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The Iso: Kayla Harrison

May 11 2020
Photo by
Greg Payan/AP Images/Shutterstock
Photo by
Greg Payan/AP Images/Shutterstock
Kayla Harrison
Pro Fighter
May 11 2020

The Players’ Tribune is introducing a new series called The Iso. With so many of us keeping our distance from each other in a variety of ways, we decided to ask some of our favorite athletes to share how they’ve been dealing with life in the Covid-19 world, and how they’re spending their time away from their sport.


I’m gonna let you in on a not-so-secret secret: There’s a huge entertainment component to MMA. You’re doing media, you’re doing interviews. Like when I did Super Bowl week, I did a bunch of press for that and went to a bunch of parties. You’re getting your hair and makeup done. Dressing all fly and doing the red carpet. What people don’t understand is: That Kayla is fake. 

The real Kayla is the one you see in the Professional Fighters League cage. That’s when I feel my truest self come alive. No makeup on. Vaseline on my face. My hair is back, gloves on. Feeling the freaking cage on my back. Jogging my feet on the canvas. Ref looking at me saying, “Are you ready?” That’s when I’m the real Kayla. That other Kayla is … I don’t even know who she is. She’s just someone I have to be.

That Kayla — the fighting Kayla — is on hold for now. But fortunately, everyone’s good in my life, everyone’s healthy. I live kind of far from my family. They’re all based in Ohio, and I’m down here in Florida. I moved my trainer in, so he’s my one quarantine buddy. But everyone is safe, quarantined, not really going out, not doing much. Having food and stuff delivered and hanging tight. We do family FaceTimes — we’re in the middle of virtually reading Nancy Clancy for my niece, and we’re also doing little workouts and stretches together.

I’m reading a bunch of different books at once. I read everything. I’m reading this book about mindfulness, Everyday Mindfulness. Also reading The Seat of the Soul and Whole Again. And I read Shoe Dog not too long ago, which was really good. It’s a memoir by Phil Knight, the co-founder of Nike.

I’m watching Modern Love, which is the series based off of the New York Times column. I’ve been watching some 30 for 30. I’ve watched several of those. I loved the Detroit one about the Pistons of the late ’80s and early ’90s, the “Bad Boys.” They were like bullies. I loved it.

I made a strong attempt to get into The Sopranos, just because it’s one of the most acclaimed shows in television history. Dude, I hate the main character, Tony Soprano, so much. I hate him. I can’t stand it. He’s a sociopath. He kills people, and he cheats on his wife. I just don’t like him. At all. Not even a little bit. I’m not a quitter, so I’m powering through. But I really can’t stand it.

I’m a sucker for sports movies. You know what I used to watch when I was young? I’m talking when I was eight years old or 10. I used to watch Bloodsport before every judo tournament, and that got me really hyped. And I’m obviously obsessed with Rocky movies. Rocky movies are some of the greatest movies of all time.

My whole fighting mentality comes from judo. Judo is really big about respect. It has a very respectful culture. The first thing you do in a match is bow to your opponent to show respect, give thanks, and say, “Ready.”

My opponent is just an obstacle. I never make fights personal. I think that’s huge. That does not work for me. To me, it’s just business. I have a goal, and you’re in my way. The goal is to win the fight. My goal is to win the championship. My goal is to win the belt. Those are my goals. And whoever is in front of me is just an obstacle.

I take pride in the fact that I don’t get emotional or blink in a fight. The one time I ever had any drama in judo was with this Brazilian fighter named Mayra, who was my rival. I had hurt my neck at a tournament and had to pull out. A friend from Brazil then sent me this article that was going around where Mayra had said that I pulled out because I was afraid to compete against her. I took that super, super personal and became obsessed with beating her. The next time I fought her, I lost. I overhyped myself up, and I lost. After that, I realized, Kayla, it doesn’t need to be personal. It doesn’t need to be this serious, life or death. You’re just a cold, calculated killer. You go out there. You do what you’re supposed to do. You win the fight, and you continue. That’s it.

Right now, I’m focusing a lot more on the mental aspect of things. Mentally, who I am as a person, and, internally, how I can become more well-rounded as an individual and as a human being. 

Time to learn how to meditate. I’m used to not ever holding still, so it’s been a lifelong struggle for me. I’m just working on mindfulness and practicing meditation. Slowly working my way up to being able to sit and just be with myself, and my mind, and my body.

I still think it’s very important what we tell ourselves. The story we tell ourselves matters, and I think it’s very important, at a time like this, to continue to set goals. Even if you can’t get out of the house, you can still set a goal. A daily goal, or a weekly goal, or an hourly goal. I still apply all of those tools to my life now. That hasn’t changed. So I’m still setting goals for myself. I’m still trying to work on myself as a human being, as a person, as a fighter. I am finding ways to become the best version of myself, and hopefully, with all this extra time, others can too.

Kayla Harrison
Pro Fighter