Michelle Waterson, the Next Big Star for Women's MMA

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Michelle Waterson, the Next Big Star for Women's MMA
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

LAS VEGAS — Michelle Waterson, the Invicta Fighting Championships 105-pound champion, is already reaping the benefits of Invicta's recent broadcast deal with the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

Beginning September 6, Invicta events will stream live on Fight Pass, the UFC's digital subscription service. Previous Invicta events aired mostly via Internet pay-per-view, with mixed results; purchasing problems with their pay-per-view partner forced Invicta founder Shannon Knapp to give away her last two events for free. So Knapp signed a deal with the UFC that gives the promotion access to her complete library and allows any subscriber to the Fight Pass service to view Invicta's live events.

Waterson will headline the inaugural Fight Pass event when she defends her championship against Yasuko Tamada at InvictaFC 8. She has been out of action since beating Jessica Penne in April 2013 to capture the Invicta belt, and so the UFC public-relations team has flown Waterson to Las Vegas to begin promotional efforts. She visited the UFC's headquarters on Sahara Avenue, where a makeup artist gave her a once-over before she began a series of video interviews designed to promote her fight.

"They're pampering me," Waterson says with a laugh.

Waterson is enthused about Invicta's partnership with the UFC. There is no better partner than the biggest mixed martial arts promotion in the world, after all, and the UFC is at least putting some of its muscle behind the all-female fight company. Invicta commercials will soon begin running during UFC broadcasts, and every Invicta event is now available for streaming on Fight Pass.

"Shannon was waiting for the right opportunity and the right partnership," Waterson says. "And I think she scored big teaming up with the UFC. I'm just glad to be part of both organizations."

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Waterson's year on the shelf was not entirely of her own doing. She had trouble getting fights and often wondered if she was doing the right thing by continuing to train instead of hitting the streets and looking for a job.

"Thank God my husband is very understanding. He believes in me and what I can do, and he allowed me to train. He took over the financial burden," Waterson says. "It's frustrating as a fighter. I'm sure all the other girls that are signed with Invicta feel the same way. They love Shannon and they want to support the organization. But at the end of the day, I have family that I have to support. So you just start wondering if it's worth it to wait, because I have a family to feed. There are other things I could be doing."

Waterson did other things. She made an appearance on the reality show American Ninja Warrior. It was a short jaunt, with Waterson lasting just seconds before ending up in a pool of water. She competed in bikini competitions, "just to stay in shape." But mostly, she wanted to fight. She traveled the United States, training with different camps whenever she could. She spent a week with famed grappling coach Ricky Lundell in Las Vegas and went to Austin for a week of training in the brutal Texas humidity.

And now, finally, Waterson has a fight. She spends five days a week at Jackson/Winklejohn in Albuquerque, New Mexico, her home gym since she was 21 years old. Greg Jackson and Jon Jones and the rest of her teammates call her Peanut, a nickname Jackson assigned her on her very first day in the gym. She earned her nickname with her diminutive size, but she spends her days training with Holly Holm, Tara LaRosa and other women who compete in higher weight classes.

Before Holm's injury, Waterson sparred with the new UFC signee on a regular basis. Neither takes it easy on the other, regardless of the size difference.

"I just have to bite down on my mouthpiece and go," Waterson says. "I know that if I catch her with one good shot, she's coming."

Waterson may eventually join Holm in the UFC. Questions regarding an eventual trip to the UFC's new 115-pound division are already circulating, and Waterson admitted there may come a day when she's ready to make the jump. For now, though, her focus is on solidifying her place as the best atomweight in the world.

"I'd like to make my presence known as a 105-pound champion. I don't want there to be any question," she says. "I want to be the 105-pound champion and secure that division. I want to be able to fight everybody and say that I have conquered that. Once that has happened, then I would consider it."

Waterson's first step toward cementing herself as champion will come against Tamada, a nine-year veteran of the sport who is making her Invicta debut. Tamada has competed exclusively in Japan and sports a 15-8 record. She is not the kind of fighter you'd expect to give Waterson many problems, but the champion said Tamada presents at least one interesting challenge.

"She's an awkward southpaw. I'm excited to fight her, because when you're fighting a southpaw you get to do all these tricks you aren't able to do with a regular person," she says.

Waterson is spending just 24 hours in Las Vegas on her mini-promotional tour. On Tuesday, she will head back to Albquerque, a city that offers very few distractions from her fight preparation. It is the desolate nature of Albuquerque that draws so many world-class fighters in and then keeps them there; there is nothing to do but focus on fighting.

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Fighting, and doing so for Invicta, is all Waterson plans on doing. For now, anyway. She shakes off comparisons to Ronda Rousey—the UFC's beautiful bantamweight champion, currently in the midst of an assault on Hollywood—and notes that her entire focus is on mixed martial arts.

You won't see her competing in professional muay thai or jiu-jitsu fights anytime soon, because she wants to be the best in mixed martial arts. There is plenty of time for the other stuff, and with Waterson's good looks, skills and charisma, it isn't hard to imagine her someday taking the same path as Rousey.

But not right now. Right now, fighting is the only thing on Waterson's mind.

"My main focus is MMA. I wouldn't want to take away from me having the belt. Maybe it would be a different story if I'd already defended it," Waterson says. "But because I haven't defended it yet, I don't think I should try to go off and venture into other things.

"I feel like I should defend my title first and then maybe have a little more freedom."

All quotes were obtained firsthand.

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