If you met Sarah Kaufman without ever knowing she was one of the consensus top bantamweight fighters in the world, you might think she was simply a sweet Canadian woman. She’s so thoughtful and well spoken, maybe you’d think she was a teacher. Well, you’d be partially right.

She is a teacher of sorts, and a former dancer, but knowing that would fool you from guessing that she can kick just about any woman’s ass at 135 pounds and has only lost to two champions.

Kaufman has been a staple in Strikeforce since 2009, with eight fights under the banner. In that time, she became a Strikeforce bantamweight champion and defended the title once, before losing it to Marloes Coenen, who mounted a come-from-behind victory to hand Kaufman her first professional loss. Kaufman was also the last person to fight women’s bantamweight superstar Ronda Rousey in the promotion’s second-to-last event ever before WMMA broke its way into the mainstream with the UFC.

Kaufman (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

You could say Kaufman played a part in the big break of women’s MMA, even if she wasn’t its poster child. When the UFC bought Strikeforce, it acquired her contract, so you will be seeing her in the Octagon eventually. For now, Kaufman will be competing for Invicta Fighting Championship, and to her, it’s not much to wrap your head around.

“Shannon [Knapp, Invicta’s president] called my manager and said, ‘Here is who we want Sarah to fight.’ I think for the most part, that’s how it went down,” Kaufman explained, in regards to her April 5 fight at Invicta FC 5, in an exclusive interview with The MMA Corner.

“Initially, in October, [I was] going to fight Kaitlin Young, and then, instead, I wasn’t able to take that fight. So then Leslie [Smith] and Kaitlin got matched up. So maybe [Invicta] thought, ‘Well, Sarah was going to fight Kaitlin, so we’ll have her fight Leslie, now that Leslie won.’ I’m not in their heads, but I think that’s probably how it went.”

With the demise of Strikeforce and the infancy of the UFC women’s bantamweight division, Invicta is the only place to get a guaranteed card full of WMMA action. You might see some familiar faces and quite a few new ones, all under the watchful eye of UFC matchmakers looking to fill their own women’s bantamweight division.

“They have some of the top fighters in the world,” Kaufman said of Invicta. “Invicta’s doing a great job of literally going to every corner of the world and pulling fighters from each weight class into their organization. They’re building up new 135ers, and then they’re giving experienced 135ers amazing fights. It’s great. And definitely, Zuffa is keeping an eye on all the 135ers and it’s been a good place for them.”

Kaufman came from headlining events and being placed on main cards on premium cable to fighting for an organization still building its name and broadcasting its events over the internet. Yet, she doesn’t come across as someone who gets caught up with the where, why and how. For her, it’s all about what has happened recently.

“I think I’ve been hovering at the top of the division for quite awhile—for quite a few years,” Kaufman admitted. “Being at No. 1 or No. 2, and that’s an honor for me. I’m always trying to better myself and always trying to prove why I deserve for some people to think that. For me, rankings don’t mean a lot. It’s your last performance, and it’s how you’re progressing as a fighter. Even if I win a fight—if I don’t feel very good in doing it, I’m not happy with it myself. Even if it’s a good win on paper.”

She might be hard on herself, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to hear Kaufman bad-mouthing an opponent.

“I think the fight with Leslie Smith—she hasn’t had as many fights as I’ve had, but she’s tough,” Kaufman said of her upcoming opponent. “She has a lot of heart. She has that in-your-face aggressiveness. Maybe it’s not the most technical, but it’s consistent. She comes in and fights hard and makes other people fight hard. In that sense, it’s going to be an exciting fight.”

Fighting an opponent like Smith could be a high-risk, low-reward proposition given their the contrast in their level of experience. Kaufman is a credible name for any fighter to have a win over on their record, especially for a fighter still trying to make a name for themselves. Conversely, one of the benefits for Kaufman is that her experience with success has left her with no shortage of training opportunities to be prepared to meet any challenge.

“I train at Zuma in Victoria with Adam Zugec,” Kaufman said. “I supplement my training, and I just went down to Jackson’s for a week as well to work with the coaching staff down there.

“Training’s been great. In town, I have lots of different training partners that I work with. Mostly guys in town here, in Victoria. It’s a great, great team we have at Zuma, and Adam’s a great coach.

“Then, I’m lucky enough when I go down to Albuquerque to get to work with Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn. And then it’s great to have girls to train with as well. Holly Holm—she’s amazing, she’s a 135er as well. Julie Kedzie. Michelle Waterson is going to fight for the title for Invicta on the same card. There’s lots of girls, and it’s a great training atmosphere.”

Kaufman isn’t one to open up about the specifics of what she is working on in her camps. But if she had her way, the women she’s fighting wouldn’t be so afraid to stand and trade with her. With 10 KO/TKOs to her record of 15 professional wins, you can’t really blame them when they’re standing across from the female version of Chuck Liddell.

Kaufman (top) rains punches (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

“You’re always adding new things to your toolbox, if you will,” Kaufman explained. “Depending on who you’re placed with, you use certain things in different fights. A lot of the people I have fought in the past have all been grapplers or wrestlers who don’t want to strike at all—anti-striking. So it’s just, you’re going to use different things in different fights, and I’m just always trying to improve in all those different areas.”

Kaufman’s only two losses are by submission, though from two very good submission specialists. Some might think that points to what is keeping her one step away from being truly elite, but for Kaufman, it’s a matter of being too headstrong in trying to finish a fight. Or, not being headstrong enough.

“I have a brown belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I do a lot of ground work, so it’s not like I’m unfamiliar with it,” Kaufman said. “For my fight with Marloes, I got overexcited and got caught in [an armbar]. It happened, and then with Rousey—of course, that’s her bread and butter—I just started too slowly. I had good defense in it, but just at some point, there’s only so much defense you can do; it’s just a matter of being more offensive.”

It’s a smart game plan for her opponents to negate her striking, because they would run into the same problems all of Kaufman’s opponents have: her hands. When pressed further, Kaufman wouldn’t give anything up about any new shiny tools within her striking game, but know that she is still honing the top boxing techniques she already possesses.

“I’m always trying to improve and work on better angles and different punches, different combinations and that kind of thing,” Kaufman admitted.

One of the things that is so disarming about Kaufman is her work outside of the technical violence she displays in MMA competition. Before she was a star athlete, Kaufman developed a love for teaching through her education in college and in dance. Let’s put it this way: you wouldn’t have a problem letting her watch over your young children.

“I’ve always loved kids. I’ve always loved teaching kids,” Kaufman professed. “When I danced, I taught the younger kids dance classes and system classes, and now I’m lucky enough to run the kid’s program through Zuma. We have open MMA classes as well as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu classes for ages 5-12. Then we have a ‘little bulldogs’ class, which is kind of a mix of everything for three- to five-year-olds.

“They’re amazing. To see the talent at such a young age that they have, it’s amazing to watch. To be a part of such a journey for kids that age, and to see them competing and getting medals and just pulling off techniques that you don’t think they know, and then all the sudden in competition they whip it out. They do a butterfly sweep or a bow-and-arrow choke or something they’ve seen but just never really ever perfected, and in competition it comes out.”

That passion and ability for instruction could also lend itself to commentating or television work down the road. Follow Sarah’s Twitter on a fight night and you’ll see plenty examples of her thoughtful appraisal. For right now, though, it just sounds like a good idea. The UFC fighters’ work on Fuel TV has proven to be a good avenue for them, but no female fighter has ever had the chance to give their perspective as a TV personality.

“I’d love the opportunity,” Kaufman confessed. “I think that would be so much fun. I actually really like talking about the fights and giving my opinions, and I’d definitely be really open to working in that field, whether it’s television or post-fight, or even play-by-play commentary sitting cageside.

Kaufman (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

“I think that would be a really fun avenue to get involved with, just to branch out and do something a bit different as well. I think when you teach something, you actually learn it a little bit better because you’re breaking it down. I think the same can be said for commentary, because you’re sitting watching fights—breaking things down—you’re a little more aware of small transitions that are happening and where things are going right and where things are going wrong. I think that can only help your own fight game as well.”

Maybe all this MMA stuff is pretty simple. Or maybe it’s that Kaufman has such a solid grasp on everything surrounding her career, you can’t help but agree that it all sounds so right.

Come fight night, some things may change depending on the outcome of the fight, but what is certain is that 135 pounds is where Kaufman plans to stay. She has a dangerous opponent to look forward to at Invicta FC 5 on April 5 and will be waiting on a call from the UFC when it decide to find a way to use her.

In the meantime, she might be producing the next big thing in MMA with her Zuma kids. After all, it was the decision to take a martial arts class at a gym that started Kaufman on her path. And she will continually be working on her technical game that produces the controlled violence that one wouldn’t expect from such a modest person. Don’t let it all distract you, especially if she’s your next opponent, because her eyes are on a final goal.

“Ultimately, I want to fight for the UFC title, win the title, and then be the title holder,” Kaufman declared. “That is definitely the ultimate in the sport. I clearly want a rematch with Ronda since [our] fight. I didn’t fight it to my potential whatsoever and really got caught early. So, definitely, I want that fight back. But how [I] get there is by fighting, winning fights, having good fights—getting there when you get there. You can’t rush it too much, it’s a matter of timing on everything.”

Sarah would like to thank Adam Zugec and all her teammates at Zuma, the Greg Jackson camp and all the fans for supporting her and the sport of WMMA. Follow Sarah on Twitter: @mmasarah 

Top Photo: Sarah Kaufman (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

About The Author

David Massey
Staff Writer

David Massey studied Humanities and Art History at the University of Central Oklahoma. He first found interest in MMA from the first TUF show and has been hooked ever since. He began posting on mmajunkie then submitting Sunday Junkie entries and that began his interest in writing about MMA. Through twitter David found other MMA enthusiasts and began contributing articles to marqueemma.com. He looks forward to growing as a writer and being a part of the sport he loves.