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‘Rejuvenated’ Sarah Kaufman believes Invicta title is step toward proving she’s top women’s bantamweight

Sarah Kaufman was once considered the best women’s bantamweight fighter in the world, the Strikeforce champion. Eight years later, Kaufman believes she still carries that distinction — and she’s eager to prove it.

“I know that I can beat the best, I know that I can beat the current No. 1, Amanda Nunes,” Kaufman told MMA Fighting. “I’ve always felt very confident about that. The time will come and when the times comes, I’ll be ready. And if it’s tomorrow, then great. And if it’s longer than that, it’s longer than that. There’s only so much I can do.”

Kaufman will have a chance at gold again Friday night. She’ll take on Katharina Lehner in the main event of Invicta FC 29 in Kansas City, Mo., for the vacant Invicta women’s bantamweight title. Kaufman has won two in a row since departing the UFC in 2015, including a unanimous decision victory over Pannie Kianzad in her Invicta return in January.

There was a time not long ago when outside-the-cage factors were getting Kaufman a bit down on MMA. She never lost the love for fighting; it was just everything else that was rubbing her the wrong way. Kaufman said those days are over and she is now refreshed.

“I honestly feel like this is my time,” Kaufman said. “This is the time to just do everything, to have an impressive win. I’m just really enjoying what I’m doing. I love fighting and I really feel like I’ve gotten back to that place. I never thought that I didn’t love fighting, but I’m really excited about every part of it. I love the training, I love getting better, I love the prep. Just everything about fighting, I’m rejuvenated and renewed, even though I’ve been doing it for a long time. This is like a second wave.”

Kaufman (19-4, 1 NC) clashed with the UFC a bit in the last couple of years before her contract ran out following a loss to Valentina Shevchenko in December 2015. The Canadian fighter believes she now has a better idea of the origin of that disagreement.

At the time, the UFC was building contenders for champion and massive box-office star Ronda Rousey. Kaufman had already lost to Rousey in a Strikeforce title fight in 2012 and she believes the UFC was trying to generate new contenders for its mainstream darling.

“Because I had already fought Ronda, it was like an anti-Sarah Kaufman time,” Kaufman said. “You don’t want me to beat someone who could challenge Ronda. So, I was stuck in this limbo of, well I can beat all these people, but I can’t get the opportunities, because they need those people to fight Ronda as challengers. So, I understood that from a business standpoint, for them. But for my career, it wasn’t great. I think all of that was very frustrating.”

That certainly contributed to her being down on the outside-the-cage aspects of the sport. Kaufman, though, is over that now. Lehner, for the time being, is her main concern. The German fighter is 7-0 as a pro. She’s far less experienced than Kaufman and the sure underdog, but that isn’t going to make Kaufman let down.

“I don’t pay attention to odds, I don’t pay attention to favorites,” Kaufman said. “I always look at like, Well, I think that I’m better than them and I need to prove that I’m better than them in every area. But they’re coming in and I truly believe that every female that has fought me has fought me at their absolute best. I feel like every fighter has looked better and risen to the challenge of fighting me.”

To add another layer to this storyline, Lehner is trained at JacksonWink MMA in Albuquerque, N.M., for this fight. That is Kaufman’s longtime former gym. Kaufman works and trains at Zuma Martial Arts in her hometown of Victoria, British Columbia, but often went to JacksonWink for fight camps and remains close friends with many fighters there.

However, Kaufman said she doesn’t see any issues with Lehner training there and she holds no hard feelings. She said head coach Greg Jackson messaged her and said he would not be working with Lehner ahead of this bout. Kaufman trained at Zuma and Roufusport in Milwaukee for her camp. Duke Roufus will be in her corner Friday.

“It’s the fight game and you need to train where you need to train,” Kaufman said. “I had actually read that she was going down there and I was like, ‘Well, I guess I can’t go down there, because she’s going down there.’ And that’s fine. I’m still friends with them down there and I still want to go out. But I also have to be careful who I’m training with, because I don’t want to limit who I can fight, as well.

“I don’t think it’s any surprise what I do. I’ve had enough fights and there’s enough footage that you can see my fighting style.”

Kaufman, 32, doesn’t promise any huge new wrinkles in her game. What is different is her outlook on the sport and her future in it. She’s not looking past Lehner or Invicta, but she hopes this is part of a longer path.

“I just feel like on most days I am the best 135-pound fighter in the world,” Kaufman said. “And I can be the best 135-pound fighter in the world. Whoever has that No. 1 spot, currently Amanda, I just feel very confident in where I am and how I plan on fighting this weekend. I just feel very confident in my ability to beat any challenger regardless of where they are and where I am. I don’t know what happens Friday, but I just feel very confident that at any point I can beat anyone in the world.”

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