PFL London Press Conference
By Mark Pickering – @_MarkPickering
USA Olympic champions fly the flag for MMA on return to London
Team USA Olympic champions-turned MMA fighters Kayla Harrison and Claressa Shields returned to London, where they won their first Olympic titles, to promote a British expansion of an American mixed martial arts promotion this week.
America’s first Olympic judo champion Harrison, 31, retired after matching her London 2012 Olympic victory with gold in Rio and made her mixed martial arts debut in 2018.
Shields, 27, marked women’s boxing’s first inclusion in the Olympics by capturing gold in London and, like Harrison, repeated that feat in Brazil.
Harrison and Shields have been two high-profile recruits for the New York-based Professional Fighters League (PFL) who held a press conference featuring their Olympic aces this week to announce their first events in the Great Britain in August.
PFL CEO Pete Murray, a former NFL and Under Armour executive, announced back-to-back shows in Britain with the second instalment of their annual Play-Off series emanating from the Motorpoint Arena in Cardiff, Wales, on Saturday 13 August with the third edition taking place at the London 2012 boxing venue, Copper Box Arena, on Saturday 20 August.
The events will be broadcast on ESPN in America and on Channel 4 in Britain.
“I would say that judo was my first love but MMA is my true love,” said 2010 world judo champion Harrison who is undefeated in MMA with a 13-0-0 record.
“Depression is a thing after the Olympics, athletes are super obsessed, I was very lucky, very blessed to get two golds medals but then I got a cheque for $25,000 from the USA Olympic Committee and a pat on back.
“I can’t believe I’m that old (winning gold here 10 years ago). To go to the Olympics and represent your country is a huge honour. Everyone dreams of wining gold. To go and win gold and be the first to do it from your country, I couldn’t even dream that up. It was an amazing part of my life, something I’ll cherish forever. London will always have a special place in my heart.”
World middleweight boxing champion Shields, who sports a 12-0-0 pro boxing record, is actively pursuing a career in pro boxing and MMA at the same time and boasts a 1-1-0 record in the PFL.
“The prospect of being a two-sport world champion is scary,” said Shields who is set to box British rival Savannah Marshall in an undisputed middleweight world title clash in September.
“Fighting MMA is so hard but everyone is supporting me. People say I can be a world champion in PFL, well, I’m going to do my best. I want to be the best PFL fighter I can be and I want to win the tournament and million dollars prize money next year.”
“Boxing is super easy for me, I’ve boxed for 16 years. I know the sport like the back of my hand.”
“Amanda Nunes (UFC Women’s Featherweight Champion) told me to come to MMA, she choked the life out of me in training. I wanted to experience fighting in a cage and to prove I’m not just a great boxer but a great fighter.”
Harrison, who netted $2,000,000 by winning the PFL’s Lightweight Tournament in 2019 and 2021, explained how she decided to make the leap from judo to MMA and follow in the footsteps of famed judoka such as Japan’s Hidehiko Yoshida and Poland’s Paweł Nastula.
“I had spoken with the International Judo Federation, I visited their events, I had a list of things I wanted to help with, like helping grow women’s judo, I wanted to go overseas and to grow the sport in America, I had all these ideas.
“I was offered like $25,000 for an ambassador role and that wouldn’t even have paid for my rent. After that I figured that I wouldn’t stay involved in judo but my competitive juices were still flowing and I started training and after a month of striking I knew I had to do this sport.
“It was amazing to be a white belt all over again (in MMA), it was really humbling, I love a challenge. I won every tournament there was to win in judo and now MMA is a whole now mountain for me. I’m very happy with my decision and I’m very happy that I found the PFL and that they found me.”
Harrison believes the MMA community has underestimated the merits of her illustrious judo CV.
“I think that’s the case, for whatever reason, but I’m here to help grow MMA now and judo is a big piece of what got me to where I am today,” America’s most successful judoka told Around The Rings.
Harrison, who is reportedly now the highest-paid female fighter on the planet, revealed she will compete on 1 July at Atlanta at PFL 6 and then hopes to compete in London.
“I think London and the UK is a great gateway for the rest of Europe and from there the PFL can branch out into other markets, I think this is only the beginning and we’re about to explode worldwide.”
Harrison’s exploits on the judo tatami and in the cage has also put her on the radar of professional wrestling companies with the industry-leading World Wrestling Entertainment bringing in name fighters such as Floyd Mayweather, Ronda Rousey, and Tyson Fury in recent years.
“I’ve had some offers to do pro wrestling but we’ll see. I’m still in my competitive zone and I’m not sure about my acting skills (laughs). Right now I’m focused purely on mixed martial arts.”
The PFL 2022 Play-Off series launches at the Hulu Theater, Madison Square Garden in New York on Friday 5 August.