Amid heartbreak back home, Genah Fabian faces biggest test in PFL semifinal vs. Kayla Harrison

Genah Fabian entered her most recent fight with a heavy heart because of tragedy back home in New Zealand. PFL photo

Genah Fabian's phone rang the night of May 23. It was a video call from Carlos Ulberg, her teammate at City Kickboxing in New Zealand.

For nearly a week, Fabian had been distraught. Fau Vake, another teammate, was clinging to life in a Wellington hospital after being brutally assaulted six days earlier in downtown Auckland. Fabian was in Las Vegas preparing for her second fight of the Professional Fighters League (PFL) regular season, unable to return home.

Ulberg told Fabian that Vake didn't have long to live and that his training partners were all there in the hospital room saying their goodbyes. Ulberg turned the phone around so Fabian could see Vake, a man she referred to as a brother, lying there.

"I broke down," Fabian told ESPN. "It was so surreal. I was just like, this is not how it was supposed to go. I just said, 'I'm sorry, brother.' It was uncontrollable. I was bawling my eyes out. It was all so overwhelming. I just said, 'I'm so sorry, brother.' I said, 'I love you, Fau.' That's all I said to him. I was just looking at him."

Vake died hours later, at the age of 25. The four men allegedly involved in the attack have since been charged; one has been sentenced to six months of home detention after pleading guilty, and the other three await trial, according to the NZ Herald. Fabian had to somehow refocus and concentrate on preparing for her fight.

On June 25, she stopped Julija Pajic via second-round TKO in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and dedicated the victory to Vake in her postfight speech.

"It was major grief," Fabian said. "Being in the position I was in, I just felt helpless. It was heartbreaking. I felt useless, chasing this stupid, selfish dream here. And I've got family and my closest friends and a brother who I have known ... he's gone. And I will never see him again."

This year has been a difficult one for Fabian. In addition to the loss of Vake, she has spent a cumulative six weeks in quarantine between two PFL bouts and her return home to New Zealand in June. On Thursday, she will face two-time Olympic judo gold medalist Kayla Harrison in the semifinals of the women's lightweight playoffs in Hollywood, Florida (9 p.m. ET on ESPN/ESPN+, prelims at 6 p.m. on ESPN+).

Harrison, an American fighter who has been dominant in winning her first 10 professional MMA bouts -- eight by finish -- is the clear favorite to win her second straight PFL season title.

For Fabian, it's the biggest fight of her life, a chance to not only knock off a big name like Harrison but to also put herself one win away from the PFL's $1 million championship. When Fabian left New Zealand last week, she had no plans for a return flight. New Zealand's COVID-19 restrictions require people leaving the country to have a voucher for a return. Fabian does not have one. Her City Kickboxing coach, Eugene Bareman, said she might not be able to go home again until as late as next March.

"If she wins, she has good reason to be in the United States," Bareman said. "But it's a hell of a predicament. When she did leave the gym, I noticed she was very emotional. She was crying [that] morning when she said goodbye to everybody."

Fabian beat Laura Sanchez by unanimous decision on May 6 in her PFL opener. She had no designs on going back to New Zealand in the middle of the regular season, since her second fight would be only seven weeks later. New Zealand currently requires a two-week quarantine when returning to the country.

Additionally, the PFL has its own quarantine standards, meaning Fabian spent the required 17 days in isolation before the Sanchez fight and a reduced 12-day quarantine prior to her second bout, against Pajic.

Rather than waste that potential preparation time traveling and being confined to a hotel room, Fabian flew to Las Vegas with her coach Selby Devereux to do a training camp at Xtreme Couture. While there, Fabian and Devereux met up with another City Kickboxing teammate, UFC featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski (and another coach, Frank Hickman) at his rental home to watch the UFC 262 pay-per-view card on May 15. Volkanovski was in Las Vegas to film The Ultimate Fighter opposite his next challenger, Brian Ortega.

After the event, Fabian and Devereux returned to the place they were renting, and there were several missed calls from New Zealand on their phones. All of the voice messages and texts said the same thing: Vake had been attacked and was in the hospital.

"It was very surreal and shocking at first," Fabian said. "We didn't realize the severity of the case until the coming hours. That was a sleepless night."

Vake was in bad shape, she was told. But a few days later, he seemed to rally -- before taking another turn for the worse. In the final hours, Fabian said, she was told by teammates that it would take a "miracle" for Vake to come out of it. Meanwhile, she was about 6,700 miles away, attempting to prepare for a fight while away from those closest to her.

"Some days, my head wasn't in it," Fabian said. "There were tough training sessions. I just didn't want to be there in some of those sessions. You didn't know what to feel. You felt hopeless."

The thing that kept her strongest was hearing from her teammates. During that awful week, Fabian heard a notification on her phone. It was a message from Israel Adesanya, the UFC middleweight champion. Adesanya had sent her a video of him, Bareman and their teammates sitting around Vake's hospital bed. UFC featherweight Shane Young was leading them all in song, a traditional Maori verse. Many City Kickboxing athletes, including Bareman, Young and Fabian, have Maori roots. The Maori are the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand.

"They all were talking to him and sharing funny stories of Fau, funny memories," Fabian said. "Having that moment together and with him, just remembering him as the person we knew and loved, that was pretty special."

Fabian remained in Las Vegas and watched her teammates Adesanya and Brad Riddell win at UFC 263 on June 12. Two weeks later, she did the same against Pajic, moving to 4-1 as a pro MMA fighter, with three KO/TKOs. Fabian was able to get a voucher to return to New Zealand, and with her PFL regular-season commitments finished, she left for home immediately after her second fight.

After two weeks in quarantine there, Fabian got back into camp -- at home -- with Bareman at City Kickboxing.

"I know Genah took that pressure into that last fight," Bareman said. "She really wanted to win and point to the sky and say, 'This is for you, Fau.' That's tough -- that's a really tough situation to be in when you want to win so bad, for a greater cause. But it's not always completely in your control. There's another person there who has other plans. But she dealt with the pressure well and got the win. It was fantastic to see."

Being back in New Zealand, under the guidance of Bareman, her cousin, was crucial for the 31-year-old Fabian, she said. Harrison will be the toughest challenge of Fabian's young career. Harrison is an elite grappler and arguably the best judoka on the planet. Fabian comes from a striking background; she fought in Muay Thai prior to transitioning to MMA. Bareman called it a "classic" clash of styles, a throwback to the old days of MMA: grappler vs. striker.

At this juncture, Bareman said, only a physical striker with attributes like Fabian's can knock off Harrison. Fabian is 6 feet tall. She'll have a 4-inch height advantage and an 8-inch reach advantage.

"This is where I think Genah is going to give Kayla something really unique, because Genah is a very athletic girl, I think one of the most athletic girls Kayla has probably come up against," Bareman said. "If our strategy works and she can apply it, I think Genah has a chance to do something really special."

The loss of Vake still weighs heavily on Fabian's mind. Bareman said she was focused during this training camp but that it was never easy. The main thing giving her solace now is the feeling, Fabian said, that this camp turned her "into the person I knew Fau to be -- and what he truly would have been about and wanted."

On Thursday, Fabian hopes that person is capable of doing what no one has done before -- defeat Harrison inside the cage.

"Everyone is unbeatable until they're beaten," Fabian said. "And then it's like, 'Oh, OK, they don't have this veil of invincibility over them.' And there are holes. She has a lot of strengths. She's great at what she does, and she has cultivated, along with her team, a style, a game plan, that allows her to be so dominant in her strengths. I've got the style, as well as the size and the physicality, to negate that style.

"There's just no doubt about it: I'm coming to take her out."