For the first year or so of her introduction into mixed martial arts, former Strikeforce 135-pound champion Sarah Kaufman trained once a week, and, by her own estimation, "very poorly." For a lot of people, that’s how it might have stayed. Just a hobby. Something to do and somewhere to go. But not for Kaufman, whose mad obsession with perfecting every little detail made it impossible to do anything just a little bit.
It had been that way since she started dancing at age two, Kaufman said. By the time she was a high school senior in 2002, living on her own and splitting time between school and a job as a tutor, she was searching for a new physical pursuit to throw herself into. She found it, a little bit at a time, at Victoria, B.C.’s Zuma fight gym.
"I guess my competitive side took over and I wanted to perfect everything," Kaufman said. "Pretty soon pad work wasn’t good enough, so I wanted to spar. Then that wasn’t good enough and I wanted to spar with people I didn’t know."
You see where this is going.
As Kaufman got more and more immersed in the martial arts world, she started doing grappling and kickboxing tournaments, gradually getting to know the few other female fighters in the area until a fellow competitor named Liz Posener suggested her name to a local fight promoter who was looking for female mixed martial artists.
"I’d competed with Liz in grappling tournaments, and I guess she put my name out there and said I might be willing to fight," Kaufman recalled. It didn’t seem unusual at the time. Since there were so few female fighters in the area, they almost had to set up their own fights and compete against the same small circle of opponents. Kaufman had no objections, and so she and Posener agreed to meet at the North American Challenge 23 on June 3, 2006.
"It was such a different experience getting into that kind of training," Kaufman said. "We really got serious. We did sparring with the small gloves, which meant I always had black eyes from then on. But come the fight, I still didn’t know what to expect. People tell you what you’re going to feel, but you don’t know until you’re out there."
While warming up in the locker room, Kaufman felt the usual mix of excitement and nerves, but that was to be expected. What really surprised her was when she looked over at her coach, Adam Zugec, and realized he was going through his own interior struggle.
"I was nervous, but my coach was absolutely petrified. I remember being in the back room and I had to massage his shoulders. He was so tense and so nervous."
The fight was at a small venue on a reserve in Vancouver, and as Kaufman made her out to the ring in front of a crowd of maybe 1,000 people, she started to feel more relaxed.
"I remember I walked out and was really having a good time, really enjoying it. Then Liz walked out and she looked so serious. She was doing the bounce back and forth thing, this serious, mean look on her face, trying to stare me down. It made me laugh. I couldn’t help it."
The way Kaufman remembers it now, the fight was a back and forth affair, with both fighters collecting their share of bruises. Even in the midst of the action she realized how much she still had to learn about this MMA stuff, and the lessons were painful.
"In the second round I got kneed in the head and I remember thinking, hey, maybe get your head away from her knees so that doesn’t happen. That’d be a pretty good idea."
In general though, Kaufman felt like she was getting the better of the striking. Then in the third and final round, Posener made a costly mistake. With Kaufman advancing, Posener backed into a corner and threw a pawing jab. Kaufman came over the top with an overhand right that settled the matter beyond all doubt.
"It’s the first and only time I’ve knocked anyone out clean cold. It didn’t even feel like I’d connected. She just fell over. Just straight down."
It took a moment for her to realize that the fight was really over. One moment, she’d been in the midst of an all-out war. The next, her opponent was splayed out on the canvas, unconscious, and her MMA debut was officially done.
"It was kind of a feeling of elation, because I did it. It was relief and excitement all at once. It was just a lot of fun."
It was also a memorable night for other reasons. For instance, as Kaufman and Zugec were leaving, a fight broke out in the parking lot and one of the participants threw a rock through the back window of Zugec’s car. All that chaos aside, Kaufman knew right away that she’d found a home in the crazy world of MMA, and all she could think about was when she’d get another chance at it.
"As soon as I fought, I knew I wanted to fight more. I had been following the girls who were fighting, like Tara LaRosa and Shayna Baszler and Roxanne Modafferi and Julie Kedzie -- even Marloes Coenen -- so I knew there were quite a few girls who had been around and who were around my size, so that was really exciting to think I could work up to fighting them one day."
When she woke up the morning after her first fight, however, she realized there were consequences to this brand of fun.
"I actually had knuckle marks all the way across my forehead, like very clear knuckle marks. It was amazing. You could count them."
For a man, it might have been more socially acceptable to walk around with an imprint of someone’s fist on his face. But Kaufman soon learned that people react very differently when they see the same bruises on a woman. It’s one thing that hasn’t changed over the course of her six-year fighting career, though she has learned how to have fun with it.
"You definitely get those looks from people. I find it hilarious, but Adam, not so much. Especially coming back from fights, walking through the airport, people always look. They don’t want to make it too obvious, but you can see them thinking, ‘Oh, that poor girl. She must have gotten a terrible beating.’ I don’t blame them for that reaction; it would probably be my reaction too. But that’s why I like to make sure I walk next to Adam through the airport. When he turns to look at me, I flinch. Then he gets the rude looks, not me."