tell you a lot in and of itself.

There is plenty to suggest Harrison will follow a very different path than former teammate Ronda Rousey, starting with their approaches to MMA. The way that the two women got into the sport reflects their differences in personality. Rousey throughout her life has dived ferociously into various ventures, only to later leave in a similar storm. This was the case with judo, then MMA and is now reflected in the way she has quickly taken to the world of pro wrestling. Rousey was fighting for the Strikeforce title only a year and a half after her amateur debut.

By contrast, Harrison has been deliberative when it comes to MMA. She was non-committal about venturing into the sport even while getting continually questioned about it due to her connection with Rousey. After signing with what was then the World Series of Fighting, she took her time in preparing herself for the sport. It took her just about the same amount of time to fight for the first time after signing her initial MMA contract as it did for Rousey to advance from novice to champion. Harrison’s caution may reflect a determination to take her time and develop as a fighter incrementally, something that could have benefited Rousey. It may also indicate Rousey was more devoted to the endeavor or that she took to it quicker, indicating problems for Harrison down the line. Either way, their approaches stand in stark contrast.

Harrison also is a much larger woman than Rousey. She competed in a division 18 pounds higher than Rousey in the Olympics -- no small difference when it comes to women’s MMA. Rousey could enter into a bantamweight division full of talent and had plenty of opponents that would present a challenge to her. This led to more interest in her early fights when there was some question how she would fare against Miesha Tate or Sarah Kaufman. By contrast, Harrison is currently in what is from a fan’s perspective a one-woman division. She has for all intents and purposes no opponents at 155 pounds.

There is, of course, one prospective opponent for Harrison who stands out, residing in a lower weight class. That Cristiane Justino presently resides in a lower weight class than Harrison isn’t an inconsequential fact. The story for years was whether Rousey would move up to fight the larger Justino. The idea that “Cyborg” might finally have met her match is a marketable narrative. However, the hook of “Cyborg” as Goliath was a big part of what made her fight with Gina Carano and the prospective fight with Rousey so big. They’ll need a different hook with Harrison if that fight ends up taking place. It’s hard to market someone as an underdog when she struggles to cut to the weight class of the monster.

The starkest contrast between Rousey and Harrison lies in personality. Harrison is in effect what Rousey was marketed to be. The media fell in love with Rousey and sold her to the broader public as the smiling hero on the magazine cover. In truth, Rousey’s personality was more that of the antagonist. Rousey enjoyed playing the role of the villain, talking trash about opponents and engaging in deeply personal feuds. Her entrance music was indicative of her mentality: “Bad Reputation” was an ode to not caring what the world thinks about you. There was always a disconnect between that and the way she was promoted.

It is Harrison who for better and worse fits into the nice-girl-next-door role. She has a heartrending backstory but seems driven more by love than rage. She’s unlikely to get into as many personal disputes with opponents as Rousey. Of course, those personal disputes fuel interest in the sport and helped Rousey become the star that she was. If Harrison does end up picking up media interest comparable to Rousey, it will be an interesting test of how much the media helped Rousey and how much Rousey’s success came down to her own promotional efforts.

Harrison, more than the vast majority of MMA prospects, has an extremely uncertain MMA future. She has more potential to become a superstar than many if not most current champions. However, she also could end up not getting very far at all. The spectrum of potentialities is wide. That’s because of who she is, not anyone else. She’s not going to be able to avoid the comparisons, but that doesn’t mean they’ll play much of a role in her own future successes and failures.

Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.

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