Heart of a fighter: Mixed Martial Arts champ talks fighting, sexuality & garlic bread

A Real Knockout Betty: Meeting Sarah Kaufman is like being punched in the face with awesome.

Story first published March 24, 2011

Meeting Sarah Kaufman is like being punched in the face with awesome.

The world pro-fighting champion has a soft voice and a permanent grin. She coddles her toy terrier dog and flops on a couch the way a teenager collapses after a hard game. Her eyes sparkle mischievously, but her hand movements are gentle and refined. At first sight, she isn’t what you might picture the first — and only — Hardcore Championship Fighting World Title holder would look like. Her hair is long, and her heartshaped face is touched with a little makeup. She’s slim and well muscled, but has a gentle femininity.

Kaufman’s journey from a 17-year-old active dancer to a 25-year-old Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) world champion may be local legend for some. After all, the welterweight Strikeforce hero was born and raised in Victoria, so it’s only natural she’d have some fans pouring over her every detail. But for a woman who has a purple belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and is making a heavy international impact in the world and culture of sports fighting, she’s received fairly little fame in her own hometown.

Given that, some may be interested to know that garlic bread is one of Kaufman’s favourite foods, or that she spends an entire day before a big fight just relaxing. Some also may be interested in knowing that, until now, she’s spent every night before a fight sleeping in a hotel bed. But this next match could change that since, on April 2, Victorians will have their first opportunity to watch their very own champ fight right here, in Bear Mountain Arena — and she’ll be doing it against one of Japan’s heavy hitters in the Armageddon Fighting Championships.

“I’m pretty excited to get the chance to fight here in Victoria for once,” Kaufman says. “It’ll be great to have so many people who I work with every day be able to come out and support me … I’ve been in big arenas before, but there’s always that extra element of pressure when you’re performing for the home side.”

Kaufman remained undefeated for her entire fighting career until her last fight against Netherlands competitor Marloes Coenen, setting Kaufman at 12-1. That defeat, while initially a blow to Kaufman’s unparalleled record, could turn into a favour for her in the long run.

“A lot of people get intimidated with the idea of fighting someone undefeated, especially someone who’s winning with knock-outs. So you risk seeing a lot of last-minute drop outs, or trouble finding competitors,” Kaufman says. “This way, people get that chance to say, ‘Oh, maybe I could beat her.’ And they at least want to try.”

Knock-out stigmas

Since Kaufman began her career eight years ago, a lot has changed. Women, for one thing, have received higher profiles than ever before and Strikeforce (the only event that allows female competitors) has risen to the second-highest grossing contact event, next only to Ultimate Fighting Championships (UFC). Both Kaufman and her trainer, Adam Zugec, agree that seeing women compete in the UFC is unlikely so long as the head owners believe people don’t want to see women fight — and until there is a greater talent pool to select from.

“If everyone was at Sarah’s level, I think we’d really see some strong movement in female competition in UFC,” says Zugec. “But, more than talent, it takes a lot of dedication and hard work, and sometimes just plain good genetics to be able to succeed in this sport. Sarah’s got a one-up on a lot of competition when it comes to that.”

Zugec, 36, who has been coaching Kaufman from day one, says that thanks to Kaufman’s rising profile many more women have been coming to the Zugec Ultimate Martial Arts (ZUMA) fitness centre to learn kick-boxing and MMA.

While it’s romantic to think that Kaufman may be the only one from her class to have gone on to make it in the big leagues, Zugec says there have been quite a few men and women who go on to become fighters. Still, when it comes to the idea of women versus men, Kaufman and Zugec believe that all’s equal on the playing field.

“I always think it’s funny when you hear female fighters saying, ‘I train with men, so that makes me extra tough,’” Kaufman says. “In reality, the majority of women in this sport are training with men in male-oriented gyms. So really, we’re all on the same level.”

When it comes to stigmas, Kaufman says she has trouble convincing women and men there’s no need to be intimidated.

“People have this perception that, because I’m willing to fight someone, I must be really brutal, or a bitch or something, but in fact there’s so much respect between fighters, and it’s not like that at all,” she says.

Zugec agrees that the sport itself carries its own intimidation factor.

“Sarah actually is a really kind and nice person — well, not to me, but to most people,” he says, joking. “At the end of the day, though, she’s just a great athlete. And once that fight is over, everyone goes back to being friends.”

As a fighter, Kaufman says she gets asked about her sexuality all the time — she’s straight by the way — whereas it was never brought up when she was a dancer. But, despite the fact that she hates dresses and wears minimal makeup, Kaufman carries herself with a stoic feminine beauty that’s hard to miss.

“Sex sells in a largely male industry, and there are some fighters who really push the feminine edge and promote themselves by emphasizing that fact that ‘I’m an attractive woman, and I can also knock someone out,’” Kaufman says. “Then you see the other end, with women who almost banish their femininity to embrace their fighting edge. Myself, I think I straddle the middle ground. I just like to fight.”

The next big hook

While Kaufman isn’t big on promoting herself (she blushes when Zugec shows off her two trophy belts, a framed bloody T-shirt and a YouTube video of Kaufman fighting), her wins speak for themselves. Since her first fight in 2006, Kaufman’s profile has been on the rise and MMARising.com has her as fifth-ranked pound-for-pound female MMA fighter in the world. She’s also the second-ranked, 135-pound female fighter, according to the Unified Women’s MMA Rankings. Now, in her upcoming battle against Japan’s Megumi Yabushita — a 39-year-old fighter with a 19-17 record — hometown favour will be on Kaufman’s side.

Things didn’t always look so promising, however. Zugec remembers the first day Kaufman showed up to kickboxing class.

“I thought, ‘wow — she’s terrible,’” he recalls. “I didn’t see any future for her to fight or compete, but she kept coming back, and her ability to listen and take direction was superb. We just kept taking the next step.”

Kaufman says she fell in love with the sport from her first class. Even she knew she was terrible, but it was an immediate addiction. As she went on to try wrestling and grappling, that “next step” kept leading her in the direction of pro MMA.

“Your training should be the hardest part. It’s where the most brutal work is done, and it’s also where fighters are at most risk of getting hurt,” she says. “I’d hate to go into a ring and have my expectations knocked out from under me; you want to put yourself in the worst situation possible, and see how you do.”

A fighter’s career isn’t defined by age or brute force, like many other professionally competitive sports. Instead, it’s often about how well a body stands up to hits, and how sponsorable a competitor is, based on wins. Kaufman may be looking at a long career yet, but she says she’ll definitely consider coaching when the time comes. Zugec, who focused his career in coaching from the very beginning, has every confidence that, with her analytical eye, Kaufman will make an exceptional coach. Right now, Kaufman teaches a series of kickboxing and competitive workshops through ZUMA.

Coaching aside, Kaufman grew up wanting to do cardiovascular surgery. She attended the University of Victoria for a few years, but dropped out after she realized it wasn’t the right dream. Now, she says she has no plans of ever going back, but she’s still proud of her choices.

“A lot of people say to me, ‘You dropped out of school to fight people? What kind of role model is that?’” Kaufman says. “But I still have women and kids telling me how much my choices mean to them. I don’t drink, I don’t do drugs, I have intense dedication and passion for what I do, and I think that still makes a role model.” M

See Sarah Kaufman take on Megumi Yabushita in the Armageddon Fighting Championships: April 2, at Bear Mountain Arena. Tickets on sale at ZUMA for $40. For more information, visit zuma.tv or call 250-475-2885.

Editor’s note: Kaufman won the April 2 bout, untouched.

 

SIDEBAR: Taking on the Champ — writer discovers pride that comes with pain

I enter the kickboxing class just in time to hear a woman’s voice shout: “Twenty sit-ups, 20 push-ups, 20 squats!”

Sarah Kaufman, local Mixed Martial Arts and Strikeforce world champion, sees me and smiles.

“Danielle, so glad you could make it,” she says, warmly. “Shoes off, hit the mats, 20 sit-ups, 20 push-ups, 20 squats.”

“So, I choose one?” I almost say, before I realize she means do it all.

In the room, 10 or so women are panting and grunting into the warm-up. I finish my late set as fast as possible, but can’t help feeling like the new kid in class who everyone is watching out the corner of their eyes.

A loud beep sounds, and Kaufman barks instructions that send the women grabbing gloves and pads and forming into groups. I do my best to follow along, but Kaufman is quick to announce, “Danielle, you’re on the bag.” I pray this will be explained.

Kaufman leads me into a separate room and shows me how to stand and punch as a lefty — something she noticed about me from our interview, a day earlier. She illustrates a right-left punch and side hook movement, and I follow.

“Great,” she says, and then, “Where are those hands, Danielle?”

Always near your face, I learn.

Just when I start to punch my life’s worth of aggression into a bag, Kaufman calls out more unfamiliar terms, and suddenly we’re all lined up against a wall. A timer sounds and I do my best to keep up as we run to the other side of the room, do 10 high-knee jumps, run backwards, skip forwards, crisscross run sideways, jump-squat across the room, run, lay down and get up again, then crabwalk backwards. Kaufman tells us to do it all again.

My lungs heave and my heart is beating so fast I can feel it in my teeth. The women line up and get ready, and my face flushes hot as I have to bow out, breathless, for water. I consider asking how long practice lasts but, when Kaufman asks how I’m doing, I can only nod.

Next, we match up in pairs and practice punches, kicks, side hooks and more. I punch first and worry about hurting the woman holding the pads. She laughs and says I’ll get used to it. When it’s my turn on the pads, she kicks and I feel the wind burst out of my lungs as I stagger backwards.

“That’s it, really plant your feet in,” Kaufman says, watching me. We go again and, when I match the woman’s kick with pressure, “Yes! Good, Danielle,” Kaufman yells, and I flush with accidental pride.

Sure enough, the buzzer sounds, and we’re running, hopping and breathing heavy again.

“She’s so mean,” one woman says, laughing.

I struggle to make it through. At the end, Kaufman calls out her final orders.

“Stretch it out! Or, 50 push-ups. You know who you are,” she says, referring to anyone not wearing a full uniform — thankfully, I get an exception.

Kaufman leaves me with a big smile, and tells me to come back. I know I will.

When I get home, still breathing hard, I fall on my bed and consider the results: I just got my ass handed to me by Sarah Kaufman. What an honour to play in her ring. M

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