If Michelle Waterson has not been called “Queen of the Open Workout,” she probably should be.
So entertaining is the Albuquerque MMA fighter in this traditional, fan-friendly UFC fight week staple that she at least once was asked to perform an open workout before a card on which she wasn’t even fighting.
Alas, it seems unlikely that open workouts will be held this week in Jacksonville, Florida, site of Saturday’s UFC 249 and Waterson’s strawweight fight against Carla Esparza. There will be, after all, no fans — a concession to COVID-19.
Waterson, though, would gladly settle for a royal thumping of Esparza on Saturday night.
“I think Carla’s a great matchup,” Waterson said in a phone interview before her departure. “We’ve been wanting to fight her for a while now. … I believe that all my skills match up really well with her.”
In addition to UFC 249, the organization has scheduled cards at the same venue in Jacksonville for Wednesday and May 16. Like all 70 of the fighters participating on the three cards, Waterson weighed the pros and cons of traveling and fighting in the midst of the coroanavirus pandemic. She decided to fight.
The anticipated absence of open workouts, of course, is by no means the only departure from a typical fight week that Waterson will face in Jacksonville.
Normally, when Waterson fights, she’s joined by some of her Jackson-Wink teammates. This time, she said, only her three cornermen — her husband, Josh Gomez, and coaches Mike Winkeljohn and Rafael “Professor Barata” De Freitas — will be allowed to accompany her.
Absent as well will be Waterson and Gomez’s 9-year-old daughter, Araya, a fixture cage-side for her mom’s fights in the past.
“She understands,” Waterson said. “There’s a worldwide pandemic, and I think we’re doing our best to abide by the rules and keep our family safe. She’s gonna stay home. She knows that she’s always in our corner, and she’ll be home watching … supporting us from afar.”
Waterson and Gomez will fly commercial to Jacksonville, wearing masks and making generous use of hand sanitizer.
“I think, more than anything, it’s keeping your immune system up,” she said. “Taking your vitamin C or zinc or fish oil or CoQ10, all the types of vitamins that you need.”
Once in Jacksonville, she said, “Everybody that’s credentialed is going to have their temperatures checked going in and out of the hotel. (The UFC is) providing food for us so that we don’t have to go out.
“Yeah, it’s going to be different, but I think as a fighter you’re used to having to adapt to different scenarios. I feel like professional athletes are actually really healthy to be dealing with something like this, and we’re equipped and ready to go.”
In fact, the UFC is doing far more than check temperatures. Each fighter, upon arrival, was swabbed for a COVID-19 test and given an antibody blood test.
Training in Albuquerque, as well, was different. Jackson-Wink MMA, Waterson’s gym, has been closed since mid-March.
Waterson is fortunate to have a home training facility, even more so to have a husband who’s a former amateur and professional boxer.
“I spar with Josh,” she said. “I also have Professor Barata (a Brazilian Jiujitsu specialist).”
As well, she said, Chicago wrestling coach Israel “Izzy” Martinez drove to Albuquerque with four of his students, providing work on the ground.
Wrestling and social distancing, obviously, don’t go hand in hand. But, she said, “We’re abiding by the rules and making sure we’re all staying clean, sanitary, before and after … and do as much work together as we can.”
Waterson (17-7) and Esparza (15-6) once fought (not against each other) on the same Invicta FC card and have six common opponents. Esparza is 5-1 against those opponents, Waterson 2-4. Esparza, who comes in with a two-fight win streak, is a slight betting favorite.
Waterson last fought Oct. 12, losing by lopsided unanimous decision to former UFC strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk. Waterson had won her three previous fights.
UFC 249: Justin Gaethje vs. Tony Ferguson, Michelle Waterson vs. Carla Esparza
Prelims (Waterson-Esparza): ESPN, ESPN+ (streaming), 6 p.m. Main card: ESPN+ PPV, 8 p.m.