From centerfold to center cage, Invicta FC Atomweight Champion Michelle Waterson is keeping the eyes on her.
In September 2008, Chuck “The Iceman” Liddell graced the cover of FIGHT! in preview of his upcoming bout against Rashad Evans at UFC 88. In that same issue, aspiring model and mixed martial artist Michelle “The Karate Hottie” Waterson was featured as the FIGHT! centerfold. The MMA landscape has changed considerably over the last 57 months for The Iceman and The Karate Hottie. Liddell hung up his four-ounce gloves to become a cog in the UFC corporate wheel, while Waterson is now the Invicta FC Atomweight Champion.
Over the next couple of years, Waterson went from natural beauty to natural fighter, amassing an 8-3 record by combining her background in American Freestyle Karate, Wushu, and Muay Thai. The Jackson MMA fighter’s career was on the upswing before she took a two-year hiatus that began midyear 2010. Since returning to fighting last year, Waterson has taken her career to an entirely new level. It’s not so much what she’s done in the gym—she always trained hard—but a major addition to her personal life that has made her want to strive for more in her career.
“After having my daughter in 2011, I’ve really kind of stepped up my game as far as being a fighter,” says Waterson. “Now, I have a lot more reasons to win and show my daughter that you can go after your dreams no matter what happens to you in life. I feel like I’m back and better than ever. I have more motivation, and she pushes me to be better every day.”
While Waterson had a convincing win in her first bout back against Donna Rael in January 2012, it was a Fight of the Night victory over Lacey Schuckman at Invicta FC 3 in October 2012 that really tested Waterson’s resolve as a competitor.
“Schuckman almost had me in the first round, so it was kind of a mental battle for me to pull myself out of that and acknowledge that I could win, even though I lost the first round,” she says. “I’ve always had heart, and when it comes to fighting, I think it’s important to understand that. There have been times where I’ve been tested and was able to focus and push through.”
At Invicta FC 5 on April 5 against Jessica Penne for the Invicta FC Atomweight Title, Waterson had to dig deep and push through like never before. The championship fight lived up to its namesake, as both fighters put on a technical display of MMA skills. Striking combos, leg kicks, takedowns, pulling guard, mounts, sweeps, submission attempts…the fight had it all, and that was only in the first two rounds.
In round three, Penne came out aggressively and had Waterson in serious danger with a flurry of punches, but Waterson was able to work her way out of danger before giving up her back, which allowed Penne to transition to a deep armbar. Waterson refused to tap—even as it appeared her arm was about to snap—and she fought herself free to survive the round.
In round four, Waterson showed off her great takedown defense and flexibility by stuffing a single-leg and taking Penne’s back. From there, she transitioned into an armbar of her own. Penne tapped almost immediately as Waterson claimed Invicta FC gold and brought her record to 11-3.
“You just can’t quit, even when you feel like you can’t go on,” says Waterson. “She almost got me in the third, and I just told myself to keep going. She’s an awesome fighter. She has so much heart. Winning the title is a dream come true.”
The 27-year-old will go from the hunter to the hunted as she prepares to defend her new title later this year. For Waterson, that’s just the next step in a journey that started when she began studying karate as a 10-year-old, thanks to her older brother. Now, Waterson is happy with the balance she’s found in her life.
Balance good. Karate good. Everything good.