As Rousey savors MMA's limelight, Kaufman quietly preps for title tilt
SAN DIEGO -- Although no one's made an official declaration, this has been Ronda Rousey Week in the mixed martial arts world.
The Strikeforce women's bantamweight champion has broken through to the mainstream audience like no female fighter since Gina Carano became a network television ratings sensation five years ago.
Rousey, the 2008 Olympic judo bronze medalist from Venice, Calif., has just five pro MMA fights to her credit. But from magazine covers to late-night talk show appearances, she's become a ubiquitous presence.
One item that's gotten lost in the hoopla as Rousey gets set to defend her title Saturday night at the Valley View Casino Center, formerly San Diego Sports Arena: Rousey will, in fact, face an opponent in the cage, one that no one has ever called a pushover.
Sarah Kaufman won't try to match trash talk with the brash Rousey. The 28-year old former dancer from genteel Victoria, British Columbia, very much fits the profile of a well-mannered Canadian lady in her day-to-day life.
But this Canadian also packs a punch. Kaufman, who once held the belt Rousey now wears, is a knockout specialist, with 10 finishes via strikes to her credit.
After Thursday's press conference hyping the fight, Kaufman took a philosophical approach to playing second fiddle as she chatted with Sports Illustrated around the corner from a waiting throng of reporters and cameramen.
"I think it's great attention, it's great for the sport, it's great for the fan base," said Kaufman (15-1). "I think a lot of people who might not know what this is all about are taking a look at the sport. I think a lot of MMA fans already know who Ronda is, and I have my chance to make new fans."
Pugilistic stardom is a long way from a childhood spent as a dancer. Kaufman began training in MMA on a lark at age 19, giving it a shot simply because an MMA gym opened in the same building as her dance studio.
"It was a passing thought, like, 'oh, well, I 'have an hour break, I guess I'll try it out, see what I think,'" said Kaufman. "And from that point on, I'd do dance in one studio, then I'd do a kickboxing class, and then I'd literally run straight upstairs to another dance class."
It was soon apparent that Kaufman had a new direction in life, though the change in footwork took some adjustment. "I was terrible at Muay Thai," she said. "Everything I did was dancer-ish. Had my toes pointed straight, too. I was trying to finesse it like I was dancing.
"I just knew that I loved it, I really felt empowered, I felt like, a lot of tension I didn't even know I was carrying, all of that just kind of, its was gone, it was eased away. I felt like for the first time, I was using a physical side of myself that I hadn't experienced before."
Turns out Kaufman was good at channeling her physical side. She won her first eight bouts via knockout or TKO and earned a spot in Strikeforce, the premier name in women's MMA. She responded to life on the big stage by winning her first four Strikeforce fights, including taking the inaugural Strikeforce women's 135-pound title with a decision win over Takayo Hashi back in February 2010.
A title loss to Marloes Coenen that October halted Kaufman's momentum, but as Rousey blitzed her way into the spotlight, Kaufman slowly worked her back into the title picture with three straight victories.
"I never had a doubt," Kaufman said. "I'm a hard worker, I want my title back, that's something I'm going to get. So it wasn't a matter of if it's going to happen, it's a matter of the timing and when it's going to happen."
It doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure out the combatants' game plans on Saturday. Rousey is women's MMA's resident limb collector, winning all five of her pro bouts via first-round armbar. This includes Miesha Tate, who walked away with a dislocated left elbow when Rousey took her title in March.
Kaufman's been on both sides of this equation: She entered Strikeforce with quite a bit of hype on the heels of her knockout streak, so she knows all about how Rousey's armbar aura was created and won't be unnerved.
"It doesn't make me nervous, it's something that could happen," said Kaufman, whose only career loss, to Coenen, came via armbar. "It's also something I'm prepared for. It's an armbar and people can have a mystique behind someone because they've had the same submission over and over and over again. And it does create kind of an aura of 'whoa, she's won every fight by the same thing.' And I did the same thing when I had eight knockouts in a row, and you do have that mystique and someone has to break it and that's what I'm prepared to do."
Who knows? Maybe with a spectacular victory, there will be a Sarah Kaufman Week in MMA circles. Kaufman might be a bit oblivious if it does happen, since she doesn't have cable or internet where she lives. But doesn't need a wireless connection to notice things have already changed around her hometown.
"Victoria's a funny place," she said. "It's beautiful. There's a lot of the younger crowd in terms of the 15-to-40 age group, and a lot of them are huge fight fans. But the media in Victoria is controlled by really old people. So for the most part, the people in the media, they're writing about soccer, and flowers, and what's happening down at the yacht club. But over the last couple years, a lot of magazines and just the community (are) really getting behind me as a fighter and as an athlete. It's exciting to see the acceptance of the sport in what's really an older community."