There are many reasons why I love the sport of mixed martial arts. Call this Reason No. 486.
While you can't drive up to the Staples Center and gain access to Kobe Bryant or drop into Foxboro and have a chat with Tom Brady, if you pull into the parking lot at Zugec Ultimate Martial Arts (ZUMA) in Victoria, British Columbia, you can walk in the door and have a conversation with the best female bantamweight on the planet, Sarah Kaufman.
With a professional record of 10-0, Kaufman makes her long-awaited and oft-delayed return to the cage on Friday night, now as the main event of the sixth edition of the Strikeforce Challengers series in San Jose, California.
Last week, I got a chance to sit down with the personable power puncher to discuss Takayo Hashi, Cris Cyborg, and whether or not she could have beaten Herschel Walker's initial opponent.
Please enjoy responsibly.
Kyte: Ten days from now, you’ll step into the cage against Takayo Hashi (12-1-0) to compete for the Strikeforce Women’s Featherweight championship.
Are you glad they’ve started referencing the title as the featherweight championship and not kept the focus on the actual weight? What was with that?
Kaufman: I always thought of 135 as bantamweight, so I don’t really know what they’re calling it. Whether it’s featherweight, I’ve also heard them (Strikeforce) call it welterweight. Whatever they call it, sure, great, make it a title. I’m ready for it.
Kyte: This is a fight that has been postponed a number of times, giving you a massive amount of time to prepare. Any worries about being over-prepared and having over-thought things at all?
Kaufman: No, it’s been a long haul and it’s been frustrated having the fight been pushed and started, and pushed and started. It’s hard on training camps too because you can only peak as a fighter so many times in a year, so I’ve started to get ready to peak for this fight four times now.
My peaking is going really well now, I think, and hopefully in ten days I’ll be right where I should be.
Kyte: I was told Saturday (by Kaufman's coach Adam Zugec) that you’re at the right point—you’re in your bitch phase.
Kaufman: I am at the bitch phase.
Kyte: How has camp been going—have you worked with anyone to mimic Hashi’s style and approach?
Kaufman: For the most part it’s been my usual routine. Adam does a really good job of knowing where I am, and knowing when I need to push more or pull back more to make sure I’m not overworking anything to the point of injury.
Working with my same training partners—Nick Driedger, Diego Wilson, Connor Wood, Tarek Gebali, Tyler Nicholson, Andrew Jorgensen—they’re all great guys right around my size, which is nice.
It’s hard, though, because you really don’t know what [your opponent’s] style is going to be coming out of Japan. They [Japanese fighters] tend to have an awkward stand-up style, so it’s hard to mimic that and get my game going.
Kyte: Most people associate you with a strong striking attack centered around your boxing, while Hashi is a grappler who likes to operate on the mat. Do you see this being a battle to keep it standing, or are there some tools on the ground that we don’t know about yet?
Kaufman: I think the majority of the time, if they want to go to the ground and I’m strong standing, I may as well work to their weak spot if that is one of my strong spots. I do think that I’m relatively hard to take down as well, which allows me to dictate whether I want to remain standing or want to be on the ground for the most part.
The fight could go anywhere, but I do want to finish this one.
Kyte: After eight TKOs to start your career, you’ve gone the distance in your last two fights. Do you attribute that to a step up in competition, a change in gameplans, or just the way the fights have worked out?
Kaufman: I think, yeah, sometimes it’s just hard to finish fights for whatever reason. If someone isn’t standing right in front of you, and they’re moving away a lot, you can only chase so far before you risk putting yourself in a bad position as well.
With the Miesha Tate fight, it was a great fight, but it was only three minute rounds. Personally, I love the five minute rounds because it allows me to push the pace of the fight and tire people out that way as well. Who knows if that fight would have ended differently with that extra six minutes of fighting...
Kyte: And you’ve got five fives this time around.
Kaufman: Five fives—lots of time.
Kyte: Is it safe to call you the female Josh Koscheck, in that if you could fight once a month, or every six weeks, you’d be in heaven?
Kaufman: Yes. Sure. Put me in.
Kyte: Without looking passed Hashi next weekend, what do you see the next few months entailing? Who are some names out there that you’d like to see Strikeforce put in front of you?
Kaufman: It depends because if I win the title, it’s a contender fight, bringing in people to challenge for the belt. There are a lot of great names in the 135 division, I can’t even name them all.
Roxanne Modafferi, I know she’s been talked about quite a bit. She’s fought for Strikeforce, so I’m not sure if she’s still under contract or if she’ll be brought in. There was talk of the 135 tournament, but Strikeforce already has a great roster at 135. Kerry Vera, Miesha Tate, Zoila Frausto, Elisha Helsper, the list just goes on.
Whoever I get to fight is awesome.
Kyte: Still interested in a fight with Tara LaRosa at some point?
Kaufman: (excited) Yeah—if she’s coming back up, I’m her first fight. I told her.
Kyte: I know a lot of people have started asking about stepping up to 145 and you’ve said it’s something you’d consider, but does the singular focus on one fighter (Cris Cyborg) frustrate you at all?
Kaufman: I think that the belt at 135 is a big step in moving it away from that singular focus. I think Strikeforce is starting to get that; they’re starting to really develop the 135 division, which does have all of those fighters constantly coming into it. Hopefully, that will change the whole “Will I go up and fight Cyborg?” question.
Kyte: This fight is part of the Strikeforce Challengers series of events. Are you at all surprised that this fight—a title fight—hasn’t been given a bigger stage and more attention?
Kaufman: Well, I’ve just been waiting for so long that at this point I just want the fight, but at the same time, why are you putting a title fight on the Challengers card when challengers are supposed to be the people who are up-and-coming?
But, if that’s all they could fit me on, then put me in.
Kyte: It’s also not the main event of said Challengers card. Any thoughts?
Kaufman: I do find it strange. I don’t know their reasoning; whether it’s that the females just aren’t big enough still, unless you’re Gina Carano, who in turn made Cris Cyborg big. Whatever their reason is, hopefully they’ll sort it out in time, and I’m really not that worried. I’m worried about the fight and they put me where they put me.
Kyte: Personally, I saw the Herschel Walker and Bobby Lashley inclusion on the main card of SF: Miami as a bit of a slap in the face to guys like Jay Hieron and Joe Riggs who were relegated to the prelim card.
What are your thoughts on that? You’re fighting for a title and a famous football player with no experience is getting far more attention and marketing than you’ve ever received.
Kaufman: I think a lot of that has to do with marketing and promoting. If people know a name, they’re going to watch because they know a name, and not necessarily because they’re the best fighter. Or maybe they watch because they know a name and they’re a fan of the sport, and that is going to lead them into knowing more people.
That being said, to have zero fights and then have Jay Hieron on the undercard is definitely a rough call, but you have to look at how many people just wanted to see Herschel Walker. Was it a great fight? Was it even a good fight?
Kyte: Could you have beaten Greg Nagy?
For the casual fan who hasn’t watched the sport that much, Jay Hieron is an unknown compared to the big name of Herschel Walker who people know from football. The problem for Hieron is that being on the undercard, your sponsorship is going to be much less, so at least I’m still on the TV portion of the card.
Kyte: A lot of the female fighters getting attention these days are the ones who rock bikinis and take photos like they’re posing for lingerie ads. Does that focus on appearance, and female fighters having to be portrayed as sex symbols and objects of desire, frustrate you at all?
Even Cyborg has gotten in on the act; softening her look and showing her “feminine side” as often as she can, talking about posing for Playboy...all this despite the fact that she’s highly respected as a fighter.
Kaufman: (laughs) I don’t think there is anything wrong with showing a feminine side if that’s you, or looking nice and presentable. Obviously image is a big thing for anyone. I understand that image really is important, but your image has to be you.
I’m wouldn’t be comfortable posing in bathing suits, that’s not my style. I’m definitely more on the tomboy side of things: skate shoes, jeans, track pants, definitely more on the edge of comfy as opposed to dresses and heels. That’s just not me, so I would have a hard time forcing myself to play that image on a regular basis.
If there were an occasion where they asked me to dress up, I would try, but I can’t promise that I would come out looking as good as everyone else. I also wouldn’t take my clothes off.
Kyte: Last time we talked, we were optimistic about the growth of the sport in Canada. Seven months later, we have the UFC adding a second Canadian stop to the schedule, the WEC talking about coming to Calgary, and a number of Canadian promotions beginning to flourish, including one here in Victoria.
Where do we go from here?
Kaufman: It’s definitely a sport that has piqued the interest of a lot of people. There are a lot of younger people getting involved, which is going to allow it to keep evolving and getting better. There will be a limit as to the number of organizations will be able to open and keep their doors open.
You hear about promotions that think “MMA is popular. Let’s get in there and make a lot of money” without realizing that you have to pay fighters, you have to pay the venue, you have to pay the commission, and buy the cage, and all the other overhead costs that you might not think are so big.
I think a bunch of smaller organizations will taper off and we’ll just end up with a bunch of really great quality shows. That’s what I’m hoping for at least.
Kyte: A lot of people are interested in the day-to-day life of fighters outside of the cage. What’s a typical day-in-the-life of Sarah Kaufman?
Kaufman: A typical day, I probably get up somewhere between 6:30 AM and 7:30 AM at the latest, take my dog out so she doesn’t pee in my house, pretty much make breakfast or have a protein shake. I go to my first workout, whether it’s a light jog or weights and conditioning, or stairs, or whatever it is.
Then I head into ZUMA, teach classes, clean the gym, teach more classes, eat my lunch, teach more classes, and then my training is usually later in the day. Once I get home, I usually just hang out, watch a TV show on my computer (she doesn’t have cable!) and that’s a night.
Kyte: Plug the sponsors.
Kaufman: I want to thank Takin’ Care of Business (TCB), Performance MMA, and Sprawl. So far, those are my main sponsors. My team, ZUMA—Adam Zugec is the best coach in the world —and my strength and conditioning coach, Tyler Goodale.