Any fighter will tell you that the hardest thing about being number one is not becoming the champ, but staying the champ. This may sound cliché in a way, but it is very true not just in fighting, but in any sport. The very second that someone wins a title, there is an immediate target on their back.
UFC strawweight Michelle “The Karate Hottie” Waterson is a lifelong martial artist. She trained in karate as a kid, eventually earning her black belt, and she has been a professional mixed martial artist since she was 21 years old. For the first five and a half years of her pro career, the Colorado native was very loose, under relatively little pressure, and she was able to tear through eight of her first 13 opponents in the first or second round. However, the pressure started to build in April 2013 when she beat Jessica Penne at Invicta FC 5 to earn the Invicta atomweight title. This was only two months after the inaugural UFC women’s event where Ronda Rousey faced Liz Carmouche.
In early 2013, the landscape of women’s MMA was rapidly changing. Records started to carry a lot more meaning, and the money was starting to grow. For any female fighter, the ante was rising rapidly. Waterson was no exception. The pressure was rising, and the fun was slowly fading away. Weight cuts meant money. Conditioning meant money. Everything meant money.
Over the last four years, Waterson’s career has been somewhat peppered. After defending her Invicta title once, she subsequently lost the strap, and, after seven months, made her first UFC appearance at her original fighting weight of 115 pounds. It was somewhat bittersweet to lose the strap, because it opened the door to the next chapter of her career. She won her UFC debut with a submission over Angela Magana, but her momentum quickly came to a halt through a series of injuries. After sitting on the sidelines for 17 months, she finally returned to the Octagon in December with a first-round submission of Paige VanZant.
“I had been out for so long that I got that feeling where I was excited to be fighting again,” Waterson told Combat Press. “I didn’t care about anything else but getting in the cage and just performing. It was nice to bring it back to that. When you’ve been doing it for so long, it becomes stressful and you forget why you do it. I remembered that I did it because it made me happy and I was passionate about it.
“I’ve been making it more of a lifestyle than by doing it camp by camp. Because I did have back-to-back-to-back injuries, I had some low points, and I had to really reassess why I was fighting, and it’s because I love martial arts. When I was younger and did martial arts, I wasn’t fighting for money and I wasn’t stressing about my career and my record. I was doing it because, each day that I went into practice, I learned something new, and that was fun. When I performed it in sparring, it was even more gratifying. So, getting back to that, getting back to why I do what I do, has really helped me get to that next level of athleticism.”
Waterson’s skill set was, obviously, many levels above anything VanZant had to offer, but skills only provide so much. It takes more than reactive muscle memory to perform at the very highest level of any sport. A fighter, especially, needs to have the right mindset, and Waterson was able to harness that mentality, which helped her put away VanZant quickly.
“I never really strayed from my intentions as a martial artist,” Waterson said. “I think that I can’t just be content with forcing things to happen, because that’s the way I think they should be. That goes across the board with anybody in life. When you have these goals and they’re not happening, it can be frustrating. When you come to grips with the process of it all, and enjoy the process, that’s when the momentum will start to shift.”
One of the most difficult mental hurdles any fighter will face is dieting. With very stringent guidelines around weight limits and a chunk of the fight purse on the line before fight day even arrives, the stress of dieting can also add a lot of unnecessary pressure. When someone has 100 percent of their being to put into a training camp, and 20, or more, percent of that is worried about cutting weight, there is that much less focus on actual training. Waterson has made big strides to make her weight cuts a lot easier.
“A big difference is my nutrition,” explained the former champ. “Eating healthy because it’s good for my body and it makes me energetic, and not being super, super strict. So, I’m eating healthy 80 percent of the time, and if I want a Snickers bar, I’m going to have a Snickers bar. If I want a piece of pizza on the weekend, then I’m going to have a piece of pizza. I’m trying to live a more healthy lifestyle, but not trying to restrict myself to a point where I’m resentful of dieting.
“The gym has its very own nutritionist, Dr. Anita, and she’s an amazing person. She’s the one who helped me cut weight the last time, and I’ve never felt better. I only cut three pounds of water. She helps me all the way down. She helps me with my nutrition and the supplements I need to take and the food I need to take. She helped me get my head wrapped around nutrition being more of a lifestyle and knowing how to feel your body from an athletic standpoint, because we have different needs than the average person.”
With her diet dialed in, a renewed love for her art, and a two-fight winning streak in the Octagon, Waterson is ready for her next big challenge, which could easily be the most difficult of her career. On Saturday night, at UFC on Fox 24 in Kansas City, Mo., Waterson and fellow Invicta vet Rose Namajunas will serve as the co-main event.
Namajunas is also a karate black belt, and after only three pro fights, including a highlight-reel flying armbar submission of Kathina Catron in her second Invicta outing, she was able to blow through three opponents on season 20 of The Ultimate Fighter before dropping the finale to Carla Esparza for the inaugural UFC strawweight title. With a 5-3 record in her short four-year fighting career, Namajunas is currently ranked fourth in the division. The sixth-ranked Waterson could not be happier with the match-up.
“I was ecstatic,” Waterson said. “Rose is probably one of my favorite people on the roster. She is ranked above me, and that’s what I want. I want somebody who’s ranked above me to get me closer to the title shot. I know that Rose is going to present a completely different challenge than Paige, and that is exactly what I want. Every time I step into the Octagon, I want to move up the ranks. I want to rise to the occasion, and that is exactly what this will do for me.
“Rose is a very well-rounded fighter. Her outlook on fighting is very similar to mine. I think that the most challenging thing that she will bring to the table is her ability to utilize her reach, her creativity and her footwork.”
As for Waterson’s biggest challenges for her opponent?
“Everything,” Waterson said. “We left no stone unturned in this camp. I do consider myself a mixed martial artist, because I have been able to use my 20 years of experience as a martial artist and all of the things that I’ve learned through those years into my own style.
“I’m bringin’ my guns and my grenades… I’m just kidding. I like to incorporate new moves, and I like to evolve. So, hopefully, what I can offer is something new that nobody has seen before, so you need to tune in April 15.”