Future MMA rivals? Kayla Harrison and Claressa Shields boast long friendship

Boxer Claressa Shields and judoka Kayla Harrison now compete in MMA
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Kayla Harrison knows exactly where she was the first time she met Claressa Shields: the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics.

“We were just two young girls,” Harrison recalled on Wednesday. “She told me, ‘I’m gonna win,’ and I said, ‘Me too.’ And then we both watched each other win, and we’ve stayed in touch ever since.”

Not only did Harrison and Shields both win Olympic gold in London, they also made history. Harrison became the first American – male or female – to win gold in judo. One week later, Shields became the first American woman to win boxing gold (women’s boxing debuted in London), as well as the youngest boxing champion since 1924.

Four years later at the 2016 Rio Olympics, Harrison and Shields both successfully defended their gold medals. And then – having reached the highest level of their sports not once, but twice – both athletes left Rio ready for a new opportunity.

On October 25, 2016, Shields announced that – after compiling a 77-1 record as an amateur boxer – she was turning pro. Two days later, Harrison announced that she would transitioning from judo to pursue a career in mixed martial arts (MMA).

Harrison made her debut in the Professional Fighting League (PFL) in June 2018. At the 2019 PFL Championship, she won the women’s lightweight title, accompanied by a million-dollar check, which is equal to the prize money awarded in the men’s divisions. She is currently boasts an 8-0 record in MMA (7-0 PFL).

“My goal isn’t to be a millionaire, my goal is to be the best in the world. And as a result, I’ve become a millionaire,” Harrison explains. “One thing my coach said to me when I was young, that has really stuck with me, is, ‘If you want money, win. And the money will come.'”

Shields also made the most of her pro boxing career, winning world championship titles in three weight divisions. But for Shields, currently 10-0 as a pro, the money didn’t come quite as easily.

When Shields won her third title fight in January 2020, the Washington Post reported that she was guaranteed $300,000 for the fight. In comparison, the Post reported that Deontay Wilder was guaranteed $4 million for his 2018 title fight against Tyson Fury, and ultimately took home $10 million once pay-per-view revenue was included.

“I’m not upset with boxing, but boxing has always been a sexist sport,” Shields said earlier this month. “Until they start treating the women fairly, women’s boxing will never go to where we’re supposed to go.”

In recent years, and in large part to Harrison’s former judo training partner Ronda Rousey, MMA has become a more lucrative option for female combat athletes.

“You go to any promotion, any night of fights, and women usually steal the show,” Harrison explains. “Business-wise, I think MMA is a huge opportunity… for women in general. The platform that it gives you, the reach that it gives you. There are just so many eyes on it.”

And so, Shields turned to MMA. On December 1, she announced that she had signed a contract with the PFL, though she also plans to continue boxing. Before making the decision, Shields asked Harrison for her advice.

“She reached out and I told her the truth. I said, ‘This is an awesome move for you.'” Harrison recalls. “I think that she’s an amazing athlete… she’s young, she’s hungry. And I think the sky’s the limit for her.”

Down the road, it seems only inevitable that Shields – best female boxer of all-time – will face off against Harrison – the best American judoka of all-time. In the meantime, Harrison says she is excited to help Shields get up to speed.

“I’ll mentor her and guide her. And if the day comes when we eventually do fight, I know that we’ll do it with mutual respect. It’s just business.”

Note: Kayla Harrison was initially expected to compete on Thursday in Titan FC, but her fight was cancelled after her opponent – Jozette Cottonfailed to make weight

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