Josh Gross
Thursday July 22nd, 2010

The concept is simple enough. Put fighters short on experience and long on talent on television with space to breathe and grow. Provide them a road and a map to more meaningful fights and bigger paydays. As theory, Strikeforce Challengers (and the ShoXC cards that preceded them on Showtime) is a lovely concept, one that's graduated several mixed martial artists to a tougher school of fighting.

That is, unless you're Sarah Kaufman, the Strikeforce female bantamweight champion, No. 1-ranked at 135 pounds. Then the notion of fighting late Friday nights is practically nauseating. To the undefeated 24-year-old, who makes her fourth appearance on the series in 14 months Friday in Everett, Wash., the event's official slogan, "where champions are born," reads more like "where champions sit in purgatory."

Kaufman (11-0) captured her title in February after a lopsided five-round main event affair over Japan's Takayo Hashi. In returning for her first defense, against Roxanne Modafferi (11 p.m. ET/PT), not only is Kaufman doing so on yet another Challengers card, but she's also playing a warm-up act to a pair of young male heavyweights, Shane Del Rosario (9-0) and Lolohea Mahe (4-1-1), who was stopped in his last fight.

"I'm the only titleholder that's fought on the Challengers' card, and now it's twice," Kaufman said. "All the other title fights were on the main cards and that's where I want to be."

With a victory over Modafferi (15-5), Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker said Kaufman is all but assured a brighter showcase later this year when the promoter will match its female bantamweight champion against Marloes Coenen, whose recent 10-pound weight cut put her in line for a title shot. And a to-be-determined No. 1 contender, pending a four- woman one-night tournament in Phoenix on Aug. 13, will create another high-profile bout for the division. But, for now, Kaufman has to live with another late-night slot.

If Kaufman is put off by the idea -- by the tone of her voice it's easy to tell she is -- Modafferi, 27, sounds delighted just to have the chance.

"I'm trying not to be disappointed. I'd like to be the main event. That would be the awesomest thing ever," the challenger said. "I'm getting this opportunity to fight for Strikeforce, a title fight no less, so I'm trying really not to be bothered by that."

Like most things, the difference in attitude comes down to perspective. Modafferi, who makes her home in Tokyo and teaches English through Berlitz when she's not training or fighting, stumbled badly in her Strikeforce debut last November, losing a 145-pound fight in 65 seconds to Coenen. Two wins outside the organization, highlighted by a "milestone" split-decision in March over nemesis Tara LaRosa, who was ranked No. 1 at the time and hadn't lost since 2003, positioned Modafferi to challenge for the Strikeforce title.

"I think a lot of things I'd been working on I solidified in that fight," said Modafferi, who comes into Friday's showdown slotted just behind Kaufman in the female bantamweight rankings. "I showed my improvement in the ring. I didn't get to do that in Strikeforce last time, which was a huge disappointment."

Kaufman poses a whole set of problems LaRosa did not.

The champion is incredibly sturdy. She doesn't concede takedowns, nor does she go for them. "I knew Tara wanted to take me to the ground, and I'm pretty sure Sarah Kaufman doesn't want to shoot a double on me," Modafferi said with a giggle. It's true. Kaufman prefers to plod and punch, and against Hashi, a former Modafferi training partner, that's exactly what she did for 25 minutes, earning mixed reviews from fans and pundits who saw little more than a lioness playing with her prey.

In Modafferi, Kaufman is once again tasked with solving a finesse opponent -- though one with admittedly more weapons and experience against heavier competition. Still, the challenger is "half expecting to get outmuscled," giving oxygen to prevailing wisdom that Kaufman is simply too much for her to handle -- which would delight the 40 or so fans, friends and training partners traveling three hours south by ferry and bus from Victoria, British Columbia, to cheer her on at the Comcast Arena.

Yet don't expect Kaufman to try any harder to finish Modafferi than she did Hashi, even if the outcome may have in some way contributed to her remaining on a Challengers card and losing out on a main event.

What lesson did she take away from her title-winning decision?

"I don't think I should have or could have done anything differently aside from throwing myself into a really bad situation," she said. "That's unnecessary. I want to put on those exciting fights. But at the same time I'm not going to compromise my fighting ability in the process."

Coker maintains Kaufman's performance against Hashi had nothing to do with his decision to demote her out of the main event.

"It was a technical fight," he said. "Sarah did a good job and did what she had to do. I think more than anything you had two big guys trying to advance their position in the sport. You had that and a great title fight with Sarah. Which one should be the main event? My guys felt let's finish the night with a big heavyweight fight."

"They're the ones choosing what cards I'm on," Kaufman said, "so it's up to them."

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