Onetime Dancer Sarah Kaufman's Best Step Was Into MMA

Sometimes you find your passion, and sometimes your passion finds you. How else to explain the fate involved in situations like the one which brough Sarah Kaufman towards her destiny? These days, Kaufman is known as one of the best female mixed martial artists in the world, and is trying to become the second woman to hold a major U.S. promotional championship when she battles Takayo Hashi at a Strikeforce Challengers event on Friday night.

But it wasn't always this way for the 135-pound fighting star. Just a few years ago, Kaufman was a dancer taking a new step, one into an unexpected direction.

Several times a week for 15 years, the then 17-year-old Kaufman had shuttled to her dance studio and back, learning ballet, tap, jazz, hip-hop and other styles. And then, just when that phase of her life seemed to be nearing its end, a new beginning that leads to a career reveals itself? That's fate, right?

On the floor directly below her Victoria, British Columbia dance studio, a new business opened. It could have been a deli or a nail salon, or anything else, but instead it was a martial arts gym named Zuma.

She passed by the place a few times, never thinking much about it until a friend and fellow dancer asked her if she was interested in visiting and trying out a class. Kaufman agreed to it, but when she arrived, her friend was nowhere to be found.

Alone, she easily could have turned around and returned home or even walked upstairs to dance; after all, it hadn't been her idea in the first place. But as she stood out front, something about the gym intrigued her.

"It piqued my interest right away," she said. "It was like, you get to hit and kick stuff? It's an empowering thing, and a chance to get out aggression. Being a teenager, you have stresses about family life, education or work. And pretty much immediately, I couldn't get enough."

Even as Kaufman was getting hooked, dance was still there, still part of the life that saw her move easily from top floor to bottom, switching identities as easily as she changed from a leotard and tights to a rashguard and gi.

But after so many years of dance, Kaufman was reaching a crossroads. Though she'd performed for a dance company from the time she was eight years old, she was about to graduate high school, and the options to continue in dance were few.

Meanwhile, martial arts was taking a hold of her.

Starting with a single class a week in Thai boxing, Kaufman was quickly being drawn away from dance and towards her new interest. Even if she wasn't exactly a natural.

"I was absolutely atrocious," she said with a laugh. "I have a video of my early days, that if I can find it... I thought I was good, but I started to realize how terrible I was soon after I started. But I had the drive to get better. I'm a perfectionist and needed to improve."

The straight-A student soon began college, and her time at the dance studio decreased as she spent more time one floor below, beginning grappling training.

Always an analytical person who once had designs on being an open-heart surgeon, Kaufman was fascinated by the technicalities of the fight game.

Interestingly, Kaufman was being drawn in despite the fact that she'd hadn't yet witnessed her first match in MMA or kickboxing, or anything else related to the combat art forms she was now so interested in. As her involvement grew, she finally began watching fights, and remembers as one of her first experiences, watching a tape of Bas Rutten's UFC 20 heavyweight championship win against Kevin Randleman, a fight which Rutten won despite a broken nose, facial swelling and a bloodied face.

Though that image is strikingly at odds with that of a graceful dancer, Kaufman never found herself turned off by the physicality and violence inherent in MMA.

"It didn't seem strange to me at all. It didn't seem out of place," she said. "I was never worried about sparring or getting hit in the face or breaking my nose. It's not anything that crossed my mind. It just came across as the next progression to me. After I learned how to hit pads, let's put it into reality. I wanted to start sparring. Let's see what I've learned, what my body remembers and how I move on my feet."

Eventually, her trainer Adam Zugec introduced her to local tournaments, and eventually set up her first MMA fight. In 2006, Kaufman won her first bout via KO, beginning a streak that would see her finish her first eight opponents, winning the Hardcore Fighting Championship belt along the way. With an overall record of 10-0, Kaufman has also defeated both of her Strikeforce opponents, earning decisions over Miesha Tate and Shayna Baszler. If she wins on Friday, she'll be the second major U.S. women's belt-holder, behind 145-pound champ Cris "Cyborg" Santos.

Just one win away from one of the most prestigious women's titles in the world, it's fair to say that as a dancer, her best step was into the world of MMA.

"It's pretty funny, as the sport has evolved, dance people will contact me and say, 'Hey, I'm so excited, I watch all your fights,'" she said. "The dance people are shocked to see how different I am. I was a very shy and quiet person growing up. To see me in this light as an athlete and a professional fighter, I don't think they'd ever believe it."

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