Judo-to-MMA Success Story Starring 2-Time Olympic Gold-Medalist Kayla Harrison

BLACK BELT: Going into the judo competition at the 2012 Olympic Games, were you confident? Had you visualized yourself winning the gold?

Kayla Harrison: I always wanted to win the Olympics, especially since 2010 when I won the World Judo Championships. I thought about it constantly. Visualization was a big part of that. Every night before I went to sleep — from the time I won the Worlds until the day I stepped on the mat in London — I visualized myself winning the whole tournament. I visualized [eating] breakfast, going through the weigh-in, warming up, being in the chute, winning every match, winning the final, being on top of the podium and hugging my family afterward. By the time I got there, I’d won it in my mind 1,000 times.

BLACK BELT: So that went on for two years — basically, from the time you won the Worlds in 2010 until you competed in the Olympics in 2012?

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Left to right: Jimmy Pedro, Kayla Harrison and James Pedro Sr. Photo courtesy of Kayla Harrison.

Kayla Harrison: In 2009 I fought at my first senior Worlds. I went 1-1 and wasn’t that happy. Right after that, I started visualizing myself winning the Worlds. In 2010 I won. That’s when I realized how powerful visualization really was, and it’s when I started visualizing myself winning the Olympics.

BLACK BELT: You always hear about athletes in other sports using visualization but not so much in the martial arts. Do you think more martial artists should be doing it?

Kayla Harrison: It can be even bigger — whether you’re looking to ace a test in school or reach a personal goal like losing 10 pounds, anyone can practice visualization. In martial arts, it’s especially beneficial. You practice in your mind over and over how to do the move properly. When I tore my MCL earlier this year, I visualized every part of my knee healing perfectly and being able to do every throw. My knee ended up healing in four weeks instead of the typical eight weeks.

BLACK BELT: How rigorous was your training in the years leading up to the 2012 Games?

Kayla Harrison: I trained full time. I did judo twice a day, I lifted weights five days a week and I ran three days a week, so I was doing two to four workouts six days a week.

BLACK BELT: In your judo workouts, did you separate the skills — for example, did you do sessions that focused on judo throws and sessions that focused on judo ground work?

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Kayla Harrison: Yes. In the morning, we generally did hard drilling, which included throws, transition drills from standing to newaza, stuff like that. At night, we did a lot of randori. As we got closer to the Games, we did lineups: I’d stay on one side of the mat, and every minute a fresh body would be thrown at me. We’d do that for six minutes because a judo match is five minutes. We did it with gripping drills, randori and newaza. You try to throw first, try to get the best grip, try to get position, or try to get the pin or armbar. That gets you into unbelievable shape.

BLACK BELT: Did you ever get really specific in your training sessions — for example, one that focused on just judo gripping and another just judo footwork?

Kayla Harrison: Yes, depending on which day of the week it was. Some days were devoted to newaza, while others were for randori with an emphasis on throws or transition drills — going from standing to newaza and back.

BLACK BELT: What was the weight training like?

Kayla Harrison: For me, it was all about conditioning. Even in my offseason, even though I was trying to get stronger, I was trying to be explosive and do Olympic lifts. But they would also be turned into a complex, so I wasn’t maxing out on every lift. For example, I’d do five cleans, five front squats and five overhead presses to build strength while staying in good shape.

Go here to order Winning on the Ground, written by AnnMaria De Mars and James Pedro Sr. — and published by Black Belt!

Right before the Olympics, I’d do the “death circuit.” It would be 10 to 12 exercises done as hard and fast as possible. My strength trainer would put them in a particular order — it could be anything from climbing the rope and doing 10 pull-ups at the top to throwing a medicine ball to dumping a heavy bag overhead to hitting the bag for 30 seconds.

BLACK BELT: How about running?

Kayla Harrison: We usually ran one to two miles with 15 to 20 wind sprints. We’d do that right after our morning session. I’d get off the mat and try to eat an energy bar, then it would be off to the next workout.

BLACK BELT: At the elite level of judo, how much does success depend on knowing whom you’re going to fight and what that person’s strengths are?

Kayla Harrison at Black Belt mag

Kayla Harrison: At that level, every little bit counts — eating right, doing a little extra at the gym, making sure your gi fits right — because the competition is so good. Knowing who your opponents are and how they fight is huge.

BLACK BELT: Do you ever try to perfect a technique no one has seen you do so you can surprise your next opponent?

Kayla Harrison: My game is constantly evolving; I’m always making changes. But I’m not the mastermind behind the plan; the Pedros are.

BLACK BELT: Does the fact that you hail from the Jimmy Pedro camp mean the armbar is your trademark technique?

Kayla Harrison: I’m from that club, as are Ronda Rousey, Travis Stevens and Jimmy himself. All of us are pretty good at newaza, as well as the transitioning into it. Ronda and Jimmy, the first and second generation, are really good. I’d say that newaza and the gripping system are our trademarks.

BLACK BELT: After you won your gold medal, we put up a poll on Facebook asking our audience what you should do next. I’d like to get your reaction to the three choices we presented. The first was to take a well-deserved vacation and then start training for the 2016 Games so you can win another gold.

Kayla Harrison: Yes, probably. (laughs) I made a deal with Jimmy that if I won this Olympics, I could retire. But now I’m thinking that being a two-time Olympic champion would be hard to beat.

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IMPORTANT JUDO UPDATE! Kayla Harrison went on to win another judo gold medal at the 2016 Olympics.

BLACK BELT: The second choice in our Facebook poll was to retire from competition and start coaching the next generation of judoka to follow in your footsteps.

Kayla Harrison: That’s something I’d love to do — but not right now. I love to teach for fun, but it’s not something I’d like to do professionally yet and not at such a high level. But teaching youngsters and showing them how to have a good time while doing judo is definitely something I’m looking forward to.

BLACK BELT: The last choice in our poll was to become an MMA fighter.

Kayla Harrison: I never say never, but the way the weight classes are right now in the women’s divisions — from what Ronda told me, they’re trying to steer everyone into 135 pounds and make that a superstar division — I just can’t make 135. It’s not realistic.

BLACK BELT: If weight was no longer a factor, would you think about becoming an MMA fighter?

Kayla Harrison: Yeah. I’d have to talk with the Pedros, my fiance and my family. Honestly, it would also depend on the money and whether it’s something I enjoyed. I’ve never boxed, and I had my first jiu-jitsu lesson today! I’m not experienced in the rest of the martial arts — I’m still a rookie — but I’d definitely consider it.

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Kayla Harrison wins by armbar at PFL 2. Photo courtesy of Professional Fighters League.

IMPORTANT MMA UPDATE!

On June 21, 2018, Kayla Harrison competed in her first MMA match for the Professional Fighters League. The Black Belt Hall of Famer/two-time Olympic judo gold-medalist defeated Brittney Elkin at 3:18 in the first round. The winning technique? An armbar, of course.

Kayla Harrison (via PFL): 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. 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.”

Interview by Robert W. Young • Studio Photos by Robert Reiff