This summer, Kayla Harrison will attempt to defend her Olympic gold medal in judo. If all goes as planned, she’ll end up atop a podium at the Rio Games, add more hardware to the trophy case and return home with a big decision to make.
Months ahead of the Summer Olympics, Harrison and her agent have been in talks with the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) about making the leap to mixed martial arts, a path Ronda Rousey followed to fame and fortune following her bronze medal at the Beijing Olympics eight years ago.
“It’s an opportunity that I didn’t have five years ago, six years ago,” Harrison, 25, said recently, “and for me, it’d be dumb of me not to consider it. I have an opportunity to make a lot of money, do something that could potentially be a lot of fun.”
It’s not just judo. MMA organizations have been mining Olympic sports for talent since their earliest days and increasingly are using sports such as judo, wrestling, boxing and taekwondo as feeder systems of sorts. While the trend has helped fill the MMA ranks with well-honed talent, it has also given young athletes a dream beyond the Olympic podium.
“When I grew up, I thought only about wrestling. Wrestling was everything,” said Daniel Cormier, the UFC’s light heavyweight champion who was a member of the U.S. Olympic freestyle wrestling teams at the 2004 and 2008 Games. “I thought my career would end with me standing atop the Olympic gold medal stand and then going off to coach wrestling.”
For years, that was the case. Many Olympic sports lack a professional, money-making level. So athletes traditionally trained, competed and climbed onto the world’s biggest stage once every four years. With a firm expiration date set on their athletic career, they then tried to find a way to make a living once the Olympic spotlight dimmed. The rise of MMA has created opportunity, seamless in some cases.
“You see it on TV, and it looks brutal,” said Henry Cejudo, a UFC flyweight who won gold at the Beijing Games in 2008, “but for a wrestler, it’s like Disneyland. It’s a place to finally make money for the time, effort, blood and sweat and tears you put into the sport. That’s what mixed martial arts does.”
Harrison has been involved in judo since she was 6 years old, spending her formative years as Rousey’s training partner. She opted to stay involved in the sport after becoming the first American to win Olympic judo gold, but she has followed the UFC casually in recent years.
When she tunes in, she can’t resist picturing herself in the octagon, imagining how her skills would translate and how exactly she would match up against the best professional fighters in the world.
“I do try to picture myself in a cage beating the crap out of somebody,” she said. “And the fact that I’m not completely disgusted about it lets me know I’d be able to do it. I mean, it’s a little barbaric, if you think about it: You’re getting in a cage, trying to kill someone. I think you have to be a little bit crazy to do MMA. You have to be okay with modern day gladiators.”
Unlike previous Summer Games, Harrison and hundreds of other Olympic athletes head to Rio de Janeiro knowing the Olympics don’t have to be the end of the road. For Harrison and young judo aspirants around the world, Rousey showed that the Olympic sport and a childhood dream could ultimately serve as a mere stepping stone.
“I’m not saying I would grab headlines as much as her because she’s a very unique person,” Harrison said. “But I think having a broader audience and having a bigger impact than what I have now is definitely something that I’m interested in.”
MMA does not have widespread youth leagues and summer camps. Athletes tend to be drawn from more specialized disciplines: karate, kickboxing, wrestling, judo, jiu-jitsu, boxing. But in recent years, MMA organizations have made a more concerted effort to establish relationships with the Olympic teams and take advantage of the ready-made feeder system.
The UFC alone has 510 active athletes representing 51 countries. Several have backgrounds in Olympic sports. Sara McMann, a Takoma Park native, wrestled in the 2004 Olympics and made her UFC debut in 2013, for example; Dan Henderson is a UFC middleweight who wrestled in the 1992 and 1996 Games; welterweight Hector Lombard was a member of Cuba’s judo team at the 2000 Olympics; and middleweight Yoel Romero wrestled for Cuba at the 2000 and 2004 Summer Games.
The UFC roster includes a slew of former college wrestling champions as well, such as welterweight Johny Hendricks (two-time NCAA national champ at Oklahoma State), heavyweight Cain Velasquez (two-time all-American at Arizona State), middleweight Chris Weidman (two-time all-American at Hofstra) and many others.
“Introducing mixed martial arts to younger wrestlers, younger judo competitors, whatever it may be, we think is a real foundation for us to grow this sport,” said Dave Sholler, a vice president of public relations and athlete development for UFC. “We’ve been very strategic in how we grow this sport — particularly with younger athletes — by identifying strategic partnerships with wrestling, karate, jiu-jitsu and other disciplines that make up mixed martial arts.”
In recent years, the UFC has established formal relationships with national organizing bodies for wrestling in the United States, Britain and Canada, plus the U.S. taekwondo team. Its chief matchmakers, Joe Silva and Sean Shelby, rely heavily on their network of contacts in the traditional martial arts to recruit new talent. They’ll also attend tournaments and will be closely monitoring the action in Rio this summer.
The end result: MMA organizations are identifying potential talent earlier than ever, and athletes are transitioning to MMA at a younger age than a decade ago, realizing their fighting careers don’t have to end when the Olympic torch extinguishes.
“It’s not the end-all be-all,” said Phil Davis, a four-time all-American wrestler at Penn State who now has 20 MMA bouts under his belt and competes for Bellator MMA.
“It used to be a platform where you’re recognized for the whole world and appreciated for your art form and your dedication. Now there’s so many others ways you can do that and be recognized on a much bigger level than the Olympics.”
Cormier, regarded as one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the game, said because the Summer Games take place just once every four years, “nothing really compares to the Olympics.”
“But outside the Olympics, nothing really compares to the UFC either,” he said. “The fighting is intense, the competition pretty equal. The energy, the glitz, the glamour of the UFC — there’s nothing like it.”
Daniel Kelly started in judo when he was 6 years old, his sights always set on the Olympics. He represented his native Australia in the 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012 Summer Games. After the London Olympics, Kelly was 34 years old and knew that the Rio Games weren’t in his future. So he turned to MMA.
He since has built an 11-1 record but recently took a leave from the sport to help coach Australia’s Rio-bound judo squad. On his team, Kelly is constantly answering questions around the gym about life beyond judo.
“The path has already been set for them, and they know it’s a possibility,” Kelly says. “It’s a lot more appealing now.”
Olympic sports provide fertile training ground for MMA. For a freestyle wrestler such as Cormier, there might be six Olympic slots every four years — “That’s insane,” he said. That inevitably means there are a lot of wrestlers who fall short of their dreams but who might still want an outlet to apply their fighting skills.
Cormier said the transition isn’t easy. After years of being a respected and feared wrestler, he felt like a “guppy in a pond,” walking into a gym where younger MMA fighters were more skilled and adept at throwing punches or landing kicks.
“It was hard to catch up,” he said.
A background in an Olympic sport provides a great base, but every MMA champion must prove he or she is versatile. A wrestler must learn how to strike, a judoka might need to improve punching or kicking, while a boxer must learn to grapple on the ground.
Not every Olympian competing in a combat sport aspires to MMA, but wrestlers have found their way to the octagon more often than other athletes, particularly in the United States.
“If you look at some of the success the Olympic-level wrestlers have had in MMA, I’m not surprised,” says Scott Coker, the chief executive of Bellator MMA. “Wrestling is America’s martial art.”
There’s a level of discipline and intensity that helps with the transition. Cejudo started wrestling when he was just 10 years old. As a young athlete, he watched former wrestlers Randy Couture and Kevin Jackson compete in the octagon.
“I just knew that would be the next step after wrestling,” he said.
Cejudo turned to MMA when he was 25. The transition was infinitely easier than starting from scratch, he said. He began fighting with a mastery of one discipline but also the work ethic and mental wherewithal to handle the pressures inside and outside the octagon. When he fought for the first time three years ago — barely two months after walking away from wrestling — Cejudo said he felt he had a lifetime of preparation behind him. The stakes, pressure and attention were all familiar.
“I mean, I wrestled in places — parts unknown in Russia and Dagestan. I wrestled in Cuba, Iran, where you just have no idea if you’ll even make it out,” he said with a laugh. “You definitely feel prepared for much nicer events like the UFC.”
Harrison loves judo. If she doesn’t pursue an MMA career, she would love to remain involved in judo somehow. She currently lives off training stipends and sponsorship money, plus appearance and speaking fees she racked up after winning gold in London.
If she were to continue her athletic career in the UFC, Harrison would need to lose more than 35 pounds to fight as a bantamweight (135 pounds), the organization’s largest weight class. She has thought about the transition and realizes that it would entail more than a physical adjustment.
“One question I have for myself: Do you really want to start from the bottom again? Are you ready to start all over?” Harrison said. “You’re going to be 26 years old; are you going to completely reshape your whole life and reinvent yourself? Because that’s what I’d have to do in order to do the UFC or MMA.”
Rousey, a two-time Olympian, won bronze in Beijing to become the first American woman to medal in judo. She entered MMA against her mother’s wishes and even as UFC was openly resistant to female combatants. It took her two years after retiring from judo to make her MMA debut, three years to fight for Strikeforce and four years to break down UFC’s gender walls.
Even if Harrison does make the leap to an MMA career, she might not try to follow Rousey’s exact footsteps.
“One of the things I’ve seen watching her career: too much, too soon, too fast,” Harrison said. “She just was 0 to 100 real quick. For me, I think that slow and steady wins the race. I want to be as good as I can, but I want to do it in the right time frame, so when there are challenges set in front of me, I’m ready to meet them.”
Harrison was just a teenager when she first met Rousey. They trained together under Jimmy Pedro and lived as roommates and training partners in New England. Back then, it was a “frenemy” relationship, Harrison said: intense and competitive.
“I think when you have two psychos in a room, there’s going to be fireworks,” Harrison said. “It’s something actually I kind of miss.”
Harrison traveled to Beijing in 2008 to help Rousey prep for her Olympic matches. Their training battles were the stuff of legend in judo circles. Trying to best Rousey, who is about 31 /2 years older, Harrison said she developed a “Ronda complex,” and many nights would cry herself to sleep.
“Anything she could do, I wanted to do better. I’ve always had that feeling,” Harrison said. “But it’s made me push myself harder and do better. . . . Ronda was at the right place at the right time, and she was a perfect person to take women’s MMA to the level she’s taken it. If it had been me, it wouldn’t have been as successful because I’m not Ronda. That’s the truth of it.
“I don’t have any regrets. I’m happy where I am. . . . If I do MMA, I’ll have a Ronda complex again, and I’ll have to do everything bigger and better. But for now, I’m happy just being Kayla.”