Headstrong and competitive, Kaufman has something to prove

Thursday February 25th, 2010

On its own, an elevated pulse near a fight isn't terribly revealing. Pumping adrenaline, pressure, TV cameras, the willingness to care. These things should lead to a dancing heart.

As Adam Zugec walks behind 24-year-old Sarah Kaufman to the cage Friday night in San Jose, Calif., he could blast out over 120 beats per minute. At least that's how Kaufman's trainer of six years has reacted in the past when his close friend and top student -- and SI.com's female mixed martial artist of 2009 -- is moments away from fighting.

The only remarkable thing about Zugec's ticking ticker comes into view when it's compared to one belonging to the corn-rowed, pale-faced woman stalking just ahead.

"One time Sarah's heart rate was in the low 50s," Zugec said proudly. "She has absolutely no fear walking to the cage. Sometimes you see people walking to the cage and you can tell they're faking it. She actually is smiling for real. She's so happy."

Ten fights into her mixed martial arts career, Kaufman is yet to have a reason to frown.

The unbeaten 135-pounder, who is scheduled to fight for a Strikeforce belt against Japan's Takayo Hashi in a Showtime-televised main event (11 p.m. ET/PT), has known for some time what she wanted out of life. Even if it required stepping out on her own at 17. Even if it resulted in a fractured relationship with her family. Even if it means not having Internet or television because they can distract. Even if it demands surrendering virtually everything else for a singular purpose.

Kaufman, said Zugec, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt in the Carlson Gracie lineage, is "someone that needs to succeed, wants to succeed, and has that desire to push herself to other limits that other people won't."

She's also a curmudgeon. And headstrong. And competitive. And the only thing Kaufman hates more than being told she's wrong -- because it disrespects the work of previous teachers -- is losing.

"I don't expect to go undefeated forever," Kaufman said. "I would love to and will try to do everything I can to ensure that. But at the end of the day MMA really is that complex a sport."

Kaufman appears to have a calling for it, which when realized five years ago at ZUMA Martial Arts in beautiful Victoria, B.C., an island suburb of Vancouver and the province's capital, she went cold turkey on a life of dancing for MMA. Can't spread yourself too thin, she felt at the time. One class a week wasn't enough. Plus this fighting stuff is much more fun, and it actually makes use of the rhythm developed over long nights in a dance studio above the gym.

Zudec recognized early on the qualities in Kaufman that have seen her stop eight of 10 opponents. She won't do anything but move forward. Her strong hips make Kaufman difficult to control. And she appears content to take a punch in the face.

Even still, Zudec said he begged Kaufman not to fight based on strictly male concerns, like what people would think about a girl in her mid-20s with a crooked nose or mashed up ears.

But she doesn't always listen, not when she's got something in her mind to do. She left home during her 12th year of school to pursue her dreams.

"I want to live a different lifestyle than what they live," Kaufman said. "Not being very active people or health conscious is something I had a hard time growing up with. I really have always been on the active side of things, and I've always been very money conscious as well. For me it was the right move. It changed my life, made me the independent person I am. I love it."

Though Kaufman received some early support from friends' families, eventually she made bills, found a place to live and went to school. There were pre-med courses that complimented dancing.

Somewhere along the way she lost touch with her family.

"They weren't bad parents at all," she said. "I was just very different from them and liked being an independent child. I liked being alone and I still like being alone."

Kaufman fights like someone with something to prove, and that initiative is a major reason for her success. Unlike Strikeforce's violent 145-pound champion, Brazil's Cris "Cyborg" Santos, Kaufman isn't wild. She's a calculated risk taker in life and in the cage.

There is talk that should Kaufman make good on her favorite status against Hashi and put together a streak as champion, she would eventually meet Cyborg, whom the Canadian called "beatable." Factually, this is true, as Santos has lost once in her career. Kaufman hasn't, and can approach socially-awkward levels of competitiveness, even in practice ... against men ... who are collegiate champion wrestlers.

"She would get so angry that she wasn't completely dominating an NCAA champion," Zudec said. "It's hard to come up with something that she needs to improve on above anything else, but yet for Sarah she feels everything about her isn't good. It's almost like she needs to take my word for it. I think that's a very interesting area of her personality: nothing is good enough."

Said Kaufman: "I know I've done well and I guess I'm considered pretty good now, but I'm still at the point where it's hard to wrap my head around that and admit that I'm as good as other people think I am."

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