Sarah Kaufman is a rare breed of fighter. Few of her male counterparts have managed to maintain relevance in the sport for 13 years. That statement holds even more weight with her female contemporaries. She has grinded through 13 years’ worth of grueling training camps -- and a serious car accident in 2014 -- to remain a consistent winner in the sport. She is one of the favorites to win the 2019 Professional Fighters League women’s lightweight championship.
“I feel like I’m at a point in my career where I’m ready,” Kaufman told Sherdog.com. “I’m experienced. I have the skills. I have the confidence to actually win, and know, I’m planning on winning.”
Winning is a habit she has already taken into her run in the PFL. However, her first promotional win came under unusual circumstances. The Ultimate Fighting Championship and Invicta Fighting Championships veteran had grown accustomed to facing the most seasoned and skilled fighters the sport had to offer over the last decade: Kaufman had faced Valentina Shevchenko, Ronda Rousey and Alexis Davis during her career. Yet at PFL 1: 2019 Regular Season, the 33-year-old was matched with a relative neophyte of the sport in five-fight veteran Morgan Frier.
For a fighter with such an experience advantage, the benefits were obvious. However, the British Columbia, Canada, native viewed the matchup as a double-edged sword. The former Strikeforce champion knew her advantages in cage time, but with Frier being relatively new to the professional ranks, it also made her a bit of an unknown in Kaufman’s opinion.
“It’s a funny thing, because you fight someone who is really good and you’re like, ‘Oh my goodness, they’re really good, they’re really good at this or they have veteran tricks,’ and you’re able to watch a lot of footage,” Kaufman said. “There’s not too many surprises with people who have been around for a long time, but when you fight someone who you don’t really know much about, you don’t have anything to compare them to; and if there’s not a lot of footage on them, you go in kind of blind.”
Kaufman’s blind tactics proved beneficial, as the 25-fight veteran let the fight come to her -- and it did so quickly. After Frier initiated a grappling exchange, Kaufman managed to take “Mad Dog” to the ground and eventually lock in a fight-ending arm-triangle choke. She came to the fight with the mentality of a savvy veteran and it paid dividends, as she earned only the second first-round finish of her career. The last came in her second professional fight, all the way back in 2006.
“I just kind of went with it, and maybe, that had to do with the fact we definitely didn’t know too much about her,” Kaufman said. “I was really happy that, in the moment, I saw the opportunity [and] I went for it. Once I had the choke, I knew that it was in.”
Aside from the satisfaction of debuting with an impressive victory in a new promotion and weight class, Kaufman still just enjoys competing in the cage.
“I just love the sport so much,” Kaufman said. “I am able to do [it] still, and I’m able to do it at a high level, so that’s why I am still going. I don’t want to just fight to get a payday. Eventually people start fighting for less if they’re not in one of the bigger promotions. I hate to see that, because it is a very dangerous sport. While it’s something I love doing, I can train on my own. I don’t need to get in the cage to enjoy the sport.”
Not long ago, she faced some serious questions about her future. In 2014, Kaufman crashed into another motorist who was speeding through a red light. She walked away believing she would be fine and could heal in time to begin camp for a fight she booked in the UFC the day before. However, as time went by and she tried to return to her athletic routine, she realized she was far from healthy.
“I naively thought, ‘Oh, it will be fine. It’s not that bad,’” she remembers, “but I didn’t realize I just couldn’t do anything. I would do one thing, and I would be out of commission for a couple of weeks. It was super frustrating because it took a whole year out of my career.”
Kaufman admits the accident had lasting affects she must work around to this day. The soft-tissue wear and tear of a prizefighting career was further exacerbated by the collision. Yet the crash did not deter her drive to reach the position in which she now finds yourself. In the end, it was just part of the journey towards a million-dollar opportunity in the PFL.
“At this point in my career, after having some frustrating years, [the] car accident and some years of not being given the opportunity or not being given the fights for whatever reason, to be sitting with the PFL now, it’s just coming at a really good time; and I think I’m in a really good headspace to just make it happen,” Kaufman said. “Be really confident, take care of myself, and know I don’t want to overtrain [or] undertrain.”
Part of the longtime bantamweight’s confidence comes from getting to compete at 155 pounds in the PFL. As she enters her second camp at lightweight and prepares to face Roberta Samad in Atlantic City, New Jersey, on July 11, she has been able to focus more on training. She still eats like a professional athlete, with a well-thought-out nutrition strategy. However, she can now dabble in more carbs and fats to keep weight on. It has made her training camps a more pleasurable undertaking.
“I can kind of enjoy the entire experience throughout camp and try and focus in more so on being healthy and feeling fully nourished for each and every session,” Kaufman said.
When the PFL’s women’s lightweight field was revealed, many observers pined for the chance to see Kaufman face two-time judo Olympic gold medalist Kayla Harrison. The undefeated face of the division and promotion will not go head-to-head with Kaufman during the season -- to the chagrin of some. For the 13-year veteran, a chance to hand the highly touted prospect her first loss is intriguing, but it is not a priority. Her mind is set on being on one side of the cage in the lightweight title fight on New Year’s Eve in New York.
“I definitely would love to give her her first loss, but my goal for the season is to get the million dollars and win that championship fight Dec. 31,” Kaufman said. “Whether I fight Kayla or don’t, I’m fighting for the million dollars.”
Their facing one another in the PFL playoffs or the final remains a possibility, assuming they both qualify for postseason. If that situation did to come to pass, Kaufman believes she has already taken up residence in a small place in the back of Harrison’s mind.
“She probably feels very confident against the other girls, and definitely I’m going to be her worry spot,” Kaufman said, “and that’s fair. I have the experience and not just experience [from being around a long time]. I’m really good. For years, I’ve been very consistent, and I think that’s a little nerve wracking for someone who expects very highly for themselves. I’m definitely on Kayla’s mind.”