NEW YORK – On Friday, Kayla Harrison will attempt to claim her third consecutive PFL World Championship when she faces a familiar foe in Brazilian standout Larissa Pacheco. The two have shared the cage twice before, with Harrison picking up decision wins each time, but Pacheco is promising something different this time around.
Pacheco has been vocal about her intentions to unseat a woman she now considers a rival, but Harrison shut down that talk at Wednesday's pre-event press conference ahead of the card.
"I mean, can you call it a rivalry if you've never won a round?" Harrison asked. "I don't know if that's fair. I don't want to put that kind of pressure on Larissa. It's not a rivalry. She has nothing to lose."
Whatever you want to call it, the stakes of Friday's contest between Harrison (15-0) and Pacheco (18-4) are clear. The women's lightweight matchup headlines the ESPN+ pay-per-view event (8 p.m. ET), a first for the promotion, at Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden. The winner will be crowned the 2022 PFL World Champion and collect the $1 million award that comes along with that title.
While Harrison was dominant in their first two meetings, they also took place more than three years ago, and Pacheco has since claimed five first-round knockouts to book the trilogy fight.
A two-time Olympic gold medalist in judo, Harrison's grappling prowess is unquestionable. However, as she continues to develop her striking game, some wonder how her chin might hold up should she be hit clean by a heavy-handed striker, which we have yet to see in competition. Harrison insists that doesn't mean it hasn't happened.
"Just because you don't see me get hit in a fight doesn't mean I don't get hit," Harrison said. "I train hard. I train harder than pretty much anyone I know, and I put in the work so that on fight night, it looks easy.
"I get hit. I'm not worried about getting hit. I'm going to go out there, I'm going to instill my will one round at a time, one minute at a time, one exchange at a time, one breath at a time, and I'm going to break her."
Harrison's confidence is not new. As a two-time Olympic gold medalist, she's long understood the type of self-belief that is required to succeed at the highest level of sport. However, she also insists that doesn't mean she's not taking her opponent seriously as she prepares for the third meeting with Pacheco.
"I think for me, it's always been about staying humble and staying hungry," she told MMA Underground. "I know that she's young, she's hungry, she's a killer in her own right. She's got nothing to lose, and she's coming to take my head off, and I think about that every time I maybe don't want to train, or I maybe don't want to go for a run, or I maybe want to sleep in. I think about that.
"I stay a dog. I stay working harder. I stay grinding because she's coming for me, and if I'm not completely prepared, and I make a mistake, she's going to capitalize, and it's my job to be the best version of Kayla Harrison on Friday night."
The 2022 season is expected to be Harrison's final run in the PFL's unique format before focusing more on superfights in 2023, including a potential meeting with reigning Bellator women's featherweight champion Cris Cyborg, a woman widely considered the greatest pound-for-pound female fighter in history. But what that potential pairing could generate in interest depends heavily on Harrison walking away with her third consecutive PFL title.
Harrison is aware of that fact, and she promises to deliver.
"I'm excited for Friday night," Harrison said. "I can't wait. It's been a great camp for me. I feel like I'm in the best physical shape of my life. I feel calm. I feel ready. I feel like a killer, and I know that on the other side of this fight are a lot of good things."
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