When Larissa Pacheco throws her first punch on Friday, she will be aiming at two opponents.
The recipient of her heavy leather inside the cage will be Olena Kolesnyk, as part of a PFL fight card at The Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York City featuring heavyweight and women's featherweight semifinals (main card on ESPN and ESPN+ at 9 p.m. ET, prelims on ESPN at 7).
The other adversary perpetually bobbing and weaving in front of Pacheco: the ghost of Kayla Harrison.
Harrison is very much alive, of course, but her flesh and blood have been nowhere to be seen in 2023. The two-time PFL women's lightweight champion has moved on from season competition to the company's ambitious pay-per-view Super Fight division. The new enterprise was announced earlier this year but has not yet launched. As a result, Harrison has been sitting idly on the sideline all year, waiting for a fight.
Pacheco, meanwhile, has replaced her as the PFL's most dominant force -- man or woman.
In her two fights during the regular season, Pacheco was a steamroller. She is competing at featherweight now, because the PFL did away with its 155-pound division after she upset Harrison to win the championship last November. So Pacheco cut the extra 10 pounds to squeeze into her new fighting home and picked up right where she left off. She opened the season in April with a commanding decision win over former Bellator champion Julia Budd, then made quick work of Amber Leibrock in June, knocking her out in 45 seconds.
Pacheco's opponent Friday is a familiar face, although she and Kolesnyk have spent little time in the cage together. On her way to winning last season's championship, Pacheco knocked out Kolesnyk twice, both times in the first round. It would be the upset of the season, among all six PFL weight classes, if Pacheco doesn't flatten all competition on her way to another championship.
"There's not a woman on Planet Earth right now that Larissa Pacheco doesn't have a chance against," PFL play-by-play broadcaster Sean O'Connell, a one-time season champ himself during his fighting days, told ESPN. "I mean, there just isn't one. That's where she's gotten to."
It took Pacheco a good bit of time to reach the stature where O'Connell's rave review doesn't sound like hyperbole. Harrison defeated her twice during the 2019 championship run, although Pacheco put up a fight both times. Despite being new to the weight class and outsized, she was the only woman to go the distance during Harrison's first two domineering seasons.
Then, meeting Harrison once again in last year's playoff final, Pacheco persevered through early trouble on the canvas, took over the fight and wore down the self-proclaimed queen of MMA to win by unanimous decision.
It was a shocking upset, not just in terms of betting odds -- Harrison was an 8-1 favorite -- but also in fan perception. For many who follow MMA, the story of fighting in the PFL begins and ends with Kayla Harrison.
Pacheco acknowledges that. "Even though Kayla has been out for the year, she still is the face of the PFL," the 28-year-old from Brazil said through an interpreter. "You can't escape seeing Kayla on all the posters and whatnot. So another fight between us is an obvious one to make."
For one thing, Harrison owns two wins in their rivalry and Pacheco just one, so another meeting could even the score. But Pacheco has a grander interest in once again staring across the cage at the face of the PFL.
"The future goes like this: I am going to become the PFL's first two-[weight] champion, and then I will fight Kayla again to move closer to my goal," Pacheco said. "I want to become not just the face of the PFL but also the face of fighting in Brazil."
The timing is right for that ambition. Amanda Nunes, the consensus GOAT of women's MMA, has retired. Cris Cyborg is still going strong but is closing in on age 40. Other Brazilian women are making a name for themselves, such as Amanda Lemos, who can become a UFC champ Saturday with a victory over Zhang Weili. But there's no untouchable presence from Brazil in the sport, no immense figure around whom the future revolves.
Pacheco is continuing to build toward that. She's not the same fighter as the one from 2014 who got her big break, a short-notice booking in the UFC, just days after her 20th birthday and clearly wasn't ready for it. In her two Octagon appearances, the too-young fighter was finished by Jessica Andrade and Germaine de Randamie, both of whom went on to win UFC titles.
Pacheco then took three years off to heal a broken arm. When she joined the PFL for the 2019 lightweight season, her career debut at that weight was against Harrison. Pacheco was thrown right into the deep water. Now Pacheco is a featherweight, and although she describes her first cut to 145 pounds in April as "an absolute nightmare," she feels more agile and stronger, with added energy. She attributes that newfound well-being, in part, to her $1 million championship, which allowed her to invest in better training, weight management and even some less obvious tools for self-improvement. She bought a PS5, for instance, and discovered that playing video games helped her unveil the essential benefit of relaxation.
"I have comfort in my life, whereas I didn't have that before," Pacheco said. "Everything in my life has changed."
Everything except her underdog mindset, that is.
Despite being a champion on an eight-fight winning streak, including six first-round knockouts, Pacheco does not allow herself to wallow in self-satisfaction. She has seen too many bubbles burst in this sport.
"I still go into every fight thinking of myself as the underdog," she said. "I have seen everything fall apart for fighters who lose touch with that."
Pacheco attributes her fighting spirit to those who inspired her as she was growing up in Brazil. No, not Nunes, and not Cyborg, either. Her heroes have always been the women in her family. "My mom, my grandmother, my auntie -- those are the women I appreciate above anyone else," Pacheco said. "If you want to talk about fighters, the women of my family fought for everything."