On Saturday night, the last queen of the Strikeforce cage will finally enter the Octagon.
Earlier this year, when it was announced that the gender barrier would be broken with the creation of the UFC women’s bantamweight championship, the obvious short list of the first fighting femme fatales in organization history would be the proud owners of its Strikeforce predecessor. Nearly eight months since that memorable opening UFC women’s bout, one of the weight class’ former champs and undeniable best - Canadian crusher Sarah Kaufman - is still itching for her first crack at Octagon stardom.
“I'm really excited to get into that cage,” declares Kaufman. “I feel like a little girl stamping my feet going, ‘Everyone else already has fights!’ [Liz] Carmouche is going out for her third fight already and I'm still waiting for my first one. At the end of the day, I'm going to get to fight and I'm ready to make a statement with that fight. From that point, hopefully, I will get fight after fight after fight. The UFC is going to keep me really active, I hope, and I hope the fans can get behind that and push that as well.”
Thankfully, the wait is over! The 16-2 Energizer Bunny of kickboxing combinations has been patiently biding her time until she could show Octagon enthusiasts her fan-friendly striking style and work her way back to a title shot. In August 2012, Kaufman was then-Strikeforce women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey’s first and last challenger before everyone made the jump to the UFC. That night was easily Kaufman’s worst in a fairly unblemished seven-year career, and she is more than eager at a shot at redemption and to get her hands on women’s bantamweight gold once again.
While waiting for her UFC debut, the former Strikeforce women’s bantamweight champ hasn’t been simply sitting idle; instead, she got back to her winning ways in April at Invicta FC 5, taking on Cesar Gracie Jiu-Jitsu product Leslie Smith.
“I knew that it was going to be a tough fight,” tells Kaufman. “I knew it was going to be a gritty fight. I think that's what I kind of needed. I had the Alexis Davis fight and then I had the Ronda fight and then I had the Leslie Smith fight right after. I think that was a good thing to go back to the roots of getting in there, fighting, and not thinking too much. It was a pretty exciting fight and won Fight of the Night. I was surprised it was a split decision. I definitely thought I had won the first and the third.”
Following the white-knuckle slobberknocker with Smith, the 28-year-old native of Victoria, BC, Canada was scheduled to tangle with undefeated 2004 Olympic wrestling bronze medalist Sara McMann at UFC Fight Night on August 28. Unfortunately for Kaufman, McMann had to withdraw, and the search for a suitable date and dance partner pushed this past due debut to October 19th against the 10-1 Jessica “Evil” Eye.
“Honestly, going from one fight camp into the next sucks,” admits Kaufman. “It's a lot of training. The best part about fighting is fighting. Not fighting between these camps with a camp directly after another camp means I'm on like a 20 week long fight camp, which is insane! But, it's been good. I've had no injuries. I was already in fight shape for this camp. I've been working with my team to not overtrain, but still get in the proper conditioning. I think the fight with Jessica has the potential and the ability to be a really exciting fight. Maybe more so than the McMann fight.”
Within the hallowed halls of Houston, Texas’ Toyota Center at UFC 166, it’s a double debut for colliding women’s bantamweights as Kaufman targets Eye inside the Octagon. Born, raised, and trained in Ohio, Eye has torn up the local women’s flyweight scene and recently put on back-to-back impressive winning performances against game opponents Zoila Gurgel and Carina Damm. The 27-year-old representing Strong Style Fight Team will have everything to gain by beating a former champ in Kaufman and, roughly, not much to lose as an entertaining underdog moving up in weight.
“I don't know a ton about Jessica,” reveals Kaufman. “She's been in the 125 scene and has done really well. Up until I found out I was fighting her, I had seen the fight with Zoila [Gurgel] and how she choked her out standing really fast and that was impressive in itself, but, other than that, I didn't really know a ton about her because I'm 135 and I don't pay as much attention to some of the other divisions, as they don't particularly pertain to me. I know she's a fresh face, which is kind of exciting, and it's going to give me the opportunity of having a fight and not overanalyzing too much. I have watched some tape, but, at the end of the day, it's go in there, do what I want to do, and have an exciting win.”
In preparation for Eye, Kaufman still trains with the original crew that got her here: ZUMA of Victoria, British Columbia. If it ain’t broke and helped you win a title, then don’t fix it is how the saying goes with Kaufman and her coach Adam Zugec. Pretty much a martial arts Swiss Army knife, Zugec began with karate, then Thai boxing, became a disciple of Erik Paulson, earned a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt under Marcus Soares, and is the mentor of one of the top women’s fighters in Kaufman. If one well of knowledge wasn’t enough, Kaufman visits Team Jackson-Winkeljohn’s in Albuquerque specifically to train with Julie Kedzie, and sometimes Greg Jackson makes the trip to the Great White North.
Not just a student at ZUMA, Kaufman helps run the gym, answer the calls, clean the mats, and, of course, teach classes of her own. Recently named a “Kick-ass role model” by Canadian Living magazine, Kaufman runs a range of classes from striking to grappling, with many focused for women and some coed, but Kaufman’s pet project is the kids’ program. With students starting as early as three years old, Kaufman is helping keep the next generation physical, active, and enjoying martial arts.
“I love teaching the kids program,” explains Kaufman. “I kind of started the kids program from scratch. My kids program is from about five or six to about 12 or 13, and some of them have started competing. It's just so rewarding to see their passion for the sport and keeping them occupied doing something that they love doing and that keeps them physical. It can be so much harder teaching an adults class because you become so much more invested, but they just give so much back. I also have my ‘little bulldogs,’ which is a 3-5 year old program. We do basic jiu-jitsu, fight stances, and basic punches. We see them respond to that physical contact. It's a side of things that we see being taken out of a lot of pre-schools in Canada. In some schools, they're not even allowed to play tag in Canada. They crave that physical side of things and they succeed really well with it.”
This Saturday, a women’s bantamweight war will unfold as Kaufman clashes with Eye. “It's our UFC debut on both ends, so we've got something to prove,” affirms Kaufman as the former cage queen begins her search for the UFC crown with her first Octagon win. “I think it's going to be a standup war with striking from wherever it is. I'm excited to get into that UFC cage and get my first UFC win and get my UFC career rolling. All the girls better look out.”
Sarah Kaufman: The Wait is Over
"It's our UFC debut on both ends, so we've got something to prove. I think it's going to be a standup war with striking from wherever it is." - Sarah Kaufman