Ronda Rousey and Sarah Kaufman face-off at the weigh ins before their Strikeforce title fight. Photo by Tracy Lee for CombatLifestyle.com.
The Ronda Rousey train rolls on this weekend at Strikeforce as she defends her Strikeforce Women's Bantamweight title in the main event on Showtime. Rousey has quickly established herself as the definitive top dog in women's MMA, and, at this point, in all of Strikeforce. She's facing a challenge from former champion Sarah Kaufman, whose only loss came when she dropped the title to Marloes Coenen in 2010. Already, Rousey (and pretty much everyone else) seems to be looking past Kaufman and towards a possible Rousey vs. Cris Cyborg superfight. Is that a mistake, and is Kaufman the woman to spoil the party and put the first blemish on Rousey's record? Let's take a look, starting with the champ.
5-0 (3-0 in Strikeforce) | 5'6" | 25 years old | 67" reach
There's plenty to discuss about the promotion of Rousey as the new "face of women's MMA" (And by the way - why is that term always used in women's MMA? You never hear someone called the "face of men's MMA"?) and her promotional style. Some are fans, some are not, but there's no denying that she brings a lot of interest to her fights. But here, we'll focus on the fight itself, and what Rousey brings to the cage.
And that's easy to break down, because Ronda Rousey is, and I mean this in the best way possible, easily the most predictable elite fighter out there. There is no doubt what her strategy will be Saturday night - throw a few punches, initiate the clinch, use her Olympic level Judo to get the fight to the mat, slap on an armbar, done. That's been the plan in every one of her amateur and professional fights, and it's worked - every single time. It's amazing to see someone so easy to scout, and yet so difficult to stop. So far, only Miesha Tate has even provided Rousey with a challenge, and yet she too fell victim to the round 1 armbar.
What is it that makes Rousey's game so unstoppable? A large part of it comes from her superb skill with takedowns thanks to her Judo background. From the clinch, she has a wide array of takedowns including sweeps, trips, the classic Judo O Goshi (or hip toss), even pulling guard. This variety of takedowns makes them very difficult to stop, as an opponent can never be sure exactly what to counter, while Rousey is able to transition between various techniques.
Once on the mat, her greatest skill is obviously her ability to secure the armbar. Early in her career, she liked to take the mount, throw some ground and pound, then grab the arm. That's a very traditional way of locking on the armbar, and Rousey is excellent at it, transitioning very quickly through the positions, as seen in the clip below.
As her career has gone on, she's shown more options with the armbar, including a very impressive job taking it from the back against Tate. Like the takedowns, her ability to grab the arm from numerous positions makes it very hard to defend against.
Also against Tate, she showed her defensive game on the ground, as Tate had her in some bad positions, but Rousey was able to avoid trouble and still work towards the eventual armbar.
Of course, there are openings in Rousey's game, and those are primarily in the stand-up. Once Rousey has that clinch, you are in serious trouble, but she is vulnerable until the clinch is secured. Her main method of taking the clinch is to come in with a quick lead jab, then grab the head, bring in the right arm, and get a head and arm clinch. You can see her using this in the clip to the right. The trouble with this is that it can leave her chin exposed as she reaches for the clinch. Rousey does, at times, reach somewhat recklessly for the clinch, leaving her chin up and exposed. A well timed uppercut could hurt her badly in this position. She has definitely improved in this area over the years, and was forced to show off a bit more of her striking game in the Tate fight, but I think it remains the one gap in her game and the best area for an opponent to capitalize on.
And as it just so happens, her opponent this weekend is a striker.
15-1 (6-1 in Strikeforce) | 5'5" | 26 years old | 66" reach
Former champion Sarah Kaufman is just the kind of technical striker who can capitalize on a hole in her opponent's defense. Kaufman is primarily a boxer, who has very good hands - arguably the best in women's MMA. Her boxing is all technical and solid as she throws every punch well. Kaufman is particularly good with the right cross, which she will often use to set up combinations. In those combinations, she favors the basic punches - jab, cross, uppercut, hook - but always throws them with force while using angles to find the gaps in the defense. You can see her use a nice combination to earn the TKO victory in the clip to the right.
While throwing her hands, Kaufman also maintains good defense, keeping her chin tucked, her hands tight, and using her arms to block counter shots. It's a very strong overall boxing game that Kaufman has used quite well.
The downside to having such success with her boxing is that, like Rousey, Kaufman can become predictable. She's very focused on her hands to the exclusion of everything else - don't expect many kicks or takedowns from Kaufman. Opponents like Marloes Coenen and Alexis Davis have had success against Kaufman by using a more varied attack.
On the mat, Kaufman shows good ground and pound from the top position, and also has her highlight reel slam of Roxanne Modafferi from the top. However, she was also submitted by Coenen while Kaufman used that ground and pound. Her grappling game is more wrestling based, and as a result, she is not very comfortable on her back. Against Miesha Tate, we also saw Kaufman's takedown defense, which is again very wrestling-centric, as she uses a classic wrestling sprawl to stuff the takedowns, though Tate was able to eventually pin her against the cage and get take her down.
Finally, Kaufman is a patient fighter - too patient in the eyes of those who would like to see her finish fights more often. But she can use that patience well to weather an early storm from opponents, then begin to put on the pressure with her punches. This seems like a good place to mention that she has worked with Greg Jackson in the past, though not recently.
Kaufman's is clearly a superior striker to Rousey, and I think will be able to tag the champion. The trouble is, even if she takes a hit, Rousey will still be able to get the clinch. From the clinch, Kaufman's sprawl based takedown defense won't help her, and she'll find herself on the mat, where she has already shown that she is both uncomfortable on her back, and susceptible to being submitted from the bottom. Kaufman has the puncher's chance, and could make it interesting if she connects early, but in the end, I don't think she can stop the inevitable.
Ronda Rousey by armbar, round 1