They say don’t judge a book by its cover. So don’t judge a fighter by their frame.
From across the room, Invicta FC atomweight champion Michelle Waterson is sure to catch the eye. But at 5-foot-3 and 105 pounds, it is Waterson’s natural beauty that tends to draw attention, not her muscles.
The 28-year-old, who first found her passion for martial arts in the form of karate, is aware of the perception surrounding her and her moniker. However, she’d prefer to turn heads and drop jaws with her actions in the cage, not just her looks.
“For a long time I feel like there was a misrepresentation of myself,” declared the champion. “I’m ‘The Karate Hottie’ and I love my nickname. I think it’s catchy and cute. [But] I’m serious about fighting.
“At the end of the day, I’m not in there to play around. I’m in there to fight.”
Waterson’s path to the top of the sport can be traced back to her adolescence, which was spent in Colorado. Although she may not have known it at the time, her desire to fight and compete was flowing through her veins.
“My brother is actually the one that got me into martial arts,” she explained. “My mom is Thai, so Muay Thai was always heavy in her culture. My dad was a wrestler in high school. It’s a good mix to have. It’s a fighting family.”
The influence from her family was merely the first step of Waterson’s fighting career, but they’ve been there every step of the way.
“Once I got a taste of martial arts and what it offered me in my life, I knew that it was something I wanted to be involved in as an adult,” recalled the karate black belt. “Fighting was just the next thing to fall into my lap. Everybody has been very supportive of my choices in becoming a fighter.”
With her mind made up to compete, Waterson’s next endeavor came in finding the right gym to help her round out her fight game. She left the Denver area and found her way to Jackson’s MMA in Albuquerque, N.M. From day one, she knew she had found her home.
“There are a lot of things that come into play when it comes to becoming a complete fighter. I think having a gym where you feel comfortable and where it feels like family, is important. That trust allows you to let your guard down and really open your mind up to the things you need to be learning as a fighter,” said Waterson.
“It’s important to keep an open mind. The sport of MMA is evolving and it will continue to evolve. There are always new things to learn.”
In 2010, Waterson was 11 fights into her professional career. She was quickly rising through the ranks. But that’s when her aspirations were temporarily put on hold.
Waterson gave birth to a daughter, Araya, in March 2011. The pregnancy led to nearly a two-year absence from competition.
“It impacted my fighting career more than I expected it to. During my pregnancy, I was going through a lot of self-doubt and a little bit of a depression because fighting was my job and I couldn’t work,” Waterson admitted with a half-hearted laugh.
Luckily for Waterson—and fight fans—she was able to overcome her doubts with the support of her family.
“I have a really supportive family. My husband knows how much I love to fight and how much I dreamed of it becoming this big thing for me. He supported me in my quest to get back into the cage,” explained Waterson.
“He understands the sacrifices it takes to be a fighter. When I was pregnant, he took it upon himself to take that financial burden. Taking care of family takes teamwork.”
Waterson’s extended time away, coupled with motherhood, helped her come back even more dedicated to her craft than before the pregnancy.
“I felt like the responsibility of being a mother and knowing that if I was going to continue to fight, it better be worth something for me, it added a little bit of pressure,” she said. “But it was good pressure, to make it a career and not just a side hobby.
“You can’t have fighting as a side hobby. It’s just too dangerous. It’s something you have to dedicate your time to.”
That dedication is a delicate balance for Waterson. Fighting is a full-time job, especially at the sport’s highest level, but so is raising a family.
“It’s really difficult,” acknowledged the champion. “The best way to break it up is to do just that. When I’m in training, I’m 100 percent in training. I’m not thinking about my daughter; I’m thinking about being a martial artist, a fighter.
“But when I’m done training, I’m at home with my daughter, being a mom. It is important to keep the two separate and take advantage of the time that you have when you’re training and take advantage of the time you have with your little one. That time goes by quick.”
Waterson’s career truly took off soon after her return to the cage. Her Invicta debut earned “Fight of the Night” honors and she captured Invicta gold in her second appearance with the promotion, submitting renowned grappler Jessica Penne.
The Jackson’s MMA product successfully defended her title at Invicta FC 8 in early September with a third-round TKO over Japan’s Yasuko Tamada. Now, as she prepares to headline the promotion’s 10th event on Dec. 5 in Houston against Brazil’s Herica Tiburcio, Waterson is carrying the torch as one of Invicta’s longest-reigning champions.
“It’s a huge responsibility,” she candidly admitted. “That’s kind of what you take on when you go for the championship belt. It gives me motivation, when I’m training, to be a better version of myself each day.”
During her stint with Invicta, Waterson has witnessed the promotion grow and evolve. Now, with Invicta events broadcast on UFC Fight Pass, the New Mexico-based fighter is thrilled to have a bigger reach.
“I think it’s great and I’m really grateful that I’m still along for the ride. I think nothing but great things about [Invicta President] Shannon Knapp and [matchmaker] Julie Kedzie,” said Waterson. “They’re really passionate about what they do. They’re not in it for the money. They’re in it because they know how hard us female athletes work. They just want to get us out there and expose us to the world. They’re grinding just as hard as we are.”
With the added exposure of being on UFC Fight Pass and being a titleholder, Waterson realizes that she’s one of the most recognizable fighters in women’s MMA. Yet, while many of her peers have resorted to trash talking and disrespecting their opponents, Waterson has chosen a different approach.
“There’s a time and place for everything,” she stated. “I think it’s important to stand up for what you believe in and be a strong role model for all of your fans. I hope that I can uphold my integrity. I think about my daughter and what I would like her to learn from. I think the best way to do that is through actions.
“It’s important to stand your ground and pick your battles. Do it the right way.”
Through 15 career fights and 12 victories, Waterson’s approach has worked just fine. And while she knows that her looks might be deceiving to casual fans, there’s only one thing she wants those fans to take away on Friday night.
“I want them to think that I’m one of the best female fighters in the world.”
Michelle would like to thank her husband and daughter, coaches Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn, UFC Fight Pass, her fans and her sponsors: Onnit, Americana, Dragon Do Fight Gear, Caveman Coffee and EatFitABQ.com.