Michelle Waterson was 21 years old when she first fought professionally. Fast forward 10 years and she's still eating in her car.
"I miss sitting down for lunch or dinner," she said recently. "Instead of that, I'm eating out of a Tupperware box in my car on the way to my next practice."
Life is a rolling stone for one of MMA's best women's strawweights. If her breakneck training schedule isn't enough, if her husband and six-year-old daughter don't do the trick, she's also on the fast track to becoming one of MMA's most famous athletes, regardless of weight or gender.
"It is," Waterson said, "a lot."
As chronicled in the December documentary Michelle Waterson: Fight Mom, Waterson and her husband, Joshua Gomez, had a daughter, Araya, in 2011. Gomez, a promising boxing prospect, benched his own fighting dreams so Waterson could pursue hers full time.
Now the three of them are making it work, a family unit bent on writing its own unique story.
That's not the only story, though.
In February, on the heels of Fight Mom's success—oh, and her nationally televised dismantling of chosen blonde Paige VanZant in December—Waterson signed with WME, the same Hollywood talent titan representing scores of A-listers like Oprah Winfrey and Russell Crowe.
Oh, and the far-reaching WME-IMG conglomerate also happens to own the UFC, where Waterson competes.
That relationship makes Waterson unique. Well, almost. One other MMA fighter previously signed a deal with WME-IMG: Ronda Rousey.
Suddenly, the UFC started giving Waterson big promotional pushes. A week after it was announced she signed with WME, Waterson appeared in Brooklyn, New York, to do promotional work during fight week for UFC 208—a card she wasn't on. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, Waterson is, as they say, in talks. A lot of talks.
"Getting signed with WME was a dream come true," Waterson said in an exclusive interview with Bleacher Report. "And I know that right now we're just getting the momentum going, trying to spin the wheel. So all of that is on the back burner while I'm gearing up toward this fight."
Ah, the fight. It's fair to say there will be plenty of eyeballs on Fox Saturday when Waterson (14-4) faces fellow charismatic strawweight contender Rose Namajunas (5-3) in the co-main event of UFC on Fox 24. The winner will likely next face champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk, at least according to various observers, including the champ herself.
In the meantime, as Waterson does yet another phone interview from her hotel room in Kansas City, Missouri, where Saturday's fights take place, it's hard not to notice the opportunities that have piled up around them over the past several months.
"I've always told Michelle she belongs here and she deserves this," said Gomez, who runs a financial services business and still co-manages Waterson, handling contract negotiations and other duties. "There are times when she didn't see it, but I would relax her. I feel good. I feel excited for her."
Becoming a Fighter
It wouldn't be fair or accurate to chalk up Waterson's rise as the simple inscrutable will of planets aligning. Yes, good fortune played its role, but this all started way before the UFC’s $4 billion sale last July to WME-IMG.
It certainly predates the VanZant fight, although that was a big deal, too.
It dates back even before Waterson won the atomweight championship in the all-female Invicta promotion in 2013.
Born in Colorado to a Thai mother and a military father, Waterson has always had more than talent or cross-demographic appeal.
"She's just ambitious," said Greg Jackson, who coaches Waterson alongside other luminaries like Jon Jones and Carlos Condit in Albuquerque, New Mexico. "That's an emotion in itself I think. I don't know if ambition always needs external motivation. If she wasn't doing this, she'd be a corporate CEO or something like that. She has an enormous heart."
She also has a deep and diverse professional toolbox. As a youngster, Waterson, nicknamed The Karate Hottie, took up martial arts and did modeling work. She once appeared in a Megadeth video.
Fighting was what she really loved, though. She has studied several disciplines including the muay thai of her mother's homeland, but karate was always the back bone. It's still the back bone today, with roundhouse and hook kicks forming the basis of her vaunted striking attack.
In 2007 she was one fight into her pro MMA career. At age 21, she pulled up stakes and left her hometown of Aurora, Colorado, to train at Jackson Wink Academy in Albuquerque.
There were a lot of different faces at the academy back then. The digs certainly weren't as fancy as they are today. But the talent there was already measured in megawatts, and it stoked Waterson's own ambitions.
"I remember moving out to Albuquerque and being surrounded by fighters like Georges St-Pierre and Rashad Evans," Waterson said. "And being able to talk and train with them opened my eyes to the thought that it was possible."
Waterson’s physical and intellectual talents, which fight fans regularly see realized in her well-rounded and precise-aggression style (12 of her 14 wins have come by stoppage), were evident to Jackson more or less immediately.
"She is an avid student," Jackson said. "She likes the whys. Why do you do this, why do you do that? A lot of fighters don't like the whys. And she's so creative. She strings things together. Everyone knows the hook kick, but then there's an armbar out of nowhere."
For Waterson, inspiration at the academy was thick enough in those early days that it prompted her to create a vision board, a motivational tool made famous in the general public by the book, The Secret, and in MMA circles by a guy named Conor McGregor.
"I put the UFC belt on there," Waterson said. "That was almost 10 years ago. ... If you just put it out there, at least you're saying it out loud. By doing that, you're holding yourself accountable."
In the 10 years and 17 pro fights since, Waterson has put in mountains of hard work. At the end of the day, that's where all great MMA success stories happen.
"It happened in the gym," Waterson said. "Every day. That's what gives me the confidence."
Becoming a Star
Waterson was good at fighting before she could order a glass of wine with dinner. The fame is what's new. But her step into the limelight didn't happen overnight, either.
That started with Bully Beatdown.
Yes, the popular MTV show that aired from 2009 to 2012, the one offering the premise of some real-life bully receiving comeuppance in the cage. Waterson starred in a 2010 episode—the first featuring a female bully and fighter. Everyone played the catfight angle to the hilt; Waterson owned the screen with her now-familiar combination of cuteness and cold steel (she messed up the bully pretty good, too).
It was a shot in the arm of her career. Then she found out she was pregnant.
"When I got pregnant, it was one of those things where I was in the dark," Waterson said Monday at a UFC on Fox 24 press conference. "I had no idea if I was going to be able to come back to fighting. I didn't know if I could. I didn't know if I would want to. I didn't know that there would be something on the other side. There were just so many unknowns."
Waterson described it as the first in a series of curveballs that shaped and delayed her fight career.
"I did Bully Beatdown, and then I got pregnant," she recalled. "Then I became Invicta champion [in April 2013], and then I don't fight for another year. I was atomweight champ, and then the UFC opens a strawweight division. Then the UFC signed me, and then I broke my hand, and then I broke it two more times, so basically I signed and then I got pushed back in the shadows."
There was also the 2014 upset loss to Herica Tiburcio, as chronicled in Fight Mom. Through it all, though, nothing managed to extinguish her star.
The UFC signed her in April 2015; two months later she smashed Angela Magana in her debut. Meanwhile, her back story was resonating with some powerful people.
Fight Mom debuted in December, coinciding with her bout with VanZant. The film was produced by UNINTERRUPTED, a multimedia platform for athletes founded by someone named LeBron James. (Turner Sports, the parent company of Bleacher Report, is a key partner in the network.)
James happens to be represented by one tentacle of a little mega-firm called WME-IMG.
"We'd been in talks with them for a while. It happened through Fight Mom," Waterson said. "LeBron James was associated with WME and that's when the UFC was getting bought out. After my fight with Paige, we were able to sit down and they liked my family and the way we went about things."
Soon after, WME inked Waterson to a deal. Suffice it to say, it's been a crazy few months for the family.
"WME has done a great job of putting me in front of a lot of people," Waterson said. "It's scripted and non-scripted [film and television ideas], a couple directors, people interested in the book side of it all."
She attended the Golden Globes this year. Media obligations are through the roof, especially around fight time. As Waterson puts it, the "interviews, meetings and networkings" are threatening to take over her life.
Leaning once again on the bond depicted so clearly in Fight Mom, Waterson and Gomez keep the plates spinning.
"We missed my daughter's sixth birthday because we had to go do some publicity," Waterson said. "But we made up for it by spending time with her in Los Angeles for another thing we were doing."
Another part of her coping mechanism? Leaning into the buzz.
"I'm so down to be in Street Fighter," Waterson said at the Monday news conference. "Mortal Kombat, anything. Bring it on."
Becoming a Champion
Back home in Albuquerque, Araya's classroom frequently finds itself with an empty seat. But according to Waterson, she's getting a different kind of education on the road.
"She's starting to understand the fight game a lot more. She's curious," Waterson said. "Here in Kansas City we ran into Rose Namajunas and [Namajunas partner] Pat Barry, and she said, 'Mom, aren't you fighting her?' And I said, 'Yes, baby. You don't have to hate someone to fight them.'"
Hate certainly isn't necessary to underscore the danger in the fight for Waterson. Namajunas is really, really good, and Waterson...well, Waterson has a lot on her plate.
"I think that if you look at the girls on the strawweight roster, Rose is probably one of the more well-rounded MMA fighters," Waterson said at Monday's presser. "And so preparing for her, you have to prepare for everything. I can't just be like, 'All right, I'm gonna sharpen up my stand-up, or I'm gonna sharpen up my jits [jiu-jitsu].' No, like I've got to sharpen everything. I've got to make sure every single tool in my shed is sharpened so that I'm ready for Rose."
And yet, most of the questions posed to Waterson focus on the future. Most immediately, the horizon is dominated by Jedrzejczyk, the ultratalented Polish firebrand who rules the division like a tiny colossus.
Just as she lets in the show-business talk, Waterson does the same with the Jedrzejczyk questions—to a point. Namajunas' dynamic presence will only let that line of discussion go so far.
"I definitely think it's the fight that can earn me the title shot," Waterson said Monday. "But...that's not the pressure I'm trying to put on the fight. I'm trying to go in there and be the best fighter that I can be."
Maybe the key now is staying focused—always easier said than done. Could another Tiburcio be lurking Saturday? You bet. But her support network back home and in Kansas City is not only strong but accustomed to this kind of thing.
"The key is to make the gym a kind of work environment, an oasis in that storm," said Jackson. "There's still people coming in, but you keep fans to a minimum. If you have a loss, everyone still loves you. It's unconditional. You have the freedom to win and lose without the confines that fame shackles on you."
That well-documented family life isn't going anywhere, either.
"I know when I see her start to stress out," Gomez said. "It's patience things. She gets into cutting weight, she gets agitated, I know to take Araya or say, 'Let's go for a run.'"
As she prepares for her latest biggest fight, the person who has the most to do with Waterson's fame, aside from Waterson herself, is the person keeping her most centered inside it.
"She's become a whole new motivation for me,” Waterson said Monday of Araya. "She's a huge part of the reason why I am so successful today. I'm blessed, looking back at it, to have had her so young and still be able to flourish in my career now."
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Scott Harris covers MMA for Bleacher Report. Scott is available on Twitter.