McCrabb: Why Kayla Harrison’s bruising MMA fighting career is a boost for Middletown

Kayla Harrison’s unanimous-decision victory in the PFL Finals over Brazil’s Larissa Pacheco on New Year’s Eve in Madison Square Garden meant she received a championship belt and the $1 million prize.

But it’s impossible to put a dollar figure — even on an oversized check — on what that victory means to Middletown, her hometown.

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When Harrison, 29, was introduced as she stepped into the ring at the Hulu Theater, the announcer said she was fighting out of Middletown, Ohio.

Not Boston, where she trained when she won two gold medals at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics.

Not Florida, where she trained for the fight.

Middletown, Ohio is what the national audience on ESPN heard. The city couldn’t afford to buy that type of positive publicity.

Ted Light, chair of the Department of Commerce at Miami University, said Harrison saying she’s from Middletown carries more weight because, unlike a TV commercial, it’s not “a bought message.”

Harrison has no ulterior motive, he said.

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“When we hear something from an influential or credible source like Kayla it has greater impact on us,” Light said. “Kayla’s accomplishments make her statements about Middletown much more impactful. You listen to that authority.”

Then there’s this from Susan Cohen, Middletown’s acting city manager: “Kayla recognizing her hometown at each and every event she competes at is an honor for us and a great example to the youth growing up in the area.”

After Harrison became the first American to win a judo gold medal at the 2012 Olympics in London before repeating the feat four years later in Rio de Janeiro, she was honored in the city with a parade, proclamations and signs erected at the city’s entrances.

Harrison’s divorced parents, Kenny Harrison and Jeannie Yazell, certainly aren’t surprised their daughter proudly proclaims Middletown as home, though she hasn’t lived here for years. Her parents, brother, Jake, extended family and friends live in Middletown.

“She will never forget Middletown, Ohio,” her father said. “This is where she was born, this is where she was raised. You can’t change where you were born and raised.”

Yazell said in the fight world, her daughter has put “Middletown on the map.”

Harrison certainly has become the face of the Professional Fighters League. Even before her championship fight, she signed a long-term deal with the PFL. Although no figures were released, there have been reports the contract was worth $1 million, which would make her one of the highest-paid fighters in the sport.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women in the United States earn 81.4 percent of the wages as their male counterparts in the same industries. On New Year’s Eve, Harrison earned $1 million, the same as the other five champions, all males.

“It’s humbling,” Harrison told MMA Fighting. “I believe that this is still a male-dominated sport but the fact that women can make more or the same as male fighters it’s awesome. It’s really good for MMA. It’s really good for the female empowerment movement.”

After her two Olympic gold medal performances, most wondered what was next for Harrison. Her father said she had trained, conditioned and competed her entire life, first at small judo tournaments on the weekends, and finally the Olympics and the PFL.

“When she sets her mind to something, she accomplishes it,” her father said. “She ain’t no joke.”

Her competitive spirit was quenched inside the ring, where she’s 7-0.

“It’s her calling,” her mother said. “She loved judo, but she called it her job. She hasn’t called this fighting her job once. She loves this. She needed a purpose in the morning.”

After Harrison defeated Pacheco, she was joined in the ring by former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson and PFL CEO Peter Murray. Tyson held the championship belt, Murray held the large, publicity check.

When Harrison spotted Tyson, she asked him to fasten the belt. Then she said: “Oh my God. Mike Tyson is giving me my belt.”

Then she hugged her mother, which she called “a wow moment.”

It’s incredible that Yazell was able to watch her daughter. She suffered a stroke on Nov. 25, was treated at Atrium Medical Center, then flown by medical helicopter to Miami Valley Hospital. Five weeks later, she was in New York.

Her father called that mother/daughter moment “a blessing” and said he thanks God she was able to hold her daughter.

Kayla Harrison isn’t the only fighter in the family.

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