Kayla Harrison got a call last year that would change her life forever.
Her stepfather Bob Nichols died suddenly on May 19, 2020. In addition to the heartache of losing him, Harrison had to do something about her family. She became the full time guardian of her 8 year old niece Kyla and her 2 year old nephew Emery.
The children had lived with Nichols and Harrison’s mother, Jeannie Yazell, in Ohio, and Harrison’s sister had personal problems. But Yazell had a stroke in December 2019 and when Nichols was gone she couldn’t take care of Kyla and Emery. The two children moved to Florida with Harrison.
Overnight Harrison, two-time Olympic Judo Champion and defending PFL Women’s Lightweight Champion, had the role of a single mother.
“We’re in the middle of potty training right now,” Harrison told ESPN. “Literally, you’re going from a bad B —- to 15 diapers a day. It really changes your life.”
Harrison’s PFL career was put on hold in 2020 as Ascension canceled its season in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. But she was busy with the kids and training. Harrison returned to the cage last November for a TKO win over Courtney King under the Invicta FC banner.
Harrison said she would roll her eyes if fighters said in post-fight interviews they were competing for their families. She’s getting it now. Harrison has Kyla and Emery in the PFL bubble in Atlantic City, New Jersey as she prepares to win her second straight title worth $ 1 million for women.
“I can admit I said, ‘OK, cool, good for you,'” said Harrison. “But they give you a new meaning. No, I fight for my family. I fight for these two children. I want to be the best possible role model for them and leave a legacy and I want to make them proud. It’s just a completely different aspect when you have children. “
Harrison’s life changed dramatically during the PFL’s year-long hiatus, and with a list of 60 fighters, the experience of some of these fighters has changed dramatically in the past 12 months. ESPN asked six of the PFL’s top fighters to share their feelings, thoughts, and memories from a year outside the cage.
Kayla Harrison, PFL lightweight defending champion
My mother’s husband, Bob Nichols, pretty much looked after my mother and the children. Really just the rock of the family. Obviously my mother, who was older and had just suffered a serious medical emergency, could not look after her after Bob died. So I became her guardian. And it was great.
I think it’s safe to say that it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, but also the most important thing I’ve ever done in my life. And yes, I would be lying if I didn’t say 2020 is a big fight. I’m just getting my bearings and learning how to be mom instead of the jolly aunt who jumps over sugar and sends her home. Lots of big changes. That definitely took a lot of time. It was really learning how to be a mom and a workout that kept me grounded and focused. Kept me centered.
When I found out the season was canceled, I didn’t stop training. I was still going to the gym every day – probably even more so because I was so frustrated and darned not to waste my time. It is probably one of the hardest things I ever heard to be at the prime of your career and learn to sit on the shelf.
I think the cancellation was really good for me, a blessing in disguise. I think I grew exponentially as a fighter last year, which might not have happened if I had fought four times in a row. If I had to fight four times last year I can even say that I’m pretty tough, but that might have been a little too much for my plate. In retrospect, I think it’s good that I only had one fight. I think it was good for me
You need to remember that these kids just came from a ridiculous amount of trauma and instability. They just lost someone who was their father figure, whom they loved. They have just been picked up from their home in Ohio. And they know me, they love me. They don’t have parents. They just had a very, very tough promotion battle all their lives. You got some nice cards.
The biggest and most overwhelming aspect for me now is that it is my job to protect, care, love and provide them with a safe, happy, and healthy environment in which to thrive. And to be completely honest, that scares me. Every day I wondered if I was doing it right or if I was screwing it up. It’s the hardest job in the world. It’s so crazy because you think getting into a cage with someone who’s trying to get your head off is scary, or that training is difficult – “it’s such a challenge!” – Oh my god, it’s so easy compared to raising children.
Clay Collard, PFL Lightweight and Pro Boxer
I only make money when I fight. That’s how I make a living. PFL was kind enough to let me box last year. I fought seven boxing matches between January 2020 and February 2021. I won the first five. I think it helped me become an all around better fighter. I stayed active while a lot of people weren’t there all year. I think boxers have the best hands, they are the best strikers. So I learned to deal with and deal with it. It did nothing but help me with fighting.
I gained a lot of fans. I have my name out there more. I got a lot of publicity for it. I’ve got a couple of wins on my boxing record. It was all but good for me. I was having fun, I made some money, I paid my bills. I’m facing top prospects, young talent and undefeated guys in boxing. Young hungry boys. These are the guys I go after. I’m not going to go for a stupid money fight – I fought real competition. I’ve fought top prospects who should be the next big thing.
All of these people talk about boxing – I live it. I go out there and do it. I don’t run my mouth over it either. I love to show up and fight man. And that’s it.
I think everyone I’ve fought has been a better boxer than me. But I’m just harder. This is what my coaches always say, “You may be a better boxer, but you are a better fighter. Go out and prove it.”
In 2021, my focus is on the PFL season. I focus on Anthony Pettis in my first fight. At the end of the year, I might go back to boxing. Maybe I’ll go back and forth. But right now I’m focusing on the PFL tournament.
I’m excited. That’s why I do this to fight the tough guys. I’m looking forward to going out there and proving that I’m one of the best fighters in the world. Pettis is the perfect opponent to do that. I am amped. This is the ultimate Cinderella story, man. I am man I am ready to shock the world. From boxing to MMA. I had a run in the UFC and my head wasn’t straight. Now i do. I think it’s going to be a bad night for Pettis. I am ready to give it to him.
Lance Palmer, two-time PFL featherweight champion
When I realized I wasn’t going to fight last year, it was a salty taste in my mouth about the whole thing at first. I just went into full swing with my other stuff.
I basically spent the time growing my other businesses. I own a landscaping and snow removal company in Columbus, Ohio, and I’ve been busy and growing that. Apart from that, I do real estate loans. Those two things were my income for the year. With banks not lending to people who are trying to change homes or do what they do because of COVID, this was the perfect opportunity to grow this side of the business. Focusing on the home loans isn’t too much work for me – it’s just paperwork and I need to make sure everything by my side is covered in case they default – but honestly, I haven’t had the time to do this I fought.
I have friends who own really big hardscape stores and have chosen the outdoor life for pools and other things. Do huge jobs. They would pass the smaller jobs on to me, and that kept me very busy.
It got to the point where I was getting voicemails every day for spring cleaning, mulch, and loads of other things. It worked because I built my reputation in the city as an up and coming company.
Regarding the ultimate return, my main goal has always been to do my best as a fighter and get better every day. I’ve fought eleven times in two years, and after last year off – though it wasn’t my choice – I just let my body heal and focused on getting stronger. I focused on certain areas. I worked on taking my mind off the fighting and it was really refreshing. This camp was really refreshing in its own way – getting back to business and kicking the bladder.
Tom Lawlor, PFL light heavyweight, UFC veteran and professional wrestler
I did what I did before the PFL was canceled – independent pro wrestling – and tried to get back to life as much as possible. Because of the pandemic, I was unemployed for much of 2020. I was finally able to get some appointments from June. I recorded a few matches for New Japan Pro Wrestling in California that were later broadcast. I wasn’t expecting to get a call from New Japan or any large organization.
It gave me a certain level of confidence when it came to wrestling. It’s one of those things. It’s a goal I’ve had to wrestle for her since I was younger. Even if it’s not the situation I envisioned my debut in, I would like to believe that I’ve made the most of the opportunity so far and will continue to do so. It’s a big goal for me in the short term that I’ve achieved.
“I never thought I’d wrestle with Fred. But the moment we locked ourselves in, I knew it was going to be fine. ‘
– NJPW Global (@njpwglobal) March 12, 2021
It is not easy. I had a match on Josh Barnett’s Bloodsport map against independent wrestling legend Homicide last September. If there’s one image that stands out from this show, I remember getting a Timberland boot knocked my head in when I opted for a leg lock. That was one of the things that I later talk to people in the background. The first thing that came out of my mouth was, “Hey, that was a bad idea. I don’t know why I did that.” This one was one of the rougher ones.
Wrestling is predetermined. But if I’m not doing something that requires comedy, a lot of me get kicked in the face, a lot of me get kicked really hard. I hit a pool ball in the face once. I let Ken Shamrock bomb me in a bar on the floor. I’ve gotten into these awful, awful situations and it never works out well for me. Somehow, if nothing else, I’ve trained my body to take a beating and get up again over the course of those 20 years.
At this point it takes me two days to recover from a game. So there were times when I would play four or five games in a few days and then go straight back to the gym. It’s like, “Stop it, your body can’t handle it.” Nobody should be able to handle it. One of the downsides to moving up the map is that you usually have more time to wrestle, which means you have more time to beat yourself.
I will be honest I’ve tried different styles of wrestling since coming back and I’ve come to the conclusion that the fans just want to see me fight the guy. So sometimes that requires me to do 20 minutes of a simulated MMA fight. You stand out there and get hit, but you have to make sure you don’t get hit in the wrong place. It is no less stressful on your body. There are times when I got out of games worse than I did in fights. But there is also sometimes in sparring that I come out much worse than in fights. None of this is good for me.
Rory MacDonald, PFL welterweight, former Bellator champion and UFC veteran
The year started with a vacation in Florida with my family. I used half the day to test Sanford MMA. After that, COVID struck and basically we were banned in Canada. At the time, I was training from home. I have a small gym at home, some heavy bags and weights and treadmills and a bike and the like. I was able to work on that for a while. Then I started training with a small group of people that would get together. We’ve been doing this for a while. I would work privately with my trainers to further sharpen – pads, jiu-jitsu, and the like.
As summer ended, I tried to come up with a plan of what I would do for my first fight with PFL. At first it looked okay, I would be able to stay in Canada for that. But exactly at the end of 2020 we were banned again. I had to choose curfew and curfew training rather than many training partners, or I had to leave Montreal and find another location. Based on my good experience earlier in the year in Sanford and the fact that Florida was open and the guys there were training normally, I felt like I should bring myself and my family here. I’ve been doing my training camp here since February.
It was a great experience. I’m not used to having that many sparring partners so you definitely get a great mix and lots of different looks, train with different bodies and styles. That was nice. And here it is at a very high level. They have great facilities and the environment is great. I really enjoyed it.
When the PFL season was canceled, I was initially disappointed because I had to accept a defeat. Looking back, I think it was good that I had a year off. I had a lot of things that I had to work out personally. This free time was very good for me. I was able to sort out a lot of things for myself and get a lot of things done that might have been a distraction. Now I can be clear, focused, motivated, hungry and motivated.
Brendan Loughnane, PFL featherweight
My first fight last year was supposed to be in May. I ended up at Tiger Muay Thai in Phuket, Thailand for a training camp. I planned to go back and forth there for the whole season. I got up until three weeks before the first fight. I was in great shape. I had sparring with former UFC bantamweight champions Petr Yan and Rafael Fiziev. You were my boys. Tiger has closed due to COVID so we started our own little thing. We trained every day. It was great, but three weeks before the fight, the PFL season was suspended and they said we wouldn’t resume until 2021. It was like, “What should I do until then?” That’s all I’ve done since I was 16, 17 years old.
Thailand is cheap to live anyway, so I stayed in Thailand. I trained my ass. I returned to England when COVID hit pretty bad. I was home for a month. Then I went to Dubai. I had a couple of links out there, a couple of friends. I ended up at TKMMA with the likes of Gokhan Saki and Alistair Overeem. Michael “Venom” page goes through. I spent six months in Dubai, a full year outside of the UK. Great Britain was completely banned so I really couldn’t train there.
Dubai is great. I had such a good time. It reminded me of Tiger Muay Thai because everyone who usually trained in Thailand was there because Thailand was closing its borders. I was Sparring One Championship top lightweight Timofey Nastyukhin, he was my most important sparring partner. He and me have made countless laps. In the end, I had good, high-quality sparring partners.
Conor McGregor was also in Dubai and actually turned to me, we talked. I just really missed him. The day I left for the PFL bladder, he said, “When is the session?” I can’t believe I missed him by a day, but he’s here now and has found his own little niche there. You would be surprised about Dubai, they invest a lot in MMA. It’s booming over there.