She wasn’t in the main event, but in her much-anticipated MMA debut, two-time Olympic judo champion Kayla Harrison was positively golden.
Thursday night at Professional Fight League 2 inside the Chicago Theatre, Harrison (1-0 MMA, 1-0 PFL) ran roughshod over Brittney Elkin (3-5 MMA, 0-1 PFL) in their lightweight contest, locking up a fight-ending armbar at 3:18 to elicit the tap and gain her first career win in the cage.
The 27-year-old Harrison, who took Olympic gold at the 2012 London and 2016 Rio de Janeiro games at 172 pounds, immediately rushed Elkin into the fence, hit an inside trip and began delivering powerful punches before moving to mount. The Middleton, Ohio, native, who has taken up training with American Top Team in Florida, then switched from a rear-naked choke to an over-the-top armbar, broke Elkin’s grip and forced her to concede.
"The waiting before the fight is the hardest part. You go through a million scenarios in your head but once I got here, I started to feel like the old Kayla,” Harrison said after her debut. “You always wonder if you still have that fire, if I'll still be the same Kayla. Being a competitor and being out here competing and putting everything on the line is when I feel most alive.”
Brooks, Foster Win Big, But Controversy Strikes at 155
In the final fight of the night, Chicago native Will Brooks made his PFL debut and helped exorcise some of the demons plaguing him after his nightmarish Ultimate Fighting Championship run ended last year with three consecutive upset losses. The former Bellator MMA champ used his relentless grappling to tire out veteran Brazilian grappler Luiz Firmino, taking a unanimous decision. The scores were 30-27 across the board, earning him three points in the PFL lightweight standings.
Brooks (19-4 MMA, 1-0 PFL) flexed his footwork, jab and counterpunching in the opening round, but just as Firmino (20-9 MMA, 1-1 PFL) got comfortable in the striking exchanges and located some clean punches, “Ill Will” turned up the wrestling pressure, repeatedly putting the Pride Fighting Championships vet on his back. “Buscape” was able to sweep, scrambling to stand back up on occasion, but Brooks’ constant power double-leg takedowns and chain wrestling kept him increasingly grounded over the final two rounds.
In his return to the 155-pound division, Brian Foster nabbed four points in his usual, violent fashion, picking up a highly flying stoppage of former “Ultimate Fighter” finalist Ramsey Nijem 23 seconds into the third round.
Foster (28-10 MMA, 1-1 PFL) came out hot with his usual salvos of punches, kicks and takedown attempts. Nijem (9-5 MMA, 0-1 PFL) was happy to oblige him early with sharp countering responses before Foster got the edge, got him on the floor and threatened with a kimura to end the round. Nijem was the one who enjoyed top control in the second to seemingly tie up the scorecards, but a devastating end was just around the corner. At the outset of the Round 3, both men simultaneously glanced with spinning back kicks, but Foster went back to the well immediately, reeling Nijem back with another twirling foot to the gut. Then, Foster went airborne with a crushing flying knee that put his foe down and out in highlight-reel fashion.
In his 12-year, 38-fight career, Foster has only ever been to a decision once. For Nijem, it was his third straight loss and fifth in his last seven contests.
Controversy struck in other lightweight action. Brazilian veteran Thiago Tavares (21-8-1 MMA, 0-1 PFL) struggled with the crisp striking and countergrappling of Robert Watley (11-1 MMA, 1-0 PFL) in the opening round and just 35 seconds into the second frame, he suffered a nasty but inadvertent kick to the groin, leaving him sprawled on the mat and unable to continue. Curiously, because the strike was deemed accidental and occurred as both men simultaneously struck, Watley was declared winner, pushing his winning streak to 11 straight.
In another sticky situation, Jason High (21-7 MMA, 1-1 PFL) was using his takedowns and top position skills to get the better of Efrain Escudero (30-13 MMA, 1-0 PFL), who missed weight on Wednesday was therefore ineligible to score any points in the PFL season for a win. As the third round began, High shot in on a takedown and wound up stuck in a tight guillotine. As “The Kansas City Bandit” tripodded up and looked to break “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 8 winner’s grip, referee Josh Stewart inexplicably dove in despite High clearly not having tapped. An enraged High pleaded his case to no avail.
Elsewhere in 155-pound competition, Dagestan’s Islam Mamedov (15-1 MMA, 1-0 PFL) ragdolled the smaller Yuki Kawana (15-2-4 MMA, 0-1 PFL) and overcame a late power-punching salvo to win a unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 29-28), while Brazil’s Natan Schulte (12-3 MMA, 1-0 PFL) used a combination of aggressive striking and constant clinch pressure to create takedowns to earn scores of 30-26, 30-26 and 29-28 over Chris Wade (12-4 MMA, 0-1 PFL).
Halsey, O’Connell Score Comebacks; Magalhaes, Grishin Win Big at 205
Colorful comebacks were a dominant theme on the evening as PFL’s light heavyweight regular season got started. In the case of former Bellator MMA 185-pound champion Brandon Halsey’s doctor stoppage of Smealinho Rama, that color was blood red.
Halsey (11-3 MMA, 1-0 PFL) tackled Rama to the mat immediately and found himself in full mount, threatening for a rear-naked choke, but wound up losing position, giving up his own back and nearly giving up the choke. Halsey escaped but was visibly tired and repeatedly walked into punches and knees from Rama (10-4 MMA, 0-2 PFL) while shooting desperate double-leg takedowns. The former Cal State Bakersfield wrestler wound up giving up his back again and was actually saved by the first-round bell while locked in a choke. The second frame didn’t start much better, as Halsey was leveled with a left head kick and put back in survival mode. However, he managed to sweep to top once more and passed to full mount where he devastated the Greek-born Canadian with several minutes of vicious pounding, opening a gushing slice over Rama’s right eye that covered his face and the mat in blood. Rama survived the round but was stopped by the cageside physician, officially after one second into the final round.
In a battle of UFC veterans, Sean O’Connell (18-9 MMA, 1-0 PFL) also overcame a shaky start against Ronny Markes, who spent most of the first round riding “The Real OC’s” and dinging him with wild haymakers when standing. In Round 2, Markes (18-6 MMA, 1-1 PFL) flew in with a flying knee and volley of looping punches and got blown away with a left-hook counter and follow-up shots to violently end the bout at 0:41 of the second stanza.
Another curious one-second stop came in Rakim Cleveland’s upset of previously unbeaten Russian Rashid Yusupov. After a slow start, Cleveland (19-9-1, 1 NC MMA, 1-0 PFL) managed to thwart Yusupov’s (9-1 MMA, 0-1 PFL) wrestling against the cage, drilling him with shoulder strikes in the clinch, one of which appeared to break Yusupov’s jaw. “The Boogeyman” then cracked Yusupov with a mean uppercut in the round’s dying moments that sealed Yusupov’s fate, as he retired on his stool at the beginning of the third. Similarly, Dan Spohn (17-5 MMA, 0-1 PFL) was on his way on his way to losing a decision to Bazigit Ataev (18-2 MMA, 0-1 PFL) until he exploded with a counter hook and follow-up punches that halted the Russian veteran at 4:31 of the final round. It was just Ataev’s second fight from returning from an 11-year hiatus.
Not every 205-pound bout was so competitive: grappling ace Vinny Magalhaes (15-9 MMA, 1-0 PFL) needed just 97 to mount and choke out Australia's Jamie Abdallah (7-3 MMA, 0-1 PFL) to earn a perfect six points toward his PFL playoff push, while Russian Maxim Grishin (27-7 MMA, 1-0 PFL) did likewise, needing just 1:40 to level Jason Butcher (11-3 MMA, 0-1 PFL) with a double jab-right cross combo that caused Butcher to awkwardly roll over his ankle, leaving him unable to stand. The Akhmat Fight Team rep is now 15-1 in his last 16 bouts.