Kayla Harrison doesn't make many mistakes when it comes to fighting. She owns two Olympic gold medals in judo, and she is a perfect 11-0 as an MMA fighter. But after Harrison made quick work of Genah Fabian in the PFL women's lightweight semifinals Thursday night at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, Florida -- securing a spot in the Oct. 27 final -- she made an emphatic pronouncement that sounded bold, but essentially dismissed one of the highest compliments she could be paid.
"Listen, everyone keeps saying, oh, how do you solve the Kayla Harrison puzzle?. ... Spoiler alert: There is no fricking puzzle," she said after her first-round TKO victory. "I put you on your back and I mess you up."
That's where Harrison is wrong. She's got the "on your back" and "mess you up" parts right, but she is a puzzle. She might view herself as unsolvable, and she would not be the first fighter to think that way. But few have made it to the end of the road without someone ultimately figuring out the solution. It happens to the best and, when they are eventually humbled, they get to appreciate all of those years when no one could solve them.
That's where Harrison is right now. She is in the glorious world where no one knows how to deal with her. She should cherish it as she tries to maintain that status and continues to build her legacy.
There's no need to deny the puzzle of grappling that is as high-level as MMA grappling gets. The only way to defeat her, it appears, is to keep her hands off of you while putting your fists on her -- hard and decisively. Because if you don't put Harrison away, you might not get another chance. She's going to keep coming at you.
No one who has faced her in the PFL has come close to solving the Kayla Harrison puzzle. That was the case in 2019, when Harrison rolled to the $1 million championship, and it has been the case thus far in the 2021 season. The next to try her will be Taylor Guardado, who earned a place in the final by defeating alternate Mariana Morais in Thursday's other 155-pound semifinal. Harrison is the No. 2 seed, Guardado No. 3. Morais was a late replacement for No. 1 seed Larissa Pacheco, who missed weight on Wednesday. Pacheco is the only fighter to have gone the distance with Harrison, having done so twice in 2019.
The other final matchup decided on Thursday was at heavyweight. Bruno Cappelozza, the top seed, knocked out No. 4 seed Jamelle Jones in the second round to earn his spot -- his 13th KO in as many professional wins. He'll meet Ante Delija, the No. 3 seed, who upset second-seeded Denis Goltsov by unanimous decision.
The finals in the PFL's six weight classes also will be held in Hollywood, and will air on ESPN2. The welterweight and lightweight finalists were determined on Aug. 13, and the featherweight and light heavyweight finalists will be determined on Aug. 27.
For now, here's an early look at the finals that were locked in on Thursday night.
Women's lightweight: Kayla Harrison vs. Taylor Guardado
You think the 11-0 Harrison is young in this sport? Guardado is just 3-1 as a pro since returning to MMA from an absence of nearly a decade following a promising amateur career. Her only amateur loss was to another judoka of note, a pre-UFC Ronda Rousey. That gives her a little bit of experience in tangling with judo, but will it make a difference? Probably not. Harrison is on such a roll in the PFL that the rest of the fighters in the division are way behind.
Heavyweight: Bruno Cappelozza vs. Ante Delija
There appears to be a Bruno Cappelozza puzzle to be solved as well, with all three of his fights thus far in 2021 ending in knockouts. The big, fast, explosive Brazilian used a jab to spell the beginning of the end in his semifinal, and a fighter with that kind of power in both hands is one to be either avoided or crowded, in order to take away the space he needs to generate explosiveness. Delija did a good job of shutting down a dangerous striker in his semifinal. Can he do it again? We'll find out on Oct. 27.
Cappelozza exploded into the 2021 PFL heavyweight final -- with a jab.
The 32-year-old from Brazil, the top seed in the division, threw everything with power, including the left jab that sent the No. 4 seed Jones to the canvas early in the second round, after which Cappelozza swarmed his opponent with punches -- all powerful -- before referee Keith Peterson jumped in at 1:33 to stop the fight.
Cappelozza (13-5), who has scored knockouts in every one of his 13 pro victories, softened up Jones' lead leg with low kicks -- including one kick that was measured at over 60 mph on the PFL broadcast -- and fended off all attempts by Jones, a wrestler, to take him to the mat. Cappelozza mostly kept Jones backed against the cage, where the Brazilian threw heavy leather in his direction.
Jones (12-7), who is 33 and from Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, saw a three-fight winning streak come to an end.
Coming into fight week, Guardado was supposed to be competing as an underdog. But when top seed Larissa Pacheco missed weight, she was instead lined up opposite Morais, the alternate in the division. Guardado may have been favored heading into the bout, but she had to sweat out the judges' call. In the end, she earned a spot in the women's lightweight final.
Guardado (2-1), a 30-year-old from Las Vegas, controlled much of the fight, whether striking from distance, grappling in the clinch or even on the canvas. But Morais had timely takedowns off judo throws to secure top position in both the first and third rounds. The Brazilian did not do much damage while on the mat, but she maintained position.
All three judges scored the bout 29-28, with two favoring Guardado (3-2) and the third giving Morais the nod.
Morais (17-12), 25, had a good showing despite fighting Guardado on one days' notice. She came into the fight having won four of her last five.
Delija raised his arms overhead seconds before the final bell, then dropped to his knees in tears after hugging his coaches, including legendary Croatian countryman Mirko "CroCop" Filipovic.
His instincts were on the money, as all three judges scored the bout 29-28 in Delija's favor. The 31-year-old from Croatia earned a spot in the heavyweight season final by upsetting Goltsov with a smart game plan of keeping the Russian clinched against the cage or on his back, negating Goltsov's striking prowess.
Delija (19-4) has won six of his last seven. Goltsov (27-7), who is 31, saw a two-fight winning streak come to an end. This was Goltsov's second straight loss in the semifinals in the PFL's heavyweight division; in 2019, he lost to eventual champion Ali Isaev.
Austin, the 33-year-old British heavyweight, got dropped by a straight right hand from Ferreira in the fight's opening seconds, and as the back of Austin's head bounced off the canvas, his Brazilian opponent pounced with his right hand cocked to deliver more damage. But referee Keith Peterson's fast first step allowed him to dive onto Austin's torso and into Ferreira's path, leaving Ferreira to pull up short on another damaging punch.
Peterson waved off the fight at 31 seconds. The 31-year-old Ferreira (8-2, 1 NC) is now unbeaten in his last four fights. Included in that run is a knockout of former UFC heavyweight champion Fabricio Werdum that later was overturned to a no contest.
Austin, who is from London, dropped to 15-7.
After two rounds without much action, DeReese took advantage of a sudden show of aggression by Seumanutafa and dropped the charging Samoan with a straight punch midway through Round 3 to turn a close fight his way.
All three judges scored the bout his way, by scores of 29-28, 29-28 and 30-27.
DeReese and Seumanutafa spent a considerable amount of time in the clinch against the cage, including most of the first round. But they came out winging punches in the final round, and aggression cost the 38-year-old Seumanutafa (12-14), who fights out of San Francisco. DeReese, who is 33 and from Titusville, Florida, moved to 9-4.
Mokhnatkina, a six-time combat sambo world champion from Russia, damaged Zamora's lead leg with kicks early in the fight, then stalked her for three rounds to win a fight in which there was little engagement. All three judges scored all three rounds for the 33-year-old Mokhnatkina (30-27, 30-27, 30-27).
Zamora, who is from Miami, weighed in more than 6 pounds under the women's lightweight limit. She appeared undersized for the division, after having previously completed as low as bantamweight.
Leve, a two-time world champion in jiu-jitsu, clearly wanted to make a statement by showing off her standup skills in her pro MMA debut. She did not attempt a takedown in the first three minutes of the fight. But after Barber wobbled her with a straight right hand, then swarmed her with punches, Leve decided enough was enough.
Leve, who fights out of Philadelphia, went for the takedown and quickly turned it into a rear-naked choke, finishing Barber at 4:18. Barber, out of nearby Boca Raton, is 1-2 as a pro.
It was only fitting that the first winner in a night of fights in Hollywood, Florida, was a fighter from Florida nicknamed "Hollywood." Lohsen used strong, fluid grappling to secure his fifth victory in his last six bouts, as all three judges scored the bout 29-28, 29-28, 29-28 at the end of three rounds.
The 26-year-old Lohsen had won six of his last eight by submission, and he did threaten Flok throughout with a variety of different submission attempts, but Flok, who fights out of Wisconsin, toughed it out to the final bell. Both lightweights were making their PFL debuts.