May 3, 2018

Invicta FC 29: Sarah Kaufman: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

By Schwan Humes

On Friday night at Invicta FC 29, Sarah Kaufman, the former Hardcore Championship Fighting and Strikeforce bantamweight champion will vie for her third promotional world title, this time under the Invicta banner. Standing across the cage from Kaufman will be divisional upstart and undefeated fighter Katharina Lehner, but the focus of this article isn’t on her. Today we focus on Kaufman -- the technical, tactical, and physical traits that have defined her as a fighter, as well as the impact of moving forward in her career as an defending Invicta champion or as a reacquired bantamweight on the Ultimate Fighting Championship roster.


The Good

Sarah Kaufman’s best physical attributes ultimately are what define her entire style within the context of mixed martial arts. Much like a Nick Diaz and Nate Diaz, Michael Bisping, or Justin Gaethje, Kaufman uses a sustained high rate of activity to neutralize any limitations that she has in regard to build, reach, overall athleticism, or power.

Her ability to set a pace and then continue to build on it works on two fronts: One, it keeps her opponents under constant duress in regards to techniques because she consistently has something in their face, which forces them to go completely defensive trying to create the space or positioning to effectively get off or counter. This hinders their ability to take advantage of any physical tools they may have in their favor. Secondly, her opponents face a huge amount of mental and physical stress from the pressure that comes as a result of her high-volume continued assault. This limits their ability to bring their athleticism into play, because of the energy wasted with constant movement and defensive measures taken. Examples of this are her fights against Alexis Davis and Miesha Tate. And fights against Liz Carmouche, Davis, and Jessica Eye saw each of her opponents get drawn into the fight she wanted, burning copious amounts of energy trying to match her pace.

Kaufman’s second and less obvious attribute is her physicality. Though not a otherworldly strong fighter in the vein of a Ronda Rousey, Sara McMann, or Amanda Nunes, Kaufman’s combination of aggression and physicality has allowed her to get into extended clinches with better athletes and neutralize attempts to control her or take her down. This was on display in fights with Carmouche, Eye, Tate, and Takaya Hashi. Her physicality also works in regards to striking, in that she is willing and able to initiate and win prolonged striking exchanges in the pocket; Kaufman is both mentally and physically more accepting of the nature of these exchanges. Of more importance is the freedom she has to hang in the pocket due to a lack of fear of being drawn into extended periods of combat in the clinch, which is a direct side effect of her physicality.

The final attribute that plays the biggest role in her success is mental. Kaufman is an aggressive fighter, and while she doesn’t bowl you over like a Justin Gaethje, she is willing to initiate or extend exchanges, whether it be at range, in the pocket, or in the clinch, in a similar if less violent manner than Gaethje, Diaz, or Cris Cyborg. Kaufman’s willingness to go after her opponents, put them on the defensive, or force them to fight at a pace or level of contact they aren’t comfortable with has as much to do with her success as the other two attributes, or any set of skills she has developed over her twelve-year career. Win or lose, Kaufman comes looking for contact and looking to do damage.

The Bad

Sarah Kaufman is much more Raquel Pennington or Bethe Correia than she is Holly Holm, McMann, or Nunes. What I mean by this is Kaufman is a stunningly average athlete in the areas of mobility, speed, explosiveness, agility, and striking power. In a fight with Jessica Eye, Kaufman’s below average foot and hand speed allowed Eye to outposition her, beat her to the punch, and outland her, even though there isn’t any sort of disparity in skill that favors Eye. Kaufman still generated volume and pressure, and she used her physicality, but those things weren’t able to affect the fight in the manner it usually does due to the gap in athleticism that limited Kaufman’s ability to walk Eye down. In contrast, consider how noted grappler Miesha Tate walked down, rocked, and dropped Eye in a three-round fight that wasn’t competitive after the first minute and a half of round 1.

In a fight with Valentina Shevchenko, Kaufman’s lack of athleticism reared its head again, as Kaufman was unable to really experience any long-term or fight-winning success, mostly due to the superior footwork, positioning, and clinch and range striking of Shevchenko. And once again Kaufman’s volume, aggression, and physicality weren’t able to neutralize the superior skills, positioning, and tactics of Shevchenko, whereas fighters like Holm and Nunes who were lesser strikers than Shevchenko were able to have moments of success striking on the feet with a world class striker as a direct result of their physical dimensions and athleticism. These attributes enhanced the effectiveness of the skills they had and overshadowed or masked the technical holes they had or gaffes they made.

The Ugly

A big concern for Kaufman is her lack of power and explosiveness. Given the amount of volume and the cleanness of the shots she lands on average, the majority of her opponents should have chalk outlines around them. But as the level of her opposition has been raised, her ability to do substantive damage or stop fighters has fallen off, greatly lending credence to the idea that she isn’t a very big hitter. This created some issues earlier in her career against less dynamic athletes, and has become more prominent against the current versions of fighters occupying her division. Being a comparably slow, non dynamic, and powerful fighter with a style of fighting that forces you to give up a certain amount of defensive responsibility is not a recipe for decisively or easily winning fights at the higher levels of mixed martial arts. When faced with fighters who can match physicality and pace, or fighters who are just outright better athletically, the inability to end a fight, turn a fight, or take a fight somewhere she can win it in a safe manner is going to routinely put Kaufman’s durability, defense, and conditioning to the test, a test that a twelve-year veteran may not be in the best position to take, much less pass.

Fight Skills

The Good

Kaufman is a striker by trade, unlike the majority of women in her division who largely develop striking games to supplement their more refined wrestling and grappling. As a result, Kaufman has shown an awareness, comfort, and savvy that eludes many female fighters who rely on advantages in size and athleticism for success, or who use the threat of their grappling to supplement the effectiveness of their standup. Kaufman’s style of striking may come with a toll, as well as an expiration date, but it is an intelligent one that is built to attack the still prominent lack of development of her opponents in defensive footwork, counters, and defensive techniques like slips, rolls, blocks, and parries. This she exploits with her own light, active footwork (think a less athletic and mobile Frankie Edgar), as well as her positioning.

Kaufman often establishes long range weapons to set the table, creating a clean entry from long distance into the pocket, an approach designed to push an opponent back. This puts them on the defensive, allowing her to build momentum in hopes of overwhelming her opponents. It also disrupts their own offensive overtures, keeping them from finding their respective rhythms and preventing them from being able to exploit Kaufman’s physical and technical limitations. The first weapon she uses is her jab -- it's not as diverse or concussive as many other jabs, but she is busy with it, using it both as a lead and a counter. Her jab has made an appearance in the majority of her fights, including bouts with Amanda Davis, Carmouche, and Leslie Smith. The second long range weapon she likes to use also appeared in these fights; that weapon would be her long right hand, which she leads and counters with. The final weapon Kaufman has in her repertoire, which appeared in her third bout with Davis, is a front/push kick. She uses it in a manner similar to the jab and the long right hand, but it appears much less due to the fact that she is more sporadic in her use of kicks than punches.

Speaking of kicks, Kaufman’s kicking game is more of a meat and potatoes plate than an esoteric entree. She uses her kicks to accentuate her punching game, often using kicks to punctuate the end of punching combinations. Outside of that, Kaufman will use inside and outside leg kicks sprinkled throughout a fight to disrupt an opponent’s ability to pressure or close distance, or to impede their overall movement, allowing her to get in a position to use her hands.

The two other areas that Kaufman shines in are her boxing and clinch work. Though Kaufman can get into a habit of spamming 1-2s and throwing long right hands, the fact of the matter is that when it comes to shot selection and variety, few fighters in the division, in or out of women’s mixed martial arts, are better. Lead left hook, uppercut, crosses, jabs, overhands, straights -- Kaufman uses them all to great effect individually. But what separates her from the majority of fighters in mixed martial arts is that she throws her shots in combination. Instead of throwing a series of shots that maximize power, she instead throws combos that allow her the freedom to switch speeds, play with power levels, attack the target multiple ways, set up other strikes, and create openings in her opponent’s defense. Kaufman especially uses these techniques when involved in extended exchanges, which leads into the final aspect of her standup game: the clinch.

Due to all the previously mentioned tools, Kaufman is often able to dictate when and where clinches occur. Because of her ability and willingness to engage in the pocket, she will often use the strikes as a bridge into the clinch, or to beat opponents up to the point where they rush into the clinch for safety, hoping to get a takedown or control against the fence. But whether they initiate it or she initiatives it, the clinch is occurring mostly on her terms. Compounding that problem for her opponents is the fact that Kaufman by nature is not just a grinding, physical clinch fighter. She is also a very technical one, capable of working a variety of knees and short punches on the inside while bullying and out-hustling opponents, as seen in her fights against Carmouche, Eye, Davis, and Smith.

Kaufman’s takedown defense is spectacular. Though not bulletproof, Kaufman has been shown to be one of the more difficult fighters to take down in an open cage off of singles or doubles, as her combination of active, mobile, and balanced footwork allows her to pressure opponents, putting them on their back foot. This telegraphs any shots or clinch entry attempts, giving her an opportunity to strike and escape via angling out or circling away. Kaufman’s ability to sprawl, fight for underhooks, make her hips heavy, and control her opponent’s head allows her to fight off most attempts at takedowns and control. And when she is taken down, Kaufman has shown the ability to constrict an opponent’s movement, gain and maintain top positions, and work her way back to her feet.

The Bad

Kaufman’s kicking game is very predictable, and not particularly versatile or dynamic, which hinders the effectiveness of her kicks when they are used. It also diminishes the effectiveness of her all-around striking game due to the fact that she isn’t consistent in her kicking game. As noted, she will punctuate striking combos, but not nearly enough given the volume she generates and how open most fighters will be to leg kicks as a result of her volume, variety, and footwork. She has the ability to throw and land kicks, but rarely pulls the trigger, and as a result has to work much harder than necessary to both be effective at longer ranges and get into the ranges she is effective in without racking up damage via kicks. This was the case in the second Davis fight, the fights with Eye and Shevchenko, and the first fight with Smith. Also, as good as Kaufman is in the clinch, she has been susceptible to taking as good as she is giving, not clearly dominating or dismantling opponents.

The Ugly

Sarah Kaufman, for as experienced as she is, is one-dimensional in every aspect of mixed martial arts. Even though it is clear she has legitimate and tenured skill in each one of them, on the feet Kaufman’s style is built to maximize the tools and attributes she has offensively by putting opponents on their heels and giving them a steady stream of pressure and volume to limit their opportunities to be offensive. But when fighters are able and willing to be offensive, they hit her a lot. Kaufman may not have the physicality, durability, and savagery of a Justin Gaethje, but she sure as hell has some of the defensive limitations he possesses.

In the wrestling and grappling range, Kaufman is almost exclusively defensive minded; rarely does she use her skills to get takedowns, or to work a controlled submission game, which is particularly damning as she is currently a black belt in BJJ and was a brown belt for years. Kaufman’s inability to consistently threaten with those things forces her to engage in prolonged striking exchanges and highlights her physical limitations because she doesn’t have an alternate route to victory, be it via the threat of a takedown or takedown attempt, or the willingness to counter or attack opponents with submissions when they attempt or get takedowns. There have been more than enough fights where well-timed takedowns turn disputed victories into decisive ones and tough losses into possible victories. This inability and unwillingness to use the full array of tools when needed calls into question her overall cage IQ, which is especially concerning for a fighter who has faced the level of opposition she has and fought for as long as she has.

Kaufman is late in her career and though not old, is probably going to get one more shot on the big stage. However, there are many things about her that guarantee her a degree of success: her experience, her pace and volume, her physicality, and her uniquely crafted striking style. Twelve years later, her style has aged like wine, having maintained its potency and its uniqueness, but her inability -- or perhaps unwillingness -- to fully and consistently diversify has left her exposed as the less than stellar athlete that she is, which in a division of women who are better athletically is ineffective and unacceptable. Kaufman, for as good as she is, was cut from the Ultimate Fighting Championship for a reason. For her to win this title, gain reentry to their bantamweight division, and have an extended stay there, she is going to have to use all her tools on both ends of the spectrum, and take full advantage of the experience and class she has cultivated over the length of her career.

Invicta FC 29: Kaufman vs. Lehner takes place May 4, 2018 at Scottish Rite Temple in Kansas City, Missouri.

Click HERE for more Invicta FC 29 Pre-Fight Analysis

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