Two-time judo Olympic gold medalist Kayla Harrison is set to make her MMA debut Thursday with the Pro Fight League at the Chicago Theatre. The fights will be televised on the NBC Sports Network at 8 p.m. central.
Following the PFL’s open workouts on Tuesday, Harrison spoke with Chicago Now on being compared to Ronda Rousey, the judo to MMA transition, and standing up for victims of sexual abuse.
People want to compare you to Ronda Rousey, but is that in the past for you as you achieved more in judo than she did?
“Ronda is always going to be like that little rabbit in front of me. When I was 16 and moved to the Pedro’s (coach Jimmy Pedro and Jim Sr.), she was the superstar, she was the golden girl, she was the one that everyone was watching. Every day I said to myself, ‘I’m going to be her some day, I’m going to be better than her, anything she can do I can do better.’
“It helped take me to the highest levels of my sport, so I don’t see this being any different. It’s positive motivation for me. It’s healthy. I think it’s always healthy to have something to chase, something to look forward to.
“Now I train at ATT (American Top Team) and in some sense Amanda Nunes is after me and Joanna (Jedrzejczyk) is after me. I see these girls, I see how successful they are, I want to be them. I want to be the superstar, I want to be counted amongst the greats like them.”
Is judo a better background in MMA than wrestling?
“Wrestling is great, you can take them down, you’re a good grinder, you have a really good pace and I think they’re really good at that wrestling mentality. But judo is a little bit different in the sense that not only can you take them down, but you can submit them.
“So you have a top game and you have a ground game. Whereas if you’re a boxer you can only strike, if you’re a wrestler you can take them down but you don’t know how to submit them. So judo gives you a little bit of both.”
Do a lot of people ask you about being on Impractical Jokers?
“That show is so popular and I had no idea before I went on. They reached out to my assistant, and her sons watch the show and she said ‘I think you should do it. It’s really funny.’ I went to the show, I had no idea. It was hilarious.
“The day that it aired I had like 3,000 new followers. Everyone was like, ‘Oh! You kicked Murr’s ass!’ And I was like, ‘A lot of people watch this show.’ It was a lot of fun.”
Being a victim of abuse (Harrison was sexually abused as a young girl by former coach Daniel Doyle, who’s currently serving a 10-year prison sentence), how horrifying was it to learn the extent of the USA Gymnastics scandal?
“It’s a tragedy. It’s absolutely insane that that still goes on in our country and that people in power allow… Don’t tell me that over 100 girls are abused and nobody knows about it. That’s complete bullsh*t and it breaks my heart.
“I’ve been a mentor to a lot of the girls it’s happened to and I’ve talked to them about it. You never want anything like this to happen, but I guess the one good thing about it is people are now really having this conversation.
“They have created an army of survivors. They are a force to be reckoned with and they refuse to be silent, and they’ve all stood up and they’ve all been really brave and really strong and surrounded each other with strength and braveness, and I think that that is hopefully going to help change the culture and make it so that we don’t ever have to have another Me Too movement. There should never be another scandal like that ever again. It should never happen.”
Is it true the Jerry Sandusky scandal made you want to start a foundation for victims of abuse?
“It inspired me to start my foundation, it inspired me to speaking out and I haven’t really stopped since. I just recently finished a book. It’s not a memoir and it’s not like a text book. It’s kind of a combination of both. It’s called Fighting Back and it uses my story as a guideline in what to look for in victims of sexual abuse.
“It’s about grooming and what it [looks like] to be in the silence, how you can talk to your kids to see if something is going on. I really want it to be for everyone. Eventually I want it to be in the seventh grade health class [curriculum], but I also want teachers, caretakers and social workers, police officers and doctors, parents, any one who’s around kids to read it, understand it, learn from it and to share it.”