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Waterson is a popular choice for UFC main event bout

Albuquerque’s Michelle Waterson, shown before a practice at Jackson-Wink in 2015, has evolved into a hot commodity in MMA circles.

An MMA fight is never a popularity contest. Once Michelle Waterson steps into the Octagon on Saturday against Angela Hill, her 1.5 million Instagram followers can’t help her.

But in her ascent to main-event status for Saturday’s UFC Fight Night card, she acknowledges, those 1.5 million followers couldn’t have hurt.

“That has something to do with it,” she said in a phone interview from Las Vegas, Nevada, the site of Saturday’s card. “The UFC is entertainment, in show business, after all.”

She quickly adds, though, that she believes she and Hill have earned their top spot with their past performances in the cage.

“It’s also how the fights play out when you show up to fight,” she said. “Angela’s always been a game opponent.”

Waterson-Hill was elevated from a three-round fight to a five-round main event just a week ago after light heavyweight Glover Teixeira, who was to have fought fellow Brazilian Thiago Santos, tested positive for COVID-19.

UFC President Dana White’s thought process is unknown, but he either was unable to secure a new opponent for Santos or decided not to do so. Among the remaining fights on the card, it was Waterson-Hill that got the nod.

“It just goes to show you how much faith the UFC has in us girls,” Waterson said. “Anytime the strawweight (115-pound) girls come to fight, we put on a show.

“I believe that Dana and the UFC know that, especially this fight between Angela and I. It’s going to be an amazing event.”

Still, given that Waterson (17-8) and Hill (12-8) are both coming off losses, it seems likely their out-of-the-cage popularity – Waterson’s in particular – played a role.

Waterson, a former model, does not shrink from the nickname “Karate Hottie.” She markets herself effectively in social media; Wednesday on Instagram, she introduced a new line of Michelle Waterson signature sneakers, manufactured by the Australian company Athletikan.

In the past, the UFC has brought Waterson for interviews and open workouts to events in which she wasn’t competing.

In the Octagon, however, there’s nothing show biz about her. As proof, there’s video of her fights (among others) against Jessica Penne (a win by fourth-round submission, arm bar) and her five-round war with former UFC strawweight champion Joanna Jedzreczyk (a loss by unanimous decision).

In Hill, she’ll be facing a fighter who battled her way back to the UFC after a being cut from the organization in 2015. Viewed by some as a hard-luck fighter, she’s coming off a disputed, split-decision loss to Claudia Gadelha.

“She’s really tough,” Waterson said of Hill. “She’s really durable, and she’s a volume fighter. She likes to draw people into her striking … I think her standup is her bread and butter.”

Waterson, like Hill, believes she should have gotten the decision in her most recent fight, a split-decision loss to Carla Esparza on May 9.

“It’s motivation to finish the fight,” she said, “versus allowing it to be in the hands of the judges. It’s so hard to determine what the judges are looking for, but if you can finish a fight, there’s no question. So for me, that’s my motivation, is to go in there and win the fight, don’t leave it in the hands of the judges.”

Yet, if the fight does go the distance, Waterson believes the new, five-round designation works in her favor.

“I’ve been in more five-round fights than (Hill) has, and against tougher opponents,” she said. “And I also train at altitude in Albuquerque. We’re used to training for the championship rounds, and I’m not sure how often she has.”

Hill nonetheless is a slight betting favorite at minus-130, meaning a bet of $130 on Hill would produce a $100 payoff should she win. Waterson is at plus-$125, meaning a bet of $100 on her to win would produce a payoff of $125.

MILESTONE: Hill on Saturday will become the first African-American woman to fight in a UFC main event.

“It’s big, and I didn’t even realize how big it was until (her manager) mentioned it to me,” Hill said during interviews on Thursday, as reported by “I think in a time like this, people need heroes, people need someone to look up to, someone to root for.

“And just the fact that this hasn’t happened yet is indicative of the fact that it is important.”

MINI-CONTROVERSY: On Instagram, Hill took exception when Waterson paid White a compliment.

White vociferously defended his appearance at the recent Republican National Convention and his support for President Donald Trump. Waterson responded with support of White, writing, “@danawhite being the leader he is allows us to do what we love!” Waterson did not mention Trump.

Hill responded: “karatehottiemma I can’t wait to punch your ass.”

In interviews Thursday, Hill said, “(Waterson) was sucking up to Dana and Donald Trump on Instagram, so it just made me want to punch her a little more. I hate suck-ups.”

Hill went on to say Waterson “has been cool to me, I’ve been cool to her in person, and it’s just gonna go down the way it was always gonna go down.”

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