McCrabb: Two-time Olympic champion Kayla Harrison now fights for her niece, nephew as their guardian

Kayla Harrison steps forward in the midst of her thriving career to assume custody.

In the matter of six months, Jeannie Yazell’s life turned upside down.

Yazell, 52, of Middletown, suffered a major stroke Nov. 25, 2019, was treated at Atrium Medical Center, then flown by medical helicopter to Miami Valley Hospital where she recovered.

Then on May 19, 2020, her heart was broken when Bobby Nichols, 56, her fiancé and a retired Middletown firefighter/paramedic, died.

During these traumatic times she had custody of her two young grandchildren because their mother, Aura, 26, was “working through some things,” Yazell said.

But because of her heart disease and the sudden death of Nichols, described as the “the rock” of the family, Yazell needed help raising Kyla, 8, and Emery, 2.

That’s when Yazell’s oldest daughter, Kayla Harrison, 30, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and undefeated professional MMA fighter, stepped forward.

“Let me take them,” Harrison told her mother. “I want to take them.”

This from a single woman in the height of her professional fighting career. Harrison will attempt to take her next step tonight when she faces Cindy Dandois in the main event of 2021 Professional Fighters League 6 that will air at 10 p.m. on ESPN2. She still has at least two more wins before she can claim the $1 million prize awaiting the PFL lightweight champion this season.

All that comes as she has taken on more responsibilities.

“I love them first and foremost,” Harrison said during a phone interview from her home in Florida when asked why she volunteered to take custody of her niece and nephew. “It’s my job to take care of them. I’m very capable.”

But there are challenges, of course. Before Harrison was granted custody of the kids, her days typically consisted of waking up, eating, training, eating, training, going to bed.

“Very empty life” is how Harrison described the days before she became a mother.

Now, she said with a laugh, “my cup runneth over. They are a handful.”

Harrison’s divorced parents, Kenny Harrison and Yazell, certainly aren’t surprised their daughter is thriving as a mother.

“She likes to beat people up, but she has an amazing heart,” her father said. “People who watch her fight don’t know that.”

Harrison’s mother called her “a very, very caring and compassionate person.”

No one probably trains harder than Harrison. She follows a strict diet and exercise regimen. Those are some of the reasons she hasn’t lost a judo match or professional fight in years.

But when it comes to parenting, there is no training manual.

“It was really scary the first few months,” she said. “Those kids had been through a lot of trauma. They were dealt crappy cards. I just want to provide them a loving, caring, happy and healthy environment.”

The kids live with Harrison in Coca Creek, Florida. Once a month Yazell flies from Middletown to Florida to visit her daughter and grandchildren. Harrison has converted a library in her home into a bedroom for her mother and other guests.

In Harrison’s last fight May 6, she faced Mariana Morais at PFL 3 for the start of the 2021 season. She won the bout via TKO in 83 seconds as she took the first step toward defending her Professional Fighters League championship that earned her $1 million in 2019. Last season was canceled due to the coronavirus.

Even though Harrison won easily, training for the fight was difficult. She took the kids to Atlantic City and they stayed with her in a hotel room for 17 days leading up to the fight. Since Harrison was unable to leave the hotel due to COVID-19 health restrictions, someone watched the kids and took them sightseeing.

So Harrison is a full-time parent, part-time fighter paid to beat up opponents. She was asked about the odd mix: “All moms are fighters in their own right. But it’s an interesting way to make a living. Not your typical 9 to 5 job. It’s like I beat the system. I have my career and I have my family.”

In that order, too.

“I take this role very seriously,” she said. “I want my sister to get better and I care about her. But right now I’m their mother.”

She remembers a late-night conversation with Kyla.

“She said, ‘I love you mommy,’” Harrison said. “I almost died. I love them so damn much.”

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