We caught up with bantamweight standout Sarah Kaufman just a week out from her title fight against Katharina Lehner at Invicta FC 29.
Top flight competition and world titles are no stranger to Invicta FC 29’s Sarah Kaufman. Long before her upcoming bantamweight title shot, the B.C. native got her start in the Canadian regional scene back in 2006. Kaufman quickly worked her way to a bantamweight title in HCF (Hardcore Fighting Championship), a short-lived promotion that never the less boasted names like Gegard Mousasi, Little Nog, Babalu, David Loiseau, and others. Then came a run in Strikeforce that saw her capture the title there, defend it (with a slam KO of Roxanne Modafferi), and after losing it, work her way back to another shot against Ronda Rousey, just as Rousey was breaking onto the MMA scene.
When Strikeforce was scooped up by the UFC, that was her next destination. And while her run in the UFC didn’t work out as planned, there’s no doubt Sarah Kaufman remains a huge part of the bantamweight division. Which is why a shot at Invicta FC’s vacant 135lb championship makes all the sense in the world.
When Kaufman made her return to the promotion in January, thinking was, it might be a couple of fights before a title shot came to fruition. More than anything, the Canadian wanted to stay busy. Then Yana Kunitskaya departed for the UFC, and eventually took a fight against featherweight champion Cris Cyborg. News of her exiting Invicta broke just weeks before Kaufman fought to a decisive decision win against Pannie Kianzad at Invicta FC 27. Suddenly, a title shot was there for the taking. Invicta FC head Shannon Knapp offered it to her right after the bout.
It wasn’t exactly a surprise for Kaufman, who remains dedicated to getting “good fights, and exciting fights, and really fights that I’m excited to train for.” Fights that “showcase something else in my skill set. Whether it’s a crazy knockout, whether it’s speed, whether it’s power, whatever it is, every fight I’d like to try and challenge myself in some way.”
“The title fight came up as soon as I left that cage,” Kaufman confirmed to Cageside Press. “Shannon Knapp said ‘so, what about the title in May?’ I said if ‘well if we could do it sooner, great, otherwise May will work.’ So here we are, a week out from the fight.”
That fight, for the vacant bantamweight title, comes against Katharina Lehner, an undefeated German who made her Invicta FC debut last year. Kaufman has the clear edge in experience, but she doesn’t see that as playing much of a role. “I don’t think it really matters who they’ve fought, in terms of my opponents,” she told us. “For sure, I’ve fought the cream of the crop if you will, but that being said I feel like every fighter I’ve ever fought has shown up at their absolute best when they fight me.”
And so she expects that “Lehner is going to show up at her absolute best, she’s going to be better than she’s ever been, which pushes me to ensure that I’m better than I’ve ever been.”
One wrinkle: Lehner missed weight for her only Invicta fight to date, and fought at featherweight in her only bout since then (outside the organization). Kaufman wasn’t aware of Lehner’s weight issues, but she’s not sweating it. “I didn’t even know that,” she said, but was confident in Invicta’s booking. “I feel like Shannon wouldn’t book a fight at bantamweight for the title if she thought that she was going to miss weight.”
“I know that Lehner’s been down training with the Jackson camp for the last few weeks,” Kaufman said of her upcoming opponent. “I’m sure that she has it dialed in. I can’t worry about that particularly, I mean I can only make sure that I do what I can on my end to make weight, be in shape, feel strong, and really showcase some raw power, explosiveness, and that fight style that brought me to my first championship — it’s going to win me my third championship.”
She gives a lot of credit to her coach, Adam Zugec, “who’s been my coach since the beginning, and I feel like we’re dialed in and we have a really good partnership with where I need to be and what I need to do.”
Perhaps the most telling statement, “I trust him implicitly.”
Heading into her latest title challenge, Sarah Kaufman told us that she’s feeling good, but then, “I don’t think there are many fights that I haven’t felt very good going in.” She’s been through this process before, which takes nerves out of the equation. “I’ve never been a person who has been extremely nervous before fights,” she said. “For sure definitely this morning I was like ‘ah! seven days and the fight’s going to happen’ and one more Saturday, and the following Saturday the fight’s going to be over and I’m planning on bringing that belt back.”
“So I have those little things where it’s like ‘okay, five more sleeps,’ and as the fight comes up ‘forty-eight hours and the fight’s going to be over!” she continued. “Definitely fight week, you think about it a lot. You think about ‘what can I do? How can I be more prepared?’ But I feel I’m in a really good place. Duke Roufus is going to be in my corner again for this fight, and he has a really good mental approach to the game. I really like that.”
I think it’s good to have a healthy amount of trepidation and fear per se, to ensure that you show up at your best. So I still get that, but I’ve never been someone who throws up in a bucket.”
Roufus takes her out of her comfort zone with Zugec a little; as she put it, sometimes you just need to hear things from someone else. And she expects a lot from herself. As does her team. “I think that’s very fair and very justified,” she noted. “So there are of course always the feelings of wanting to live up to that and wanting to push yourself, and that pressure that’s behind you to win the fight, and win the next fight, because the next fight’s the most important fight of your life, because they all are. It never fully goes away.” Despite that, Kaufman has “never been an overly nervous person. My biggest focus is staying mentally focused and trying to eliminate as much doubt as I can, or still being realistic in that one punch, or one kick, or a slip in the cage or a moment of weakness could take everything away from you.”
“I think it’s good to have a healthy amount of trepidation and fear per se,” she explained, “to ensure that you show up at your best. So I still get that, but I’ve never been someone who throws up in a bucket.”
Instead, she goes into fights with a flexible mindset — “cautious, focused, determined, and then also very respectful of what it means to step in the cage and what it means for someone else to be coming towards you,” Kaufman said. “And acknowledge that there are risks and those risks could potentially kill you. So get in there, leave everything out there and put your best fist forward if you will to ensure you leave as safe as possible.”
Assuming she comes out safe, sound, and with the title, it’s an interesting time for Invicta. The promotion has made hitting the road a focus of 2018, and has already put on a show in Utah. What about Kaufman’s native Canada? While Kaufman hasn’t talked to the promotion about heading up North, she loves the idea, and the idea of fighting for any promotion in Canada. “It would be amazing to bring it to Canada,” she said. “Victoria itself has a really good venue that would be a really good size, that they could fill pretty easily.”
“Canada loves fighting, really big fan base here,” she added, “and it’s definitely nice to give back and fight in front of your home country, or your home town crowd would be even better.”
In the meantime, a win for the title could also mean a second shot in the UFC, who head North on a semi-regular basis. On whether Kaufman would want to jump right back onto the big stage, or defend a few times in Invicta, the bantamweight star was split. “I want to stay as active as I can be, but I also want to be getting paid what I’m worth,” she told us. “And also [be] fighting the best that are in the world, and right now a lot of them are signed to the UFC.”
I do think that bantamweight really needs an injection of life. It needs some excitement, a spark. It needs me.
What Kaufman feels would be ideal is to “get the Invicta title, and at some point fight for the UFC title, and then I could of had four titles, which would be pretty phenomenal.”
Frankly, she’s confident against anyone among the UFC’s 135lb ranks. “I know that the bantamweight title between Nunes and Pennington is the week following my fight, so there’s a lot of action happening there,” she said. “I look at their top ten, their top fifteen, and I’m so confident in beating everyone that’s on that roster.”
“I want to be the best in the world, that’s why I’m in this game, and right now the best is in the UFC,” Kaufman stated. “So that’s where I want to test my skills as much as I can, but I love Invicta, and I love how they support their athletes.” In short, Kaufman finished, she’s not sure which she’d prefer.
With Ronda Rousey, Miesha Tate, and Holly Holm gone from the 135lb division, at least for the time being, it feels like the division has fallen off of late. Kaufman agreed, saying “I do think that bantamweight really needs an injection of life. It needs some excitement, a spark. It needs me, it needs other fighters who are like me. Who want to get in there, who want to fight, who want to show up.”
Kaufman pointed out that the UFC has fighters still ranked that have been on the shelf for ages, but “need to have names who are active, who are fighting, who are wanting to fight, who are hungry to get to that title shot.”
“I feel like I am that person,” she added.
As to the slump she experienced in her UFC run, Kaufman said that “I think a lot of it was mental, I don’t think it’s ever been a skill issue.”
“You can let too many things sit on you, you worry about too many things that are out of your control in most senses,” she elaborated. “I think I was doing that. I can’t fully explain it, but I think a lot of it had to do with mentally where I was and how I felt about different things regarding the standings in the UFC, and whether I was respected or not respected, or even trying to get fights.”
About the difficulty she had booking fights in the UFC, Kaufman explained that “it was super hard, super frustrating the number of times I’d be begging for every single fight that would come about, and I would never get them.” She understands that a lot of it was just business, not that it makes it less frustrating. “At the time Ronda was undefeated, she’s their main money maker, and so it was ‘who can we have fight who can eventually fight and challenge Ronda?’ And because I’d already done that, and I was a tough match-up for almost everyone else, it didn’t leave me with many options.”
“It was actually great, when Holly won, I was super happy for a good friend, and it opened up the division for me to actually get in there,” she continued, “and then unfortunately I lost a split decision a month later, and that was the last fight on my contract.”
Now that she’s not a roadblock in the division, Sarah Kaufman sees plenty of opportunity ahead. “I’m steamrolling ahead here,” she told us.
“My goal at this point is to make statements, and make statements even inwardly for myself that are positive, that are focused, that are goal-driven, career-driven, like ‘I will be getting the title.”
The talent, the mind-set, the fitness, Kaufman knows she has all these things. She just needs to “show up and do it.” And she knows she needs to carry herself in a manner that reflects that knowledge.
“Why shouldn’t I leave the winner? Why should I even give them any chance? Just don’t even entertain it.” That’s the mindset she’s trying to go to right now, and it should serve her well against Katharina Lehner come Friday.
Don’t miss Sarah Kaufman this Friday in the main event at Invicta FC 29, live exclusively on UFC Fight Pass. And check out our full interview above, as we also get into Leslie Smith’s Project Spearhead, and Sarah finally getting paid by Battlefield FC.