Sarah Kaufman’s road to AFC 5
Saturday night in Victoria, British Columbia, former Strikeforce Women’s welterweight champion Sarah Kaufman and two of her Zugec Ultimate Martial Arts (ZUMA) teammates stepped into the cage at Armageddon Fighting Championships (AFC) 5: Judgment Day.
While most fans only see the action that takes place in the cage, I was invited to follow the trio of fighters, along with head coach Adam Zugec and visiting coach Greg Jackson (yes, that Greg Jackson), throughout the day, as the ZUMA team prepared for the evening.
These are my observations.
This is the ZUMA Fight Journal for AFC 5.
Far more people are inside the nondescript ZUMA gym than you’d normally find there at noon on a rainy Saturday morning. The reason for the increased attendance is leaning against the far wall, loosening up before leading the larger-than-normal class through an hour of takedown drills.
Jackson, one of the premier coaches in the sport, is in town for the day to help corner the three ZUMA fighters competing later tonight. It’s not the first time the Albuquerque native has made the trip to Vancouver Island, and it won’t be the last. Zugec and Jackson have been working together for a couple years, trading nights in the other’s house as they shape fighters in both New Mexico and British Columbia.
As the students there to learn from the MMA Jedi Master encircle him on the mats, Kaufman’s two teammates who will compete ahead of her later in the evening sit on the apron of ZUMA’s boxing ring, quietly counting down the hours before they fight.
Lightweight Connor Wood and featherweight Nick Driedger watch as Jackson begins explaining the takedown sequence the students will drill for the next hour. Driedger takes a draw from a 4-liter jug at his feet, three-parts water, one-part cherry Pedialyte, and offers the traditional ZUMA greeting, a hand-slap, fist-pound combination as I sit beside him.
Normally a bundle of energy that can’t be contained, Wood sits next to him with the hood of his sweater up and a grin on his face that channels Dexter Morgan. Usually talkative and charismatic, Wood is already in fight mode, responding with winks and three-word sentences when 25 would normally not be enough.
Kaufman smiles and waves as she walks by, the gym phone in one hand, her cell in the other. Even on the day of a fight, she’s still maintaining her position as the de facto head of the gym. Though she’ll eventually grab a skipping rope and head into the back section of the building, Kaufman will spend the next two hours alternating between jumping rope, selling tickets over the phone and stealing a look and a listen to what Jackson is teaching in the main area of the facility.
Zugec heads over the boxing ring and suggests his young charges go into the back and do a little light work on the pads. As will be the theme for the day, I tag along, taking up a seat on the floor and the two loosen up, both their bodies and their formerly muted personalities.
Driedger is a 5’6″ bulldog, tanned with smoother legs than his girlfriend. His words, not mine. Heading into his fight tonight, he’s won three straight, all in the AFC cage. None of the bouts have made it out of the first round. He’s powerful as he hits the pad, and self-deprecating as he talks about his flexibility and his designs for a post-fight celebration.
“I can’t even touch my toes” he laughs, coming up short in his stretching. “Good thing I work on flexibility every day. Maybe I’ll get there one day.”
When a fellow student working on the heavy bags asks about the party plans after the event, Driedger responds, “No, we’re not into all of that. We’ll hit up Boston Pizza probably. I want to eat some good food and then get some sleep.”
Wood nods his head in agreement, and it’s then I realize what has made these two, and the rest of the fighters under Zugec’s direction so successful thus far.
They’d rather a have franchise family eatery with their teammates, friends and family than a blowout at a local bar.
They don’t flock to the beaten-up facility so they can tell everyone in the city they’re fighters.
This isn’t about after parties and pseudo-celebrity; they want to learn, to train and the become better fighters. Though they’re not making a living off fighting yet, it’s how they want to pay their bills in the future, and they’re willing to put in the work to reach that point now.
Though their successes could allow them to walk around playing the part of “Big Deals in a Little City,” no one here accepts that role, and it all starts with Zugec.
Just like his fighters, the Carlson Gracie black belt and certified Combat Submission Wrestling (CSW) instructor under Erik Paulson doesn’t seek out the spotlight. He’d sooner tell you about the up-and-coming 13-year-old in the gym than recite his resume or the successes of the fighters he’s trained.
The affiliation with Jackson is a perfect example.
While some in the business are quick to name-drop, Zugec just goes about his business, making regular trips to Albuquerque to work with the all-star crop of talent assembled at Jackson’s while remaining completely under the radar. It would take you asking more than once for the recently married Zugec to admit he prepared fan favorite Keith Jardine for his win at the ill-fated Nemesis Fighting event this past December.
Wood and Driedger pack up their things and say their goodbyes for the afternoon, accepting words of encouragement from everyone in the gym. They both make a point to get a hug from their coach and Kaufman before they leave; Zugec because he’s the big brother and head of the family, Kaufman because she’s both the co-captain of the Team Spirit Squad with Wood and a little uncomfortable with hugs.
Eventually, Kaufman stops answering the phone and hocking tickets long enough to pack up her things as well. She’s a tireless worker and a consummate professional, well-spoken, dedicated and supportive. Like the rest of the team, there is no sign of ego with the former world champion.
As all this is going on, Zugec has been bouncing around on the mats as Jackson runs the large assembly of students through a favorite takedown drill. He shadowboxes as he steps, pokes fun at whoever he can, whenever he can and makes sure to get after his star student a little more than everyone else.
After taking pictures with everyone who asks, Jackson retreats into the office with Zugec, a last minute strategy session before the quest for food begins. Packing up the gear for the night, Zugec stops to enjoy the moment.
“I got Greg Jackson carrying my spit bucket,” he says with a wink. Jackson just smiles.
The drive to Noodle Box isn’t filled with discussion of fighters or the gameplans for the trio who will take to the cage later in the day. Instead, a sign that says, “Woodpecker” and the female to male ratio of Victoria are the topics of conversation.
For the record, the ratio is about 3 to 1, and Victoria has an abundance of beautiful women.
We talk about Noodle Box a lot too, our destination of choice for lunch who’s location seems to be escaping Zugec as we drive around downtown.
“If I could marry Noodle Box, I’d marry him,” admits Jackson, starting a discussion of favorite fast food franchises and which of them must be visited while in Albuquerque. Five Guys Burgers and Fries tops the list.
Food collected, the plan is to head back to Zugec’s to eat and enjoy a pre-fight nap.