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Sarah Kaufman stay’s hungry

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In the days and weeks following Strikeforce: Carano vs Cyborg the media jumped on board to highlight a string of up-and-coming female fighters as the future of women’s MMA – Cindy Dandois, Miesha Tate, Marloes Coenen, Erin Toughill and others. A Coenen-Toughill fight was even added to the November 7 Fedor Emelianenko vs. Brett Rogers card. Nowhere did I read about Sarah Kaufman. And I complained about that.

The 24-year-old Victoria, BC native is 10-0 in her professional MMA career and – I believe – far and away the top 135-pound female fighter in the world. In a span of 57 days between April and June of this year she fought and beat Sara Schneider, Miesha Tate and Shayna Baszler, the latter two on Strikeforce: ShoMMA cards. The Baszler bout was also the first Strikeforce women’s bout to feature five-minute rounds, dispelling any doubt that women can’t handle the longer rounds.

Kaufman has blazing hands, crisp striking, solid takedown defense and vicious ground-and-pound. Oh yeah, she’s also a purple belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, so her submissions aren’t too shabby either.

So where’s the love for Kaufman? Well, I figured if I wasn’t reading about her elsewhere I might as well write about her. And Kaufman graciously agreed to a phone interview. On the day we spoke she was actually at work at Zugec Ultimate Martial Arts (aka ZUMA), the club where she started training as a teenager and where she’s now an instructor and manager.

Kaufman hasn’t fought since June and she was feeling anxious to get back in the cage. “I get antsy if I’m not in training for a fight,” she says with a laugh. “I like fighting often.”

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Hopefully, she’ll be in the cage again soon. Strikeforce has been talking about creating a 135-pound bantamweight championship title and it would be impossible to think that Kaufman wouldn’t be one of the top two contenders. The promotion has also floated the idea of a bantamweight tournament leading to a title bout. Again, though, it would be an insult for Kaufman to have to battle her way through a tournament of lesser fighters. If there’s a tournament she should get a by to the final.

“I’m hoping to have my next fight lined up in the next six or eight weeks, although I’m not sure what Strikeforce has in mind,” she says. “I know they’ve been talking about a possible 135-pound title, and I certainly think I’d be in line to fight for that. But I’m not sure about a tournament. In some ways, that would be a step backwards for me and I always want to be moving forward.”

Just because Kaufman doesn’t have her next fight lined up doesn’t mean she’s resting on her laurels. She spent part of her summer in Albuquerque, NM, training with Greg Jackson, striking coach Michael Winkeljohn and veteran cagefighter Julie Kedzie. “Greg runs one of the best MMA schools there is, he’s got a great team around him, lots of high-calibre fighters, which is a great environment to be in and certainly different than what I’m used to here, and it was an opportunity to focus on training without having to teach classes,” she says.

And because one of Jackson’s specialties is the ground-and-pound, that suited Kaufman to a tee despite her reputation as an outstanding boxer. “I don’t consider myself a striker. I love punching, especially on the ground. It’s effective,” she says. “A lot of fighters get caught up in grappling when they go to the ground and they forget about striking on the ground.”

While Gina Carano’s pinup-girl image has certainly gone a long way toward bringing women’s MMA mainstream attention, it’s not exactly how Kaufman would like to see the sport promoted. “If it’s promoted as ‘look how hot this girl is’ it’s frustrating. Sex does sell, but I’m in there to fight. You’re not going to see me posing in a bathing suit in magazines to promote myself or the sport.”

Kaufman also has some good advice for women who think they may want to get into the cage and mix it up. “Going into a gym and saying ‘I want to fight’ is not the way to go about it,” she says. “You want to go in to learn how to fight and then decide if fighting is actually what you want to do. Don’t put the cart before the horse.” And given the amount of testosterone fueling the sport, even at the lowest level, finding that right gym can be difficult. “You need to find a gym that doesn’t have a lot of egos, where they’re accepting of women training and training seriously, who are okay with rolling with a girl or getting hit by a girl and who don’t feel the need to show how strong or tough they are. They need to be able to work with you and help you, not try to always prove that they’re better than you. They’re supposed to be your teachers and training partners, not your opponents.”

Growing up in Victoria, Kaufman discovered mixed martial arts by accident. She was a self-described “book nerd” and “straight-A” student who also studied ballet from the time she could walk. When a martial arts school – Zuma – opened up in the same building as her dance school, on  a whim she decided to check out a Muay Thai cardio conditioning class and was immediately hooked.

Pretty soon her aspirations of being a cardiovascular surgeon were put on the back burner so she could send people to the hospital instead.

Coached by Zuma head instructor Adam Zugec, who remains her coach to this day, Kaufman made her MMA debut at age 21 at North American Challenge 23, an event held on tribal lands near Vancouver. After a crowd-pleasing slugfest, she knocked out Liz Posener in the third round.

“I’m really competitive and I don’t like to be bad at things, and I took my first fight super seriously,” she says. “I actually wasn’t that nervous, the only thing I was nervous about was I didn’t want to lose. It had nothing to do with getting hit or getting hurt or anything. I just wanted to win. I didn’t want to disappoint my coach or my friends. My coach was so nervous before the fight I had to massage his shoulders in the locker room so that he would relax.”

From there Kaufman raked up a pair of TKO victories at King of the Cage Canada and another at Ultimate Cage Wars 7. By 2007 she was fighting for the TKO promotion alongside UFC vets Jonathan Goulet and Patrick Cote and eventually won the HCF Women’s Championship with a second-round ground-and-pound win over HOOKnSHOOT alumnus Ginele Marquez. She defended the title once before TKOing her way into the U.S. at Palace Fighting Championship 2, stopping Sara Schneider in the second round.

Then came the call to the big show, Strikeforce, and her trio of wins earlier this year. “It’s been a great year so far. I’m just looking forward to getting back in the cage,” says Kaufman. “I’m into punching girls in the face.”

By the way, I just noticed that Kaufman has been nominated for Female Fighter of the Year at the 2009 World MMA Awards alongside Carano, Cyborg Santos, Rosie Sexton and Megamu Fujii.

2 comments

1 Marc { 10.13.09 at 10:19 pm }

Win or lose, I will applaud Kaufman when she fights Roxanne Modafferi.

2 Ash { 10.14.09 at 1:32 am }

A great fighter to watch. I can’t wait to see her next fight ….. hurry up Strikeforce! Modafferi and then maybe LaRosa.

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