ZUMA Fight Journal: Sarah Kaufman’s Fight Night

The second part in an ongoing series documenting Sarah Kaufman’s fight at AFC 5.

Read part one of the ZUMA Fight Journal

We pull in next to Kaufman’s vehicle, a source of many jokes, but also a sign of the humility that permeates the team. The former Strikeforce champion drives a not-quite beat up Pontiac Firefly from somewhere between 1997 and 2001, and has no designs on upgrading.

She’s staying at Zugec’s for this fight, maintaining a small piece of being on the road despite fighting in her hometown for the first time.

We eat, talk about the Food Network and Jackson’s constant travel schedule before the coaches retire and I hit the couch to compile my thoughts on the afternoon. An hour later, Kaufman comes down the stairs carrying her MacBook, waves and asks where everyone is in a whisper that careens off the high ceilings and draws a “that was loud” look from tonight’s main attraction.

She sits and watches an episode of Modern Family, going over her ticket sales figures and texting on her iPhone, her braided hair the only indication that tonight is any different from a normal Saturday night in Victoria.

It’s not long before the house is buzzing with energy.

Zugec and Jackson emerge from their naps, the former still looking a little sleepy as he greets his wife, the latter with a Five Hour Energy shot in his hand and a smile on his face. Naps aren’t a normal part of Jackson’s day, though he’d like them to be; combined with having Noodle Box for lunch, he’s as happy as can be.

Kaufman’s strength and conditioning coach Tyler Goodale arrives and travel arrangements are determined.

Wood and Driedger are meeting us at the venue, and Zugec’s wife and the other females prepping for the evening will come later. Kaufman and her two coaches will travel in one vehicle, myself and Goodale in tow.

On the ride there, Goodale and I discuss Kaufman, whom he describes as one of the most special athletes he’s worked with in his career, heady praise from a man who works with numerous Olympic competitors and National team members at the Pacific Institute for Sport Excellence.

The team is sharing a dressing room with Nathan “Roadhouse” Swayze, a powerful striker from the Comox Valley Boxing Club. Wood and Driedger are already hanging out in the room when the rest of the group arrives, breaking in their gloves.

Wood jokes about his entrance music, “The Imperial March” by John L. Williams. You might know it best as “Darth Vader’s theme,” the symphonic musical cue of the Dark Lord’s arrival in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.

“I’m trying to tap into the geek demographic,” Wood says with a laugh and a smile. “They’re an unappreciated part of the MMA audience.”

Considering Driedger walked out of the gym earlier in the day sporting a t-shirt emblazoned with The Flash’s logo (and will show up at Boston Pizza later in the evening wearing a Green Lantern hood), it’s more than fair to say these two aren’t your typical skull and daggers MMA apparel models.

Two more members of the ZUMA team arrive in the dressing room, Ty Dolby and Diego Wilson. They’re there not only to support their teammates but to help them get loose. Swayze heads to the MMA equivalent of the on-deck circle, wishes of good luck following him out the door. He’d go on to earn a third round submission win in the second bout of the night.

His departure means Wood is closer to taking the cage, and he starts to warm-up. Dolby grabs focus mitts and Wood hits them with rapid precision as Zugec tapes Driedger’s hands. He’s quick with both his hands and his movement, bouncing to new angles with each connection and “Yes,” from his teammate.

They switch to Thai pads and the booming “thwap” that fills the room causes everyone to blink with each connection of shin to pad. Goodale looks at me, impressed by the first display of Wood’s striking that he’s seen, and with good reason. He’s sharp and ready to earn a second consecutive win under the AFC banner.

It’s time for Wood to hit the on-deck circle, and he gives high fives to Driedger and Kaufman, both of whom will stay in the back while their teammate takes to the cage. As the rest of the group congregates at the entrance point to the arena, I make my way into the crowd, eager to see and hear the reaction to Wood’s walkout music.

As his opponent’s song stops and “The Imperial March” begins, the crowd gets as loud as they’ve been all night, and it spurs Wood on. He marches down the entrance aisle, focused, eager to get into the cage. A quick round of hugs with his coaches and a check from the referee done, the cage door closes behind him and he’s ready to set the tone for the team.

The audience is a pro-ZUMA crowd, many of the gym’s students in attendance offering Wood a large round of applause as he’s introduced. Referee John Cooper starts the fight and Wood comes out throwing his hands.

His opponent looks flat footed and two-seconds too slow, eating a couple sharp jabs early. Wood mixes in a leg kick, but leaves his hands a little low and eats a hook. Dolby and Wilson tense up in the second row of seats, recalling the quick defeat that Wood’s suffered at the third AFC event, a similar punch starting the end of his evening.

Though his knee buckles slightly, Wood shakes it off and keeps coming forward behind his jab. He’s the aggressor and the faster of the two, but another right hook hits his jaw flush before he’s taken down.

“Don’t panic, take your time,” is said simultaneously by me, Dolby, and Goodale, and Wood does just that. He lands some elbows from the bottom and pushes his opponent off so he can scramble to his feet.

It’s an even first round through the halfway point when Wood finds his range and his rhythm. A series of punches forces his opponent backwards, the last connection putting him on his back next to the cage. Wood swarms and measures his shots, stacking his opponent’s legs and raining down fists and elbows.

Cooper steps in at 4:29 of the opening round, and ZUMA is 1-0 on the night.

In the cage, Wood is already back to being the gregarious competitor I’ve gotten to know over the last 18 months of living in Victoria and spending time at ZUMA.

He looks down at his shorts as he thanks his sponsors, something Kaufman reminded him to do as he was walking out of the dressing room, and says he’d love to be back for the next event in June.

Hugs and high fives are exchanged on the walk backstage, stopping to pose for a couple of pictures for local media along the way.

A round of applause greets Wood as the enters the dressing room. He tells Zugec his hands felt good and that he’d like to keep the wraps. Zugec is already back to work on Kaufman’s wraps, though at one point, Kaufman is doing her own hands, tearing the tape with her teeth. Without turning around, Zugec instructs Wilson to go watch the next fight, a bout between two fellow bantamweights, one of whom Wilson submitted in his last AFC appearance.

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