Strikeforce’s Sarah Kaufman: From Invincible to Invisible and Her Road Back
By Joshua Molina
On top of the world one moment. Looking up from the bottom the next. Sarah Kaufman fell from invincible to invisible, all within a few seconds.
In 2010, Kaufman sat atop a prone Marloes Coenen, pounding her with fists. With aggressive punching and clinching, Kaufman controlled the first two rounds.
Now it is round three.
Underneath the bright lights, surrounded by thousands of people in the arena, with Showtime broadcasting the fight live to a national audience, this was Kaufman’s moment to cement herself as the new face of women’s MMA.
And she was looking for the kill.
When people talk about women’s MMA these days, the first name that comes to mind is Ronda Rousey. The Olympic Bronze Medalist in Judo has taken over the world of women’s MMA in a short amount of time.
Rousey is only 5-0, but she’s won all five of her professional fights by devastating armbar. Four of those victories came in under one minute. Out of nowhere, Rousey parlayed the first four victories of her career into a Strikeforce title shot against Miesha Tate. At the time, no one really understood how Rousey got the shot. Sure, she was undefeated, but she was still only 4-0.
MMA promoters hadn’t rolled out the red carpet for an inexperienced fighter like that since Brock Lesnar was handed a title shot against Randy Couture in the UFC after four fights.
But Rousey was blonde, flirty, a good talker, and an incredible athlete. When male fans looked at her, they didn’t see a masculine Cris Cyborg, who had bigger muscles than many men. They saw a pretty girl – who could maybe sell tickets. When it comes to men in MMA, promoters like to book beasts. When it comes to women, the decision-makers often look for other attributes.
With Gina Carano off making movies after her ugly KO loss to Santos, women’s MMA needed a new pretty face. Rousey was that girl.
Sarah Kaufman could have been that face. But something went terribly wrong.
At 4:25 of the third round, Kaufman’s rapid fall from invincible to invisible began. That’s when Coenen took Kaufman down. With a clinch and a pull of the leg, suddenly the fight that Kaufman controlled in the standup, was now on the mat.
Coenen took Kaufman down with one plan in mind. Submit it her. A few seconds later Coenen was fighting off her back. Kaufman was seemingly in control flinging punches and hammerfists. But like spider lurking in a web, Coenen was just pulling Kaufman in. Closer. Closer. Closer.
The viewer could see it. Obviously Kaufman could not. She was too close to it. Kaufman dropped her head, allowing Coenen to grab it with her hands. Amid a sea of pink gloves colliding, Coenen wrapped her legs around Kaufman’s right arm, pulled back and bent it backwards.
The referee didn’t see it right away, so Coenen pulled back on Kaufman’s arm for a few seconds longer than she should have. But at 3:01 of round three, it was all over.
Coenen took the previously unbeaten Kaufman’s Strikeforce bantamweight championship. And in about the length of 24 seconds, Kaufman’s dreams disappeared.
For Kaufman, it’s an interesting bit of irony that her only loss was by armbar. And Rousey’s claim to fame is her armbar. These two women, with vastly different stories, will collide Saturday night in the main event of Strikeforce’s show at the Valley View Casino Center in San Diego, California.
It’s where Kaufman will look to magically reappear as the best in women’s MMA and silence Rousey, the darling of the MMA world.
She will have to overcome the ghosts of her armbar defeat first.
“I have grown in all areas since my fight with Marloes,” Kaufman told Full Contact Fighter. “I let myself get caught up in the moment and made a very critical error. I hope to avoid that same attention lapse in the future and truly feel like I’ve matured both physically and mentally.”
On paper, Kaufman should win. She’s the more well-rounded, experienced, talented fighter. She’s 15-1, the former champ, and has fought 43 rounds to Rousey’s 5. On paper, it’s actually a mismatch.
You don’t have to be an MMA expert to know what Kaufman’s strategy is going into the fight.
She wants to knock Rousey out – and knock her out early. If the fight goes to the floor, Kaufman’s in trouble. Kaufman doesn’t want to go to the floor.
“At this stage Ronda’s striking hasn’t had the time to catch up to her judo and grappling,” Kaufman said.
No one knows how Rousey will respond if she gets dropped. Will she crumble or rise to the occasion?
Rousey stunned the world when she tapped out Meisha Tate to win the world title. Tate won the gold after submitting Marloes Coenen, in a previous upset.
Rousey’s victory over Tate was nothing short of spectacular. Tate was outspoken in her dislike for Rousey. She didn’t feel that Rousey deserved the title shot. Both fighters talked trash leading up to the fight – and it got personal.
Going into the fight, the two hated each other. When they finally stepped into the cage, Tate did everything she could to avoid tapping out to Rousey – practically risking losing a limb to avoid tapping out. Had Rousey’s finisher been the guillotine choke, Tate surely would have gone to sleep before giving up.
Tate lasted as long as she could before tapping out. A second longer and Rousey would have broken Tate’s arm. Kaufman believes she can avoid Tate’s mistakes.
“I’m a different athlete than Ronda’s previous opponents and I bring a very different skillset,” Kaufman said. “I feel like I’m a well-rounded fighter with good striking, strong takedown defense, and (I am) confident on the ground.”
There was a time when Kaufman and Rousey were at each other’s throats, but those days seemingly are over. The two have avoided any serious trash talking leading up to the fight. In fact, most casual observers know Rousey is fighting, but they don’t really know against whom.
When Rousey got the shot against Tate, Kaufman believed that the rookie didn’t deserve it.
But Kaufman has publicly watered down her comments about Rousey.
“Ronda has been doing a great job of bringing attention to women in MMA,” Kaufman said. “She is a talented athlete and Judo player, and has figured out an angle to get people looking at her. She talks a lot and almost forces people to listen. Not everything she says is something that needs/should be said in public, but I think she’ll learn what’s appropriate over time. Over all I believe Ronda is good for the sport 100 percent.”
Kaufman does have a good sense of humor though. She asked her Twitter followers to send in videos impersonating Ronda Rousey. Best video would get two free tickets to Saturday’s fight. Rousey joined the fun, and submitted her own video – acting like a nerd who was jealous of Rousey’s fame.
“The fact that Ronda has a good enough sense of humor to make a video for the contest is awesome,” Kaufman said. “I always try and do giveaways through twitter (@mmasarah) to stay connected with the fans and (I) thought the impersonation would be a good way to give away tickets. The contest was supposed to be fun and I believe Ronda jumped in and made it even more so. I will admit that I didn’t watch the entire thing, though.”
Kaufman said she feels confident about beating Rousey.
“I can’t wait for Saturday to have all the hard work pay off with a shiny belt,” she said.
But there’s way more than the belt that’s on the line on Saturday. Kaufman is out to prove that talent is more important than self-promotion.
If she defeats Rousey, she will return from invisible to the center of the women’s MMA universe. In these young days of women’s MMA, the pioneers, the legends, the catalysts are still unknown.
“Beating Ronda and taking home the Strikeforce title would be a big deal for me personally as well as women’s MMA,” Kaufman said. “I always want to be the best and I always want to win. Taking that belt from Rousey would allow more fans to learn and get behind other females and hopefully the media will start pushing more than just a few females.”