Sarah Kaufman won't overlook Invicta fight on her road to the UFC

Esther Lin

Sarah Kaufman was uniquely positioned to say "I told you so" after UFC 157 proved a success.

As the debate raged over whether the first women's title match in UFC history, between Ronda Rousey and Liz Carmouche, deserved to headline the Feb. 23 event in Anaheim, Calif., Kaufman watched events unfold with the wisdom of someone who had been there before.

After all, it was only a few years ago that the Victoria, B.C. native found herself in the middle of a controversy over where a women's title fight should be placed on a major promotion's card. Kaufman held Strikeforce's 135-pound women's title in 2010 when the company decided that not only would her first title defense be slated for a secondary "Challengers" card, but it wouldn't even headline the show.

Kaufman wasn't afraid to voice her displeasure with the decision, as she publicly took her employers to task. The then-champion had her point proven when her third-round knockout slam of Roxie Modafferi peaked with a show-high 254,000 viewers. The nominal headliner, Shane Del Rosario vs. Lolohae Mahe, then saw a double-digit percentage dip in viewership.

So you can't blame Kaufman, who returns to action on April 5 at Invicta 5 against Leslie Smith, if she had a good little chuckle when the debate of whether women can headline fight cards played out to similar results on a bigger scale.

"It was kind of funny in a way," Kaufman said in a recent phone interview with MMAFighting.com. "But the best thing is, both then and now, the people have spoken. I knew a couple years ago with Strikeforce that if we had the opportunity to show the people what we could do, then the people would back us up. The numbers spoke for themselves that night in Strikeforce and they did again at UFC 157."

As such, Kaufman feels like she played her part in helping women's MMA earn its spot on the sport's main stage. So even though she wasn't one of the participants in the first UFC women's title fight, she couldn't help but feel a sense of pride in watching Rousey's victory over Carmouche.

"It wasn't just me, obviously," Kaufman said. "So many others, Gina Carano did her part, and the other women at 135 pounds who have put in the time and helped pave the way. We had to fight those battles every step along the way. Obviously I wish I was the one in there that night [at UFC 157], but I was proud simply to be able to watch Ronda and Liz and to know that I did my part to help women create that opportunity."

Of course, Kaufman's tale is far from finished. At 15-2, the former Strikeforce champ has a UFC contract and expects to begin fighting there after her Invicta bout. She's won three of her past four fights, including wins over fellow UFC bantamweights Carmouche and Alexis Davis. But a quick loss to Rousey last August means she's going to have to work her way back into contention.

"Obviously I didn't help my cause by helping to make Ronda look so good," Kaufman said with a laugh. "But things work out the way they do for a reason. Of course as a fighter, winning a championship is the goal you're working for, but I've simply got to work my way back into contention one fight at a time. I hope to put together a win streak and fight Ronda or whoever might have the belt at the time."

Step one on that path comes next month in Kansas City. Invicta isn't handing Kaufman any sort of gimme opponent. The 5-2-1 Smith is a Cesar Gracie Fight Team member who made her mark in Invicta with a pair of exciting fights against Kaitlin Young. The first was a split draw and the second a second-round Smith victory via TKO. Kaufman knows her opponent can make a statement by knocking off the UFC-bound Kaufman.

"It isn't like she comes into this fight with a big, gaudy, 14-0 type of record, but if you've seen her fight, you know what she's capable of," Kaufman said. "You know she gives 100 percent and you know she's a well-rounded fighter. And you have to figure she knows that a win over me, that would be her fastest ticket to the UFC. So this is a dangerous fight and it's one I'm taking as seriously as any other fight."

While it's clear Kaufman takes Smith seriously, she wouldn't be human if she didn't let herself think about the inevitable UFC debut from time to time. Without any prompting, Kaufman volunteers where she might like such a fight to take place.

"UFC 161," Kaufman says, referencing the recently announced June 15 event. "First UFC card in Winnipeg, big show in Canada. I'd love to be part of that. I know with the timing, I'm fighting in April and the show's in mid-June so it's kind of a narrow window, but if I win my fight in Invicta and come out of it good to go, that would be my dream show for my UFC debut."

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