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After the Ultimate Fighting Championship initially seemed somewhere between lukewarm and cold on the prospect of adding Kayla Harrison to the mix, things seemed to heat up ahead of UFC 269. The company suddenly expressed more interest in adding the 12-0 two-time Olympic gold medalist and two-time Professional Fighters League tournament champion. She was in the front row for the show and was even featured on camera—a spot UFC is not in the habit of providing to fighters it expects will compete next for the competition. Discussion focused on particular in a fight between Harrison and then-UFC featherweight and bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes.
Then, of course, came one of the sport’s more shocking upsets. Afterwards, UFC President Dana White framed the result as a missed opportunity for Harrison and once again seemed cooler on the judo star. This could be posturing to some degree. After all, the UFC prefers for fighters with whom it is negotiating to have as little leverage as possible and plays the game publicly of downplaying its interest in major fights and major fighters. It played it before with Harrison, and it could be playing it again. Then again, sometimes the UFC simply does not move on fights or fighters with immense fan appeal. See Francis Ngannou vs. Jon Jones.
If the UFC has soured on signing Harrison because of the result of Nunes-Pena, it is making a major mistake for a variety of reasons. To start with the most obvious, if Nunes and Pena rematch next and Nunes wins—as she will be favored to do—you could still do Nunes-Harrison next year if that is the priority. Nunes gets her redemption and comes for her biggest challenge would be the marketing. The loss to Nate Diaz and victory in the rematch did not exactly derail Conor McGregor’s drawing ability.
Of course, it’s even simpler than that. Let’s say Pena beats Nunes for a second time. There are still two solid options on the table for Harrison at that point. First, she could fight Pena. There is a size discrepancy, but it’s hard to imagine Pena wouldn’t be interested in a catchweight fight given there are no bigger bouts for her and she has specifically targeted Harrison in the media. If Pena beats Nunes a second time, Pena-Harrison might end up being a bigger fight than Nunes-Harrison. Why? Because Pena will sell the fight, and Harrison isn’t one to run from a war of words.
If the UFC is hung up on Nunes-Harrison, you could still do that, too. Nunes remains the featherweight champion, and that’s the weight class at which Harrison would be looking to compete in the UFC. It’s not as if Nunes was moving pay-per-view numbers to where two losses to Pena would collapse interest in her fights. If anything, vulnerability might increase interest in them.
That naturally leads to the central reality of the UFC signing or not signing Harrison: It might seem counterintuitive, but Nunes shouldn’t figure all that much into the decision. Harrison is not going to come cheap, and if you are investing in her, it’s because you believe she can be a star. She is not coming in to be the B side on her events. With her background, her personality and her skills, she should be a major star on her own.
Maybe Harrison won’t command interest at that level; it’s not always evident who is going to succeed as a draw and who is going to fail. However, she will be the determinant of that, no one else. She is not going to become an attraction through Nunes, because Nunes is not an attraction. Nunes was supposed to get that rub with her win over Ronda Rousey, but it did not happen for whatever reason. Some blame Nunes for lack of promotion. Some blame fans for not appreciating her skills. Others even blame implicit racism and sexism. Whatever the causes, she’s not moving numbers, so Harrison is going to need to create that interest herself.
A potential Harrison-Nunes fight is quite similar to Jose Aldo-Conor McGregor. Aldo was a much more accomplished fighter than McGregor and remains so today. The win over Aldo was for most observers the crowning achievement of McGregor’s career, as he dethroned an all-time great champion who hadn’t lost and had rarely been tested in nearly a decade. However, looking at the pay-per-view numbers (the UFC’s priority), the Aldo fight doesn’t seem nearly so remarkable. McGregor drew big before and drew big after. He has topped the Aldo number seven times.
It would have been foolish to change plans related to McGregor because of what happened to Aldo. McGregor was the one bringing in the interest, and if Aldo retired before taking a fight with the Irishman, his fans still would have been invested in his quest to win the title against whoever was in his way. It’s exceedingly unlikely Harrison will reach McGregor’s level of stardom, but the dynamics are the same. She is going to catch on with the public, or she won’t. The signs in the PFL, albeit on a much smaller stage, have been good. Either bet on her, or don’t. No one fight is going to make or break the calculation in a division that isn’t presently driving interest.
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