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On a long climb to the top, make short work of an opponent

Kayla Harrison’s second fight of the Professional Fighters League regular season played out as predictably as the betting odds suggested, tipped heavily in her favor.

Harrison, who has won the PFL women’s lightweight title in each of the past two seasons, needed just two minutes, 35 seconds, a body shot and a flurry of punches on Friday night to dispatch Kaitlin Young and qualify for the postseason.

On August 20 in London, Harrison, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in judo, will face Martina Jindrova for a spot in the PFL final.

Beyond that fight, the prospects for a high-profile fight with either Amanda Nunes or Cristiane Justino (also known as “Cris Cyborg”), the two best-known fighters in Harrison’s weight range, remain murky. Nunes is under contract to the Ultimate Fighting Championship and is scheduled to face Julianna Pena on July 30, and Justino is aligned with the Bellator mixed martial arts promotion.

A series of fights involving Harrison, Nunes and Justino remains an attractive if remote possibility, and Donn Davis, the PFL’s president and co-owner, maintains that he would promote an event along with Bellator or the UFC. But for now, existing contracts take precedence, and Harrison said she is focused on transforming from a judo expert to a versatile mixed martial artist.

“I’m just a much more evolved fighter. I’m a much more evolved person,” Harrison said at a pre-fight news conference. “Every day I get a little better and I’m still scratching the surface.”

Harrison, now 14-0 in professional MMA, was scheduled to face Julia Budd, whose kickboxing background suggested she would be Harrison’s toughest professional opponent yet. But Budd pulled out of the fight after an injury late in training camp, and the PFL replaced her with the 36-year-old Young, who entered Friday’s fight with a record of 12-12-1.

After touching gloves at the opening bell, the fighters cautiously circled each other. Harrison, in a southpaw stance, slid forward, feinting and gauging Young’s reactions.

And then he charged, pushing Young into the fence before slamming her into the canvas. Then came a sequence of grappling, which favored Harrison, the judo expert, and finally the punches that prompted the referee to stop the fight.

“The goal is to go out there and dominate,” Harrison, who turned 32 on Saturday, said in a television interview after the fight. “Sometimes you just feel it.”

Earlier in the fight, which took place at the Overtime Elite Arena in Atlanta, announcers noted lopsided betting odds, saying one player had bet $2.7 million on a Harrison win.

Given the circumstances — a two-time Olympic champion against a last-minute replacement — that seven-figure promise was less a gamble than an investment. Just before the opening bell, punters listed Harrison as an under-6,000 favorite, meaning a $6,000 bet would generate a $100 payout. At those odds, the $2.7 million bet would have netted $45,000.

The PFL hopes that the money it has invested in Harrison’s career will pay similar dividends in the long run.

Harrison’s contract covers two seasons and pays him approximately $1 million per fight. The math backwards suggests he made around $6,450 per second on Friday night, if you don’t count the time he spent training. The PFL believes the money is worth it considering the boost Harrison brings to the PFL’s profile.

The UFC is to MMA what the NFL is to professional football: the biggest, most money-making brand and the undisputed leader in the industry. In 2016, talent agency Endeavor paid $4.2 billion for a majority stake in fight promotion, and the company is now targeting a $10 billion valuation.

The PFL aims to consolidate its position in second place.

While the UFC will hold its July 30 event at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, the PFL held its recent Dallas-area card at a 2,500-capacity arena in Arlington.

Davis notes that the PFL’s broadcast partnership with ESPN gives it the same wide distribution enjoyed by the UFC, but acknowledges that he is an underdog who benefits from having Harrison under contract. He says that Harrison is about to become the sport’s next boxing brand.

“Imagine if the USFL had discovered and developed Tom Brady,” Davis said in an interview before the fight, referring to the United States Soccer League.

Still, the fights that could bring Harrison and the PFL to new levels of prominence remain elusive and hypothetical.

Nunes, Harrison’s former training partner, has said she welcomes a fight, provided Harrison signs with the UFC. And Nunes is a former champion, scheduled for a July 30 rematch with Pena, who won the UFC featherweight title last December.

Justino, who last competed in April, reportedly negotiating a boxing match against undisputed lightweight boxing champion Katie Taylor.

“I have been training and training boxing for a fight. I’m looking for a fight”, Justino told reporters after his most recent MMA fight. “I have done everything. I did wrestling. I did jujitsu. I did a muay thai fight. It’s the only one I haven’t done, it’s boxing. It is one of my dreams.”

The next step for Harrison is the semi-final fight against Jindrova and potentially a spot in the 2022 PFL final.

The only guarantee beyond those fights: one more season in Harrison’s PFL contact.

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