ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — Kayla Harrison made an Army veteran tap out and moved closer to cashing in on the richest fight of her pro career: her search for gold over, Harrison can stake her claim to $1 million in the PFL Championship.
Harrison, a two-time judo Olympic gold medallist, has been pushed as the face of the MMA promotion that pushes playoffs and a championship format that ends Dec. 31 in New York with a $1 million prize for each of its six weight class champions.
Harrison (5-0) expects to ring in the new year a champion — and a submission win over Morgan Frier on Thursday night helped clinch the No. 2 seed in the women’s lightweight division. Sarah Kaufman, a former UFC fighter, holds the top spot in the points standings and could be on course for a championship fight against Harrison.
"It’s going to be the PFL’s dream," Harrison yelled inside the cage, "and I’m going to be a millionaire!"
The PFL held the first of three straight regular-season cards at Ovation Hall (inside Ocean Casino Resort) that would set the playoff field for three fight nights in October in Las Vegas. The top eight fighters in the five men’s divisions have to win two bouts in one night to earn a berth in the finals.
Launched last season out of the ashes of World Series of Fighting, the PFL entered a second season with the championship bouts set to run this year at the Hulu Theatre in Madison Square Garden on ESPN2. PFL, which counts comedian Kevin Hart among its celebrity investors , reached a multi-year deal with the network to air fights on ESPN and the streaming ESPN-plus service — the same TV home as industry leader UFC.
"It’s a complementary product to the UFC and others," PFL CEO Peter Murray said. "It’s a different product experience and on a different night of the week. What we know about this fan, they want more live quality product. We’re able to supply that."
The 29-year-old Harrison was the main attraction of an eight-fight card (Kaufman was a walkover winner ) that had early bouts run on ESPN-plus and four fights in primetime on ESPN2.
"It’s real money in this sport," Murray said. "We lead with fighters first, let them do their business and pay them. When money’s at stake, not only do the fighters lean in, what did we see tonight?"
PFL had five first-round finishes and the next winner in the bracket awaits — there’s no need for the traditional fighter callout for a fight that may tantalize fans yet never happen. The lightweights and featherweights fight July 25 and light heavyweights and heavyweights complete the regular season on Aug. 8 on the Boardwalk.
Harrison graded her fight night a B-minus — just like PFL, trying to score an A. The arena had maybe 2,000 fans and the promotion has yet to catch on with the TV audience, struggling to draw 150,000 viewers on cable. The lag in fight cards — there’s a two-month gap between the final playoff card on Oct. 31 and championship night — and lack of starpower in a sport already facing a glut of secondary promotions puts PFL on the backburner.
"This year is really all about quality distribution and broad reach," Murray said. "It’s the early days. We’re focused on that live video presentation and distributing it around the world. That’s where we’re putting a lot of our creativity, a lot of our resources. As we continue to grow awareness, and build the demand for the live event experience, that will follow."
Harrison, a close friend of UFC bantamweight champ Amanda Nunes, could spark the growth.
"I’ve made it very clear that my goal is to go down as one of the best to ever do it," Harrison said.
Still very raw in the cage, PFL has built a 155-pound division around Harrison. No U.S. judoka — man or woman — had ever won an Olympic gold medal before Harrison beat Britain’s Gemma Gibbons to win the women’s 78-kilogram and under division at the 2012 Olympics in London . She won gold again four years later at the Rio de Janeiro Games and made her MMA debut last year.
"We expect to be with her for many years," Murray said.
All Harrison cares about is the next fight — and some big bucks in her pocket to go with the gold around her neck.