Kayla Harrison, chasing third PFL crown, reflects on emotional Olympics

In Olympic Games

Kayla Harrison (15-0, 12 finishes) seeks her third consecutive women’s lightweight season championship in the headliner of Friday’s PFL championship event at Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden, the company’s first pay-per-view event (8 p.m., ESPN+). Harrison, who faces Larissa Pacheco (18-4, 17 finishes) for the third time in her career, chatted Tuesday via Zoom with The Post’s Scott Fontana for this week’s Post Fight Interview Q&A session.

Q: This is your first time as a pay-per-view headliner. Does it feel different?
A: No, I don’t feel different at all. I’m blessed that this is my third PFL final, so I feel like I probably know a little bit better than anyone what that means and what that entails. This isn’t my first season. This isn’t my first rodeo, so I’m kind of used to it. And I feel like the PFL and I have done a good job of growing together. So nothing’s different for me. … My paycheck is the same.

Q: It’s been three years since you faced Pacheco the first two times, and she’s 5-0 with five first-round finishes since then. Are you impressed with her run coming into this matchup?
A: Yeah. I don’t think there’s many women in MMA period who are coming off five first-round knockouts, the way she is. She’s obviously a force to be reckoned with. She’s a good fighter. She’s a great fighter. I’m just better.

Q: If there is extra motivation to get a finish against her this time, after she twice went the distance with you, how do you balance that with knowing that any win gets you the championship again?
A: No. My job is to go out there and handle my business, be smart, be calm, cool, collected, pick my shots, use them wisely. Obviously, if I see an opening, I’m gonna take it, but I’m not harboring or holding on to anything from the past. This is a new fight. That was three years ago. This is today, and the job is to go out there and win, by any means necessary, so that’s what I’m going to do.

Q: How have you grown since those fights?
A: I’m an MMA fighter now. I think the confidence is there. I think the self-belief; I think the body of work; everything from range to striking to ground control to submissions — I have more submissions in my arsenal — I have better understanding of range; I have a better use of my striking. Everything has just gotten better. I’ve evolved tremendously since the last fight.

Kayla Harrison, at left, faces Larissa Pacheco for the third time Friday.
Kayla Harrison (left) faces Larissa Pacheco for the third time Friday.

Q: You’ve had three months to prepare for this fight, which is a month longer than usual for your championship fights. How did your preparation differ this time?
A: Same stuff. I train year-round anyway, so it’s not like, Oh, I’m back in the gym, or I take a longer time off or something like that. And the reality is, Larissa fights very similar to Cris Cyborg; she fights very similar to Amanda [Nunes]. These are heavy strikers. These are front-runners. These are girls who I’m thinking about all the time when I’m in the gym. So I’ve been preparing for this fight for a lot longer than three months, and I’m ready.

Q: This is set to be your final season matchup for PFL? What will the next phase of your PFL tenure look like?
A: That’s something that I have to think about after this fight. I have two fights left on my contract. The PFL and I are on the hunt for the big fights, and that’s something that I’ll think about when this fight is over.

Q: You spoke about the potential of taking fights at featherweight going forward, a weight at which you competed a few years ago. What was that experience like?
A: I didn’t enjoy it (laughs). I know it’s possible. It’s not possible four times a year, but I do think it’s something that I could handle in the future, should I need to.

Q: What was your routine line when you competed at 145 pounds?
A: I lowered my walk-around weight so that I wasn’t dehydrating and depleting my body a tremendous amount. I normally sit around about 165 pounds naturally, and for that fight, I got down to walking around, I think I was, like, 153. So I just dieted down. I was really strict. And then the rest of it was water weight that I cut. Obviously, that process in and of itself, just the dieting and, like, living a miserable life is not fun (laughs). And then the cutting all the weight, the dehydration part, I’m just not a huge fan.

Q: Did you feel any particular hankering for a meal that you typically wouldn’t because it was a different weight?
A: I was hungry all the time. I was like, People live like this year round (laughs)? Wait a second: You’re telling me that there are people who don’t fight, who diet like this just to look good? I was like, Oh my God, these people are sick in the head. Somebody help them (laughs). Somebody give them a doughnut and let them know it’s OK to live (laughs).

Q: Favorite post-fight meal?
A: Post-fight, I love nachos. And I always get chocolate cake after I weigh in. Chocolate cake is a must. … I’m a lightweight for a reason: I’m known to eat (laughs). [If] it’s not nailed down, I’ll probably eat it. But I’m lucky. I don’t live to eat; I eat to live. My number one goal is to be healthy, right? I make a lot of jokes and stuff, but I try to have a healthy lifestyle.

I try to instill a healthy lifestyle into my children, more importantly. Maybe before I had my kids, I didn’t think about it as much. But now that I have them and I am so conscious of [diet], I want them to grow up and be healthy and capable of making good choices and understand the difference between the choices they’re making, I’m much more health conscious. And we have a pretty clean household. On the weekends, we tend to let our hair down a little bit. 

Q: Typical weight on fight night?
A: 162 [pounds], 165. Something like that.

Q: Do you recall your first experience watching MMA?
A: It was probably Ronda [Rousey]. I didn’t really watch. I was young when she made the transition [from judo]. … So I wasn’t really paying too much attention till before then. And really, the reason, the person that made me love MMA was Frankie Edgar. I was obsessed with the Rocky Balboa movies when I was a kid. I used to watch them; I would have a marathon every Christmas. … And I met [Edgar] in 2010, after I won the World [Judo] Championships. Ali [Abdelaziz] was friends with my judo coach, and he got me a supplement sponsor.

So I came here to New York to Renzo [Gracie’s gym] and I did a big photoshoot with all the Gracies. Frankie was there, and at the time, he was the champ, and he was just this super nice, super humble, very welcoming persona. I was really scared that day. I had never done a photoshoot. I didn’t know any of these jiu-jitsu guys or these MMA guys. I was not in my element. I was very uncomfortable (laughs). And he made me feel really comfortable, and he was really kind to me. So I started watching him, and I was like, Holy s–t, this guy is like a real-life Rocky Balboa. He’s amazing. So he’s really the reason I became a fan of the sport, and he’s still my favorite fighter to this day.

Q: Favorite fight of yours from before you won your first PFL championship?
A: Probably the semifinals of my first championship run, so that would be Bobbi Jo [Dalziel], and I think just because it was like, Oh, I’m going to the finals. Everyone expected me to, everyone wanted me to, but I was still unsure about myself and my career. Once I won that fight, I was like, Oh yeah, it’s go time. So that was fun.

Q: Other than winning the gold medals, what was your best memory of your Olympics experiences?
A: There’s a couple. Watching my best friend [Marti Malloy], giving her that hug in the back in the warm-up room after she won, was probably one of the most fulfilling — man, I’m getting teary-eyed — was really special. Watching my teammate Travis [Stevens] win his silver medal in Rio.

That was his third Olympics. He went from, like, ninth to fifth to finally getting a medal. Him finally getting a metal, the long journey that it was, 12 years or whatever, was amazing. Seeing my family for the first time in the USA house after I won my gold medal was pretty special. Walking in my first opening ceremonies, feeling the heat of the Olympic flame on my face after years of tribulation and struggle.

That was really, probably, the biggest moment for me, the biggest awakening. There had been a point where I didn’t want to live. There was a point in my life where I really wanted to die. And to make it to the Olympics, to make it and be walking in the opening ceremonies and for my life to be so blessed. It’s almost like the heat of the flame was like God. I was like, Holy s–t, I made it. Not only did I make it, but I’m OK. I’m not in that place I was anymore. I dug deep, I got the help I needed, and it turned out OK for me, and it can for other people, too. 

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