Kayla Harrison got a call last year that would change her life forever.
Her stepfather, Bob Nichols, died suddenly on May 19, 2020. On top of the grief of losing him, Harrison then had to jump into action for her family. She became the full-time guardian of her niece Kyla, 8, and her 2-year-old nephew Emery.
The children had been staying with Nichols and Harrison’s mother, Jeannie Yazell, in Ohio, with Harrison’s sister going through personal issues. But Yazell had a stroke in December 2019, and with Nichols gone, she was unable care for Kyla and Emery. The two kids moved to Florida with Harrison.
Overnight, Harrison, a two-time Olympic judo champion and the defending PFL women’s lightweight champion, had the role of single mother.
“We’re in the midst of potty training right now,” Harrison told ESPN. “Literally, you go from being a bad b—- to changing 15 diapers a day. It really changes your life.”
Harrison’s PFL career was put on hold in 2020 due to the promotion canceling its season in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. But she kept herself busy with the kids and training. Last November, Harrison returned to the cage and picked up a TKO win over Courtney King under the Invicta FC banner.
Harrison said she would roll her eyes when fighters in postfight interviews said they were competing for their families. She gets it now. Harrison has Kyla and Emery inside the PFL bubble with her in Atlantic City, New Jersey, as she prepares to win her second straight $1 million women’s lightweight title.
“I can admit that I was like, ‘OK, cool, good for you,'” Harrison said. “But they give you a new sense of purpose. Like, no I’m fighting for my family. I’m fighting for these two kids. I want to be the best possible role model for them and I want to leave behind a legacy and I want to make them proud. It’s just a totally different aspect when you have kids.”
Harrison’s life changed dramatically during the PFL’s yearlong hiatus, and with a roster of 60 fighters, the experience of some of those fighters varied dramatically over the past 12 months. ESPN asked six of the top fighters in the PFL to share their emotions, thoughts and memories from a year away from the cage.
Kayla Harrison, defending PFL women’s lightweight champion
My mother’s husband, Bob Nichols, was pretty much taking care of my mom, taking care of the kids. Really just the rock of the family. Obviously, my mother being older and having just suffered a major medical emergency was not able to take care of them after Bob passed away. So, I became their guardian. And it has been awesome.
I think it’s safe to say it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, but also the most important thing I’ve ever done in my life. And yeah, I would be lying if I didn’t say 2020 was a huge struggle. Just getting my bearings, learning how to be Mom, instead of the fun aunt who hops them up full of sugar and sends them home. A lot of big changes. That definitely took up a lot of my time. It was really learning how to be a Mom and training that kept me grounded and kept me focused. Kept me centered.
When I found out the season was canceled, I didn’t stop training. I was still at the gym every day — probably even more, because I was so frustrated and so hell bent on not wasting my time. To be in the prime of your career and being told you’re going to have to sit on the shelf, it’s probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever heard.
I think the cancellation was really good for me, a blessing in disguise. I think I developed exponentially last year as a fighter, which might not have happened if I fought four times back-to-back-to-back-to back. If I had to fight four times last year, even I can say, I’m pretty tough, but that might have been a little too much for my plate. Hindsight, I think it was a good thing that I only had one fight. I think it was good for me.
You have to remember these kids are coming from just a ridiculous amount of trauma and instability. They just lost someone who was their father figure, who they loved. They just got taken from their home in Ohio. And they know me, they love me. They don’t have their parents. They’ve just had a really, really hard uphill battle their whole life. They’ve been dealt some pretty s—ty cards.
The biggest and most overwhelming aspect of it for me is it’s now my job to protect them, to nurture them, to love them, to give them a safe, happy, healthy environment where they can thrive. And to be quite honest, that scares the s— out of me. Every single day I was wondering if I was doing right or if I was messing up. It’s the hardest job in the world. It’s so crazy, because you think getting in a cage with someone trying to take your head off is scary or that training is hard — “it’s such a grind!” — oh my God, it’s so easy compared to raising kids.
Clay Collard, PFL lightweight and pro boxer
The only way I make money is by fighting. That’s how I make a living. PFL was kind enough to let me box last year. I did seven boxing matches between January 2020 and February 2021. I won the first five. I think it’s helped me become an all-around better fighter. I was staying active while a lot of people weren’t throughout the year. I think boxers have the best hands, they’re the best strikers. So, I learned how to deal with that, learned how to move with that. It’s done nothing but help me as far as fighting goes.
I gained a lot of fans. I got my name out there more. I got a lot of publicity for it. I got some wins on my boxing record. It was nothing but good for me. I had fun, I made a little money, I paid my bills. I’m facing top prospects, up-and-comers, undefeated guys in boxing. Young, hungry guys. Those are the guys I’m going after. I’m not going after no stupid money fight — I was fighting real competition. I was fighting top prospects that are supposed to be the next great thing.
All these people are talking about boxing — I’m living it. I’m going out there and doing it. I’m not running my mouth about it, either. I love showing up and fighting, man. And that’s it.
I think everybody I fought was a better boxer than I am. But I’m just tougher. That’s what my coaches always say: “They might be a better boxer, but you’re a better fighter. Go out there and prove it.”
In 2021, I’m focused on the PFL season. I’m focused on Anthony Pettis in my first fight. At the end of the year, maybe I go back to boxing. Maybe I go back and forth. But right now, I’m focused on the PFL tournament.
I’m excited. That’s why I do this, to fight the tough guys. I’m excited to go out there and prove I am one of the best fighters in the world. Pettis is the perfect opponent to do that against. I’m amped. That’s the ultimate Cinderella story, man. That’s me, man. I’m ready to shock the world. From boxing to MMA. I had a run in the UFC and I didn’t have my head on straight. Now, I do. I think it’s gonna be a bad night for Pettis. I’m ready to go give it to him.
Lance Palmer, two-time PFL featherweight champion
Once I realized that I wasn’t gonna be fighting last year, at first it was kind of a salty taste in my mouth about the whole thing. I just went full force with my other stuff.
I basically spent the time growing my other businesses. I own a landscape and snow removal business in Columbus, Ohio, and just stayed busy with that and kept growing that. Outside of that, I do real estate lending. Those two things were my income for the year. With banks not lending to people who were trying to flip homes or do whatever they were doing because of COVID, that gave me the perfect opportunity to grow that side of the business. Focusing on the real estate lending isn’t too much work on my end — it’s just paperwork and making sure that everything on my end is covered in case they default — but honestly, I didn’t have the time to do it while I was fighting.
I have buddies who own really big hardscape businesses and they’ve kind of moved into outdoor living, as far as pools and other things. Doing giant jobs. They would pass the smaller jobs onto me, and that’s kind of what got me super busy.
It got to the point where I’m getting voicemails sent to me every day for spring cleanups and mulch and tons of different stuff. It worked out, because I built my reputation in the city as an up-and-coming business.
In terms of finally returning, my main goal has always been to do the best I can as a fighter and get better every day. I fought 11 times within a two-year period, and having last year off — even though it wasn’t by my choice — I just let my body heal and I focused on getting stronger. I focused on working on certain areas. I worked on getting my mind off fighting and it was actually really refreshing. This fight camp has been really refreshing in its own way, though — getting back to things and stepping inside the bubble.
Tom Lawlor, PFL light heavyweight, UFC veteran and professional wrestler
I did what I was doing before the PFL was canceled — independent pro wrestling — and I tried to resume life as much as I could normally. I was out of work for a good portion of 2020 because of the pandemic. Finally, I was able to get some dates beginning in June. I taped some matches for New Japan Pro-Wrestling in California, which aired later. I did not expect to get a call from New Japan or from any big organization.
It gave me a certain amount of confidence when it came to wrestling. It’s one of those things. It’s a goal I had since I was younger to wrestle for them. Even though it’s not the situation that I envisioned myself being in, making a debut, I’d like to think I’ve made the best of the opportunity so far and will continue to do so. It’s a huge goal for me, short-term, that I’ve accomplished.
‘I never would have thought I’d be wrestling Fred. But the moment we locked up I knew it was going to be good.’
— NJPW Global (@njpwglobal) March 12, 2021
It’s not easy. I had a match on Josh Barnett’s Bloodsport card against the independent wrestling legend Homicide last September. If there’s one image that stands out from that show, I remember getting my head stomped in by a Timberland boot while I was going for a leg lock. That was one of the things where, afterwards, I’m in the back talking to people, the first thing out of my mouth was, “Hey, that was a bad idea. I don’t know why I did that.” That one was one of the rougher ones.
Wrestling is predetermined. But unless I’m doing something that requires comedy, there’s a lot of me getting stomped in the face, a lot of me getting kicked really hard. I took a pool ball to the face one time. I’ve gotten powerbombed on the floor by Ken Shamrock in a bar. I’ve been put in these terrible, terrible situations and it never works out well for me. Somehow, if nothing else, I’ve trained my body to be able to take a beating and get right back up over the course of these 20 years.
At this point, it takes me two days to recover from one match. So, there were times when I was doing four or five matches over the course of a couple days and then getting right back in the gym. It’s like, “Stop that, your body can’t handle that.” Nobody’s body should be able to handle that. One of the downsides of moving your way up on the card is you usually get more time to wrestle, which means more time you have to put yourself through a beating.
I’ll be honest. I’ve tried different styles of wrestling since I’ve come back and I’ve come to the conclusion that fans just want to see me fight the guy. So, sometimes that requires me doing 20 minutes of a simulated MMA fight. You’re putting yourself out there and getting hit, but you have to make sure you’re not getting hit in the wrong spot. It’s not any less taxing on your body. There are some times I’ve come out of matches worse than I did in fights. But there’s also sometimes in sparring that I come out way worse than I did in fights. None of it is good for me.
Rory MacDonald, PFL welterweight, former Bellator champion and UFC veteran
The year started with a vacation to Florida with my family. I used half the day to check out Sanford MMA. After that, COVID hit and basically, in Canada, we started getting put on lockdown. At that time, I was training from home. I have a small home gym, some heavy bags and weights and treadmills and a bike and stuff like that. I was able to work on that for a little while. Then I started training with a small group of guys that would get together. We did that for a while. I would do privates with my coaches to keep sharpening — pads, jiu-jitsu and stuff like that.
As the summer was coming to an end, I was trying to formulate a plan of what I was going to do for the first fight with PFL. It was looking OK at first, I was going to be able to stay in Canada for it. But right at the end of 2020, we got locked down again. I had to make a choice about training under a lockdown and curfews and not many training partners, or I had to leave Montreal and figure out another place. Because of my good experience earlier in the year at Sanford and the fact that Florida was just open and the guys were training normal there, I felt like I should bring myself and my family down here. I’ve been doing my training camp here since February.
It’s been a great experience. I’m not used to having that many sparring partners, so you definitely get a big mix and a lot of different looks, training with different bodies and styles. That’s been nice. And it’s at a very high level here. They have a great facility and the environment is great. I’ve been really enjoying it.
At first when the PFL season was canceled, I was disappointed because I’m coming off a loss. Looking back in hindsight, I feel like it was a good thing that I had a year off. I had a lot of things that I needed to work out personally. That time off, it was very good for me. I was able to clear up a lot of stuff for myself, got a lot of things done that might have been a distraction. Now I get to go in clear, focused, motivated, hungry, driven.
Brendan Loughnane, PFL featherweight
My first fight last year was supposed to be in May. I landed at Tiger Muay Thai in Phuket, Thailand for training camp. I was planning on doing the whole season there, going back and forth. I got right up until three weeks before the first fight. I was in great shape. I was sparring with former UFC bantamweight champion Petr Yan and Rafael Fiziev. They were my guys. Tiger closed down due to COVID, so we started our own little thing. We were training every day. It was great, but three weeks before the fight the PFL season got pulled and they said we’re not resuming until 2021. It was like, “What am I supposed to do until then?” This is all I’ve done since I was 16, 17 years old.
Thailand is cheap to live anyway, so I stayed in Thailand. I trained my ass off. I came home to England when COVID hit pretty bad. I was home for a month. Then, I went to Dubai. I had some links out there, some friends. I ended up at TKMMA with guys like Gokhan Saki, Alistair Overeem. Michael “Venom” Page passing through. I did six months in Dubai, so I did a full year away from the UK. The UK was completely locked down, so I really couldn’t train there.
Dubai is great. I had such a good time. It reminded me of Tiger Muay Thai, because everyone who would normally train in Thailand was there, because Thailand closed the borders. I was sparring One Championship top lightweight Timofey Nastyukhin, he was my main sparring partner. Me and him did countless amount of rounds. I ended up with good, quality sparring partners.
Conor McGregor has been in Dubai as well, and he actually reached out to me, we spoke. I actually just missed him. The day I was leaving for the PFL bubble, he was like, “What time is the session?” I can’t believe I missed him by a day, but he’s around there now and he’s found his own little niche there. You’d be surprised about Dubai, they’re putting a lot into MMA. It’s booming over there.