Life as a mixed martial arts fighter is rarely easy. As a new parent, pursuing a career in MMA is even more of a challenge and it is one that atomweight star Michelle “The Karate Hottie” Waterson deals with on a daily basis as she fights to become the top 105-pound female fighter in the sport.
With daughter Araya watching, Waterson has posted back-to-back victories since returning to the cage in January. She has set her sights on capturing the Invicta FC Atomweight Championship and hopes to maintain an active fighting schedule in 2013 as she works to build a bright future for her family.
On March 18, 2011, Waterson’s life changed forever with the birth of her daughter. Her blossoming MMA career suddenly took a back seat to the responsibility of being a parent. Waterson (10-3-0) had been active in martial arts since her own childhood, but balancing her training with motherhood became a formidable challenge. For years, her job had been to step into a cage and fight. Now, with an infant child, Waterson’s priorities had to change. Unable to compete, Waterson began to feel depressed and she turned to food as a coping mechanism.
By the time she was able to get back into regular training, Waterson was struggling to shed the weight from her pregnancy. No matter what she tried, nothing seemed to help. When the situation did not improve, Waterson consulted with her doctor and discovered that she had developed a thyroid problem. Normal thyroid levels were three and under, she was told, and hers were over 100. Her eating habits had thrown her body out of whack. Waterson began taking medicine to correct the thyroid issue and soon resumed training as things started to get back to normal.
In January, Waterson felt ready to test herself in the cage once again. She wanted to help to support her family and did so by taking on one of her toughest opponents to date. In what would be Waterson’s 105-pound atomweight debut, she was matched up against a fellow Colorado native, Diana Rael, who had just scored a big win over the previously unbeaten Angelica Chavez. Cutting down to 105 was a challenge for Waterson, but she made weight and subsequently put on one of the most impressive performances of her career.
After Rael took the fight to the mat, Waterson scrambled from the bottom and took her opponent’s back before locking on a lightning-fast rear-naked choke for the submission victory. Waterson’s 21-month layoff had not impacted her skills and she was still clearly one of the sport’s top female prospects. She credits her team and her mental fortitude for getting her through the hectic times leading up to the fight and for propelling her on to victory.
“We studied tape on [Diana] and her last fight when she fought Angelica [Chavez],” Waterson recalls. “She was really good at holding Angelica down, so coach [Greg] Jackson worked a lot with me on my get-ups from the ground; from mount, from side mount, from half-guard. When we fell into that position, I was comfortable, and I knew that as soon as I had the opportunity I would be able to get out of it. It was just second nature because coach Jackson had drilled it into my head repeatedly.”
Waterson had hoped to take another fight soon after the win over Rael, but she first had to take care of a more important matter in her personal life. She married her fiancé, Joshua Gomez, earlier this year. Waterson’s mother moved out to Albuquerque so that she could be closer to her daughter and help with taking care of Araya. Gomez, a professional boxer, was having trouble securing regular fights and opted to put more of his energy into his career as a financial advisor in order to provide for his family.
“It is hard because, as a mother, you want to be able to give your child your all. As a fighter, you have to give your career your all. The trick is to figure out how to balance it all and it’s something that I still struggle with,” Waterson says.
During the weeks leading up to her wedding, Waterson had heard about a new all-female promotion, Invicta Fighting Championships, which was promoting shows in Kansas City and bringing in some of the top female fighters in the sport. Waterson’s close friend and teammate, Julie Kedzie, was working as a commentator for Invicta FC and Waterson began to take a greater interest in the promotion as the hype behind it continued to build. She was asked to compete on the promotion’s third card earlier this month and was matched up against Lacey Schuckman, who was making her atomweight debut.
“I thought it was really cool to have an all-female fight card, and you don’t understand how great it really is until you’re actually there and you see everything come to life in front of your face,” Waterson says. “It was amazing the way they treated us and the production was great. Everything ran smoothly and it definitely lived up to the hype and more. It was a blessing to be on the card with all of those female fighters.”
Waterson and Schuckman fought back and forth for 15 minutes, with Waterson prevailing via a narrow Split Decision. The spirited battle received Fight of the Night honours. For Waterson, however, what was more important was that she had fun and continued to show improvements in her skills as a mixed martial artist.
“The [Schuckman] fight went all three rounds, to a Split Decision, and that was good,” Waterson says. “It kind of woke me back up and reinvigorated and remotivated me to want to go for [the Invicta FC] belt and it’s given me something to push for. I think one of the things that helped me in the fight was my mental game and just telling myself that, win or lose, we’re going to have fun.
“I knew I needed to pick it up [in round three], but I was more worried about my technique than winning or losing,” she adds. “I think that taking off that pressure of winning and losing and just focusing on what I was doing at the present moment really helped me to pull that win together. Plus, coach Jackson, in the last 40 seconds, screamed out, ‘Peanut, ten seconds!’ and so I picked it up. There was like 40 seconds left, not ten, so I think that helped me win the round and thank God for coach Jackson.”
Another key component of the fight for Waterson was her ability to persevere through adversity. In the opening round, Schuckman threatened with a tight rear-naked choke and a keylock attempt, but Waterson stayed calm and began to take control of the fight in the later rounds.
“You have to train your mind to concentrate and focus and you have to learn how to deal with adversity,” Waterson says. “How coach Jackson always describes it is learning how to be comfortable in places where other people aren’t. I guess what a lot of people don’t realise is that the fight is done in the gym. My coaches here in Albuquerque push me and make me believe that I am a great fighter, so I work hard to try to prove to them that I can be that great fighter that they believe in.”
Waterson believes that she has found her home in the atomweight division, but she knows that there will be no shortage of tough challengers for her to face in the future. As the division becomes more and more competitive, bigger fighters such as Schuckman will continue to make the drop down to 105. Waterson is up for the challenge.
“I feel like 105 is the more natural weight for me to be competing at, but the fight world is always getting more competitive,” she says. “Lacey used to be fighting up at 125 and she dropped down to 115 and then to 105. You have to try to take every advantage that you can when you start climbing up the ranks and it gets a bit more competitive. If that means you’ve got to cut a bit more weight, then that’s what you need to do.
“Lacey is a strong girl, but I have a lot of big, strong teammates who fight at higher weight classes at Jackson’s gym and they helped me prepare for the fight so there wasn’t anything that I wasn’t used to.”
Waterson is already one of the more well-rounded competitors in the 105-pound division. Her striking background extends back to age ten, when she began training in karate. She later studied Muay Thai and took part in the Muay Thai-themed Fight Girls reality competition in 2007. Her jiu-jitsu skills have improved greatly since making the move to Jackson’s in Albuquerque. What’s left is to work on tying all of her skills together.
“I know that I need to work on not backing straight up and I need to work on putting all of my things together,” Waterson says. “I have pretty solid standup and pretty solid ground, but putting it all together with the wrestling is my next step. I enjoy standing up [with opponents], but I’m pretty flexible, and when we end up on the ground I’m able to take angles that other people can’t, so I’m comfortable on the ground. Since I’ve moved out here to Jackson’s, I’ve been getting better with my submissions.”
Waterson has one primary goal for her MMA career in the coming year. She hopes to face and defeat Jessica Penne for the Invicta FC Atomweight Championship. The next Invicta FC event is expected to take place in January, but Waterson would prefer to take a break to spend time with her family before stepping back into the cage. She would like to take a fight in February, if possible, and will be ready to challenge Penne at Invicta FC 5 in April.
“Next year, I really want to focus on my fighting career and try to get four fights in,” Waterson says. “I really want to fight for that Invicta belt and that is my main goal for 2013.”
Striving for four fights in one year is a lofty goal for a female fighter, but Waterson’s name and her star power have been positive assets in securing regular fights in years passed. She admits that it also adds an extra degree of pressure for her to live up the hype that has surrounded her, but with wins in eight of her past nine fights, Waterson has consistently proven critics wrong and she hopes to inspire others who have followed her career.
“I think that having the name behind me definitely makes it easier to get fights, but it does add a little bit more pressure for me to try to live up to the hype and to try to show people that I am able to back it up. At first, it bothered me and I wondered why people were already counting me out. When I moved out here to Albuquerque and I got to know coach Jackson and coach Winkeljohn and all of my teammates, I realised that their approval of me as a fighter is all I really need.
“For female fighting in general, I would like for the word to get out that we are definitely serious athletes and that we take this seriously. I just want to be a positive role model for other females out there.”
Waterson thanks her coaches and teammates at Jackson-Winkeljohn MMA and Turning Point Strength and Conditioning for getting her ready for the bout with Schuckman and speaks highly of her opponent’s sportsmanship and professionalism both before and after the fight.
As Waterson continues to find a balance between her personal life and career in mixed martial arts, she is potentially one win away from becoming the Invicta FC Atomweight Champion and bringing a shiny new belt back home to Araya, who is her mother’s biggest fan.