Amid the wild and crazy soap opera that is sure to unfold in Las Vegas (Nev.) during Conor-vs.-Khabib week, Michelle Waterson plans to enjoy her supporting role.
But, she says, her focus on the business at hand — her strawweight fight against Felice Herrig — will not waver.
Albuquerque’s Waterson (15-6) and Herrig (14-7), a Chicago-area native, are scheduled to lead off the main card of UFC 229 on Saturday at T-Mobile Arena. The main event is a long-anticipated fight between Ireland’s Conor McGregor and Russia’s Khabib Nurmagomedov, bitter antagonists and two of the sport’s biggest names.
Waterson’s previous experience with the McGregor Effect came when she made her UFC debut on the Ultimate Fighter 21 finale in Vegas on July 12, 2015 — the day after McGregor beat Chad Mendes at the MGM Grand on UFC 189.
“I remember seeing a bunch of Irish people drinking and having a good time in the water fountains at the MGM,” she said, laughing, in a phone interview. “It’s nice to feed off that good energy. At the end of the day, you really do have to learn how to embrace the moment.
“This is a huge event; it’s going down in history. And I’m very happy to be a part of it.”
Nothing, though, she said, will distract her from her preparation for Herrig.
“The majority of the focus will be on Khabib and Conor,” she said, “so I’ll let the light shine on them and go in and do work.”
Waterson and Herrig have been ships in the MMA night, longtime contemporaries long separated by one weight class — until now.
“We kind of grew up along the same journey,” Waterson said.
Herrig and Waterson both performed on “Fight Girls,” a 2007 MMA TV reality show. They were Invicta FC contract fighters at the same time. But in both instances, Waterson was fighting at the atomweight limit of 105 pounds, Herrig as a strawweight at 115.
That changed when the two signed with the UFC, which does not have an atomweight division.
“I knew that eventually, one of these days, we would fight,” Waterson said. “I think it’s a great matchup. I’m really excited to showcase everything that I’ve been working on.”
Herrig is a slight betting favorite, but Waterson has a better record against common opponents. She lost to Tecia Torres but beat Paige VanZant and Cortney Casey; Herrig beat Casey but lost to Torres and VanZant.
That’s a source of confidence, Waterson said, but she’s aware that only she and Herrig — not Torres, VanZant or Casey — will climb into the Octagon on Saturday.
Based on what she knows about Herrig, which is quite a lot, she likes the matchup.
“Styles make fights,” she said, “and I think my style matches up really well with hers as far as me being able to go in there and impose my will and do what I want to do.”
Before beating Casey by split decision in April, Waterson had lost two fights in a row. Before the Casey fight, she’d said she wasn’t thinking about the possible effect on her career of losing three in a row — only about performing as well as she could.
In hindsight, she said, the victory over Casey lifted a weight off her shoulders.
“Of course,” she said. “The UFC is a huge machine, and even though you have contracts they basically can do with your career what they choose to do.
“I guess I wanted to go out there and show people what I’m capable of doing. So, yeah, it was a sigh of relief.”
Relief can come in different ways. Waterson recently appeared in a video with friend and Jackson-Wink MMA teammate Holly Holm, showing off dance moves while participating in pop singer Ciara’s “Level Up” campaign.
“The monotony of training can wear you down,” Waterson said. “… Sometimes it’s nice to break that monotony up, have a little fun, be a girl again.”
Come Saturday, though, against Herrig, it will be woman vs. woman.