When the PFL introduced the 155-pound weight class for this season, five words sprang to mind: They did it for Kayla. As in Kayla Harrison, the Olympic gold medalist in judo who spent last year tossing women around cages all over the Eastern seaboard. With lighter weight classes prevalent in other leagues, the PFL is latching itself to a new experience, and the star of the show is Harrison.
Of course, Sarah Kaufman doesn’t go in for predetermined storylines. If she thinks that something might be tailor-made for a specific fighter, she morphs into a monkey wrench. Inevitability can take a hike. She wants to spoil the Harrison coming out party. That is, if she gets the chance.
“One hundred percent I plan on ruining the party,” she told MMA Fighting this week. “It’s fine that the PFL has been supporting and behind Kayla since she had her first pro fight with them. She’s been a great spokesperson. She’s really pressed forward with promoting the fact that she doesn’t want to cut weight, that she wants to give an opportunity at a higher weight class. They’ve been behind her every step of the way.
“But so much has to happen [for a fight between Kayla and I]. I’m planning on winning my three, she would have to win her three, and those match-ups, I mean, we could potentially end up in the semifinals together. We could end up never fighting each other. It’s a little bit of a gamble for the PFL, because this ideally what they would hope for — I would think — but they can’t control anything beyond the initial ‘this is who you’re fighting.’”
The 33-year old Kaufman has achieved many things through her 13 years in mixed martial arts. She was the HCF champion in her native Canada back in the late-aughts, which catapulted her to Strikeforce. She won the Strikeforce bantamweight title against Takayo Hashi in 2010, and defended it that same year against Roxanne Modafferi. Most recently, she won the vacant Invicta FC championship last May by submitting Katharina Lehner.
She’s fought them all, and prevailed more often than not. And she’s been a thorn in the side of many contenders for the broad side of a decade. As she ventures to lightweight for the first time in her career — two full weight classes up from where we last saw her — she wants to be more than the little engine that could. She wants to destroy all of tomorrow’s parties.
“It gives more gravity to this bracket that I’m in it, that it’s not just Kayla and some people who’ve had one or two fights — who may be amazing by the way, but don’t necessarily have a big background that people know of,” she says. “PFL has definitely put their eggs in the Kayla basket, but at this point I feel like PFL would also be very happy if I were to win. It could create a great story line.”
At 5-foot-5, Kaufman doesn’t figure to be taller than any of the competitors she’s about to encounter. Beginning with Morgan Frier (5-foot-8) on Thursday night to kick off the season, she will be dwarfed by the competition, outweighed, and out-lengthed. She will be everything but out-experienced.
“Regardless if I’m shorter than everyone, and regardless I’m going to be dwarfed because they’re huge, I’m so confident in what I know how to do in my strength, in my fitness, in my technical ability, and in my in-cage knowledge to change and adapt as I need to — those things all go into my favor,” she says.
“But honestly, I think I have the most pressure of all any of the eight contestants because of that as well. A girl who is 4-1 or 2-0, there’s really no pressure on them.”
Maybe from a veteran’s standpoint, Kaufman is right. There’s pressure on her to have a good showing and prove she can hang with the bigger-bodied — yet mostly green — crop of lightweights that the PFL has unearthed to compete. If size ultimately matters in a set-up like this, Kaufman is about to find out very soon.
Yet Kaufman has been busy in the last year, participating in jiu-jitsu and wrestling competitions as she awaited her next move in MMA. At one point in her career early on, she walked around at 160 pounds. These days she’s in the neighborhood of 155 pounds, which means she won’t exactly be cutting weight for her fights this year.
“It just means I can go out for ice cream with friends,” she quips.
But the greatest allure to Kaufman at this point is the structure of the PFL system. She loves the idea of a steady fight diet, of getting in the cage as much as possible and knowing ahead of time what’s going to happen next. She liked the idea of PFL’s great dangling carrot — the million dollar prize at the end of the rainbow — and that everybody has an equal chance of seizing it.
The whole thing feels very Pride FC for her.
“It is like a throwback to those days,” she says. “The format of the PFL is honestly one of the coolest things that I will probably ever be part of when it comes to MMA. The fact that it’s directly a result of how I do leads into how I can do and my opportunities.
“It’s a very even playing field in that sense. It’s also guaranteed action. It’s guaranteed opportunity to be in the cage, to be doing my sport, to be paid to do my sport without having to do all the hoops and rigmarole that comes with trying to force your way or talk your way or social media your way or be crazy enough in the public eye to get a fight you deserve. The PFL allows for almost none of that.”
As for her first foe, Morgan Frier (4-1), a Las Vegas-based fighter who enters the field as a relative unknown? Does she know much about her?
“No, I do not,” she says. “This is the first I’ve heard of Morgan. When the names came out, with most of the girls I was like, ‘I’ve never heard of any of them.’ I didn’t research any of them until I found out who I was fighting.
“When we found out Morgan’s name, we kind of looked a little bit. But it’s not like she has 20 fights and there’s YouTube footage there — you’re kind of deep diving for little things. I kind of just said, you know what, I don’t care. I want six points, I want a first-round finish, and let’s just focus on that.”
That is the first line of business. The next line is to find her way to Kayla Harrison, and then to win the million bucks. If she does all that, 2019 will be a year to remember for the pride of Victoria.