On paper, it would seem Larissa Pacheco is facing a rather daunting task at the 2022 PFL World Championship.
Pacheco (18-4) has been scintillating thus far in her run to the championship bout, scoring three straight first-round knockouts. But as she prepares to challenge for the PFL's 2022 women's lightweight world title, she finds herself facing an undefeated wrecking machine in Kayla Harrison (15-0) – a woman who already holds a pair of victories over Pacheco.
The 28-year-old Brazilian is the biggest underdog on Friday's card, which streams live on ESPN+ pay-per-view (8 p.m. ET) from New York's Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden. Pacheco is currently +450 at SISportsbook.com, indicating an implied probability of victory at only around 18 percent.
Pacheco thinks the oddsmakers might not be looking at the things that matter most when breaking down the matchup and believes her familiarity with Harrison, which includes eight full rounds in the cage together, gives her a tremendous advantage over the unbeaten powerhouse.
"I can speak assertively that I know how her game works," Pacheco told MMA Underground through an interpreter. "She beat me twice doing it. I'd find it very hard to believe that she'd change her gameplan for this third fight, so I feel like this is a card I have up my sleeve, just knowing what to expect and being able to work around that."
Harrison, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in judo and also a two-time PFL women's lightweight champion, makes little effort to hide her intentions in the cage. She openly admits her plan is always the same: Take her opponent down and smash them until a submission presents itself or the referee waves it off.
But Pacheco believes her own game has developed quite a lot since their first two meetings, which both took place in 2019. Since the second contest, Pacheco is a perfect 5-0, with all five wins coming by first-round knockout, and she believes Harrison might not be fully prepared for what she's facing in the third meeting.
"If you look at Kayla's fights, it's almost like a cookie-cutter formula," Pacheco said. "She does the exact same thing every single time. Whereas if you watch my fights, I feel like I bring a lot more emotion to the table. If you're watching me compete, you have no idea what's going to happen. I could knock you out. I could submit you. I could take your back, take your arm. Whatever it is, you're tuning in because you have no idea what's going to happen.
"You see the development and the evolution in my game, just based on the fact that I have a lot more versatility. Kayla seems to be going back to her basics and doing a successful formula in her wins, whereas on my side, I'm more of a freestyle fighter. Whatever situation presents itself, I'll capitalize based on that."
With a win, Pacheco would certainly enjoy the $1 million prize that is rewarded to PFL's annual champions, not to mention the gold belt that goes along with it. But it would also mark a huge moment in her career to prove that she is not just a great fighter, but rather an elite one.
Pacheco's career losses to date have come exclusively to champions of major promotions – including the two results to Harrison, as well as a 2015 setback to former UFC women's featherweight titleholder Germaine de Randamie and a 2014 loss to former UFC strawweight kingpin Jessica Andrade – and she hopes to prove that she is on the same level as those fighters rather than perhaps just one tier below.
"I think they all just get together and create this great personal and professional achievement that it would be for me," Pacheco said. "It's the belt in a major promotion that helps me assert my spot in the history books of MMA. It's a win against someone of Kayla Harrison's stature, and it's $1 million that really helps me invest in my career and my family and and in my livelihood, so I put it as a mixture of all three."
It certainly won't be an easy task for Pacheco, but she also wants to make it clear that it's not an impossible one, either. After two previous PFL campaigns came up short of a title, Pacheco believes it's her time, and she's excited that she gets to face an old foe in the process.
"I think making the trilogy fight against Kayla just makes it a lot more special," Pacheco said. "I have the chance of doing so many things at once. It's the championship, it's the belt, it's the money. It's the chance to get back with someone that got the better of me twice, so I'm looking forward to it."
This story first published at SI.com/MMA.