Michelle Waterson: Looks Can Be Deceiving

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

Fighting Words: Michelle Waterson

Reshaping herself during the layoff, the new and improved Michelle Waterson steps back into the cage September 6th to defend her Invicta FC Atomweight World Championship against battle hardened veteran Yasuko Tamada.



Corey Smith: Your most recent bout was your upset win over Jessica Penne for the Invicta FC Atomweight title in April of 2013. What have you worked on improving since that bout?

Michelle Waterson: It has been a long layoff, but I was expected to fight in December. In December I started to get myself going for a training camp, but that didn’t end up happening. I just told myself that if I want to be a professional fighter it is something I have to do on a daily basis. I have to improve myself. I worked a lot on my wrestling, and putting muscle on. I had free time and freedom to choose what to improve on.


CS: Your win over Penne was nominated for Upset of the Year at the annual Fighter’s Only awards. What do think it symbolized that women’s bout was nominated?

MW: It was a huge fight. It has always been a goal of mine to obtain the belt, it was tremendous. Plus Jessica Penne was the belt holder, and it allowed me to really showcase my willingness to fight through adversity. There are times in life or in a fight that you can doubt yourself, but as long as you fight through it there is always going to be light at the end of the tunnel. That’s something that I was able to learn, and hopefully that inspired some other people out there after that fight.


CS: What were your first thoughts when you learned of the Invicta UFC Fight Pass deal? What do you think it means for the sport of WMMA in general?

MW: I think if you are going to partner up with anyone in MMA, it would be the UFC. Now we have a big brother looking over our shoulders and taking care of us is how I see it. I think that it’s going to be a good relationship. The sky is the limit with the two organizations, and the only way to go is up.


CS: Your opponent at Invicta FC 8 on September 6th, Yasuko Tamada, is an experienced Japanese veteran on a three fight win streak. How familiar are you with Tamada? What do see as the key to the matchup?

MW: I’m not too familiar with her. I’ve only seen a couple fights of hers, and they were pretty old. I do know that she is a Japanese veteran that will fight anybody. I know that she is kind of an awkward south paw, so for me what I am really focusing on is to try to keep it standing. It’s always a goal of mine, every fight that I go into. With the strength I’ve been able to put on over this past year, and the wrestling if I want to keep it standing I’ll be able to. Those are the keys for me.


CS: With the added muscle mass that you have put on over the past year, have you noticed any differences in the weight cut this time around?

MW: I am heavier than normal, but I am pretty excited to go into the fight with the extra muscle. It will be worth it come fight time.


CS: Other than the weight cut, what do you consider the hardest aspect of being a fighter?

MW: The mental battles that you find yourself in every day. It’s easy to go into the gym and train really hard for one day. But when you have to do it five to six times a week, day in and day out, it can start wearing on you. You aren’t always going to have great days, and sometimes when you have a bad day it can play with you mentally. You have to learn how to stay strong, and learn how to take the good days with the bad days.  You have to learn how to be your best on your worst day.


CS: What is your mood on fight night? Do you have any routines or superstitions that you have to perform?

MW: I try not to get too superstitious or too routine, because I feel like every fight is different. So if something doesn’t go right in the routine it would just throw me off. I just go into it with an open mind, and I try to stay in the present. I think that’s a very important thing. I try to just enjoy my fight. We all have that anxiety and those butterflies. If you are able to control that, and harness it for the better I think you are better off. That is what I tend to do on fight day, just get all those emotions under control and use them in the cage.


CS: Who generally accompanies you to the cage? What type of feedback and coaching do you prefer from your corners?

MW: My husband, Coach Jackson, and Coach Wink have been in my corner for my last couple fights. So I’ve got a pretty rock star corner team. I’m pretty good at just staying in the zone and hearing what I need to hear when I need to hear it. Coach Jackson has always been real good at saying the right thing at the right time. My husband is really good at being there for me and keeping me nice and calm. Coach Wink is the kind of coach that is real up front, and I work two or three times a week with him. He gives me the confidence in myself to just go in there and give it my all because of all the work we put in before the fight even starts.


CS: For those that have not experienced it, how would you describe the walk out to the cage?

MW: That’s the worst part of it all! You are basically walking into the cage, where they are going to lock you in with this other person. This other person is trying to take your head off, and there isn’t anywhere for you to go. To me the anticipation is always worse than the actual event.


CS: Aside from fight preparation, how much MMA do you watch purely for enjoyment?

MW: I try to watch all my teammates fight. If there is a show that is going on free TV, I will try to catch it. My husband is a big boxing fan, so between boxing and MMA something is always on in our house. We enjoy just watching it, and forgetting about it after we watch.


CS: Outside of the gym and MMA, what types of activities do you enjoy for fun? What helps you to relax?

MW: We go to the park a lot, and just hang out. Sometimes we will just sit down and do little art projects. Play tea cup or play Ninja Turtles. It really just depends on the type of mood my daughter is in.


CS: Lastly, MMA takes a team to succeed alone inside the cage. Who would you like to thank?

MW: I want to thank primary sponsors; AmericanaMMA who sells my signature T-Shirt, if anyone else wants to be on Team Hottie!

MW: Onnit Supplements and SportsFood.Com. I have tons of others, and they will be on my banner.

MW: If you want to keep up with me I’m active on Instagram and Twitter @KarateHottieMMA!

MW: If you don’t subscribe to UFC FightPass, you better! This show is going to go down in history and you will be sad that you missed it!


Invicta FC 8 takes place September 6th live from the Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City, Missouri. The full card will air live via UFC Fight PassClick below for tickets, or to subscribe to UFC FightPass.