Wonder Woman in the Ring: MMA Fighter Sarah Kaufman

Superhero physical skills and abilities can empower all.

Posted May 31, 2017

Wonder Woman is a powerful and accomplished female superhero who is all about empowerment. Having confidence based on our capabilities and capacity is a good feeling. Confidence creates a feeling of agency and empowerment  and Wonder Woman epitomizes those by her tremendous fighting skills.

Wonder Woman and her alter ego Diana Prince behave in ways consistent with real life martial arts master Keiko Fukuda. Fukuda (1913-2013) was the highest ranked female practitioner in the history of judo and the only woman to have been promoted to 10th dan in the art of judo.

Amazonian Wonder Woman was the star of 2016's "Batman V Superman" and is also rocking it in her own solo movie. What better time to share an interview I did with a real wonder woman of the ring--mixed martial arts fighter Sarah Kaufman. Kaufman's background is in Brazilian jiu jitsu which formed out of the ground fighting techniques of judo.

Sarah Kaufman's career in movement began with dance at age 2 but it’s when she was 17 and started kickboxing that she really came into her own. Born and raised in Victoria, BC, Canada, Sarah has fought the best of the best MMA fighters. Kaufman was the 1st Strikeforce Women's Bantamweight Champion and was ranked #11 in the UFC women's bantamweight division in 2016 with a record of 17-4-0, 1NC (W-L-D). Her record has now improved to 18-4-0, 1NC after her victory in Seoul, South Korea on March 17, 2017.

I met Sarah in winter of 2016 when she was a guest in my University of Victoria course "The Science of Batman". With my students she spoke at length about her career as a fighter and what martial arts have meant to her. Later we also followed up with some specific questions about Wonder Woman.

E. Paul Zehr: I’m really interested in the dance angle. You got a lot of body awareness training at a very young age!

Sarah Kaufman: Most of the athletic things you do as a kid can help you do lots of other things. I started very young learning basic knowledge about body posture and movement, footwork, strong body core. All of that helps with fluid movement in martial arts.

EPZ: How did you get into martial arts?

SK: One big factor was just convenience! The martial arts place was right near where I did dance. It was natural for me to be super interested in kick boxing. You got to hit things. And I really liked that! It was a great stress reducer…an outlet I didn’t have before. I loved it.

EPZ: How did your parents react to the transition from dance—a more “traditional” activity for girls—to kick boxing?

SK: It wasn’t that big of a deal. It helped that one of my friends was really interested in it and then my parents thought it would be a good thing too. But then I actually did take up kick boxing and my friend didn’t!

EPZ: In your case your body is the tool you use for the activity—mixed martial arts—that you love to do. But there are lots of representations of bodies in society that are all about what it looks like instead of what you can do. What are your feelings around how female bodies are represented in society—the difference between aesthetics and function?

SK: Most sports—including MMA—are about looks to a certain extent. Even MMA fighting there’s a tendency to want to sexualize the fighters. There are also some MMA fighters who use cosmetic surgery to enhance or change their looks. Often the attractiveness of the fighter seems to affect the amount of coverage and promotion they get. Don’t get me wrong—it’s okay for people to do whatever they want. But now when others see that person do that, it kind of makes it seem like there’s pressure for others to do it too. Society is a lot about appearance, unfortunately. For men and women. The truth is it does help to have the appeal on top of the skills.

EPZ: How much does the pressure come from society generally or within MMA circles?

SK: It’s definitely apparent that those who are willing to wear smaller, skimpier outfits, they get bigger backing and bigger pay per views and bigger box cards. Overall there’s just more media attention and coverage. By doing certain things that you say or do, for sure it does affect the business side.  Despite all that, it’s still about winning and losing. You still have to be very good technically and skill side. But lots of things can come together to transcend the sport. Like Ronda Rousey. She’s done lots of things well outside the sport. But then too much can maybe hurt your performance. Bottom line, though, is that it doesn’t necessarily have to be about looks. But you do have to win and be distinct.

EPZ: How much of the persona that we see in MMA fighters before a fight and maybe even in the ring is acting? That is, like the superhero alter ego—Diana Prince versus Wonder Woman?

SK: Some people really do it well and get into it. And it becomes a real angle on how they do things. If they are really good at something like trash talking or bravado, they can get away with it. For me, I don’t like that stuff. It seems too mean! I struggle trying to sell myself as something I’m not. I want to be able sleep peacefully at night and know I didn’t sell myself out for something I didn’t believe in. At the same time, you can’t worry about people who don’t like you. There always will be people who don’t like you! You just have to be yourself.

EPZ: What do you think about the rise of popularity for women in MMA and the UFC?

SK: Traditionally guys had lots more opportunities in MMA. Prior to Ronda making a big splash, the UFC brass didn’t encourage women very much at all. I think the idea was they didn’t want people to see girls getting punched in the face. Very old school, 1920s mentality about male/female gender roles. When Ronda came along they really focused on Ronda but not necessarily female fighters.

EPZ: How many fights do you have each year?

SK: I have only about 2-3 but would love 3-4 per year. I’d like more fights for sure. I really love it. A problem for me is that I love hitting and being hit and I’m tough to knock out. So, I get avoided sometimes.

EPZ: Does anything about Wonder Woman—basically one of the most powerful superheroes and who is a fighter—resonate with you?

SK: I think the biggest resonance between myself and Wonder Woman would be the drive and desire to follow my passion and do what’s right. Doesn’t matter if there is already a formula or mold for me (or Wonder Woman) to fit into, I will find a way to do it myself. Anytime society can see an “underdog” or minority in a position of power and dominance, we can grow as a whole. We need more acceptance of all people. There is no reason for anyone to be put down for being themselves. Wonder Woman personifies this, and I strive to do the same!

Be inspired when you read a Wonder Woman Graphic Novel or Comic, watch Linda Carter in the fabulous 70's Wonder Woman TV show, or watch Gal Gadot's amazing big screen version of the Amazonian Warrior. Wonder Woman represents empowerment through skill and it's a message, as Sarah Kaufman emphasizes, that is for each and every one of us.

(c) E. Paul Zehr (2017)