Michelle Waterson doesn’t feel as though she’s walking alone into the octagon Sunday night for her UFC debut.
The Albuquerque fighter will ride in on the shoulders of two women — Julie Kedzie and Holly Holm — two Jackson-Wink teammates, training partners and friends who have each made the journey to compete on the biggest stage of mixed martial arts.
“There’s a lot I take away from both of those ladies, who are two of my very close friends and mentors and two ladies I look up to tremendously,” said Waterson. “What I took from them is if I can fight, nothing else really matters. … If you allow yourself to be comfortable in your own skin and perform how you know you can, the fight will happen how you want it to.”
But while the now-retired Kedzie was one of the pioneers of women’s MMA and the former multi-time world boxing champion Holm is viewed as possible challenger down the road to bantamweight (135 pounds) superstar Ronda Rousey, Waterson is already being viewed as a potential face of the entire strawweight (115 pounds) division even before she’s thrown her first UFC punch.
The potential marketability, and legitimate fighting skills, of the “Karate Hottie” have many saying she’s on the fast track to a title fight and UFC stardom.
But for now, Waterson, who has lived and trained in Albuquerque for the past nine years, must first get through Farmington-based MMA journey woman Angela “Your Majesty” Magana as part of Sunday night’s The Ultimate Fighter Finale show broadcast on Fox Sports 1 from Las Vegas, Nev.
Both fighters are coming off losses. Magana (11-7) has lost her last two fights while Waterson (12-4) lost her atomweight (105 pounds) championship to Herica Tiburcio in the main event fight of December’s Invicta FC 10 card in Houston before being signed by the UFC.
“I think you learn the most from your losses,” Waterson said. “My last fight was a huge loss for me. It was heartbreaking, but I took so much from that. I understand now that you don’t just have to be there physically to win the fight. Everything has to fall into place. You have to be there physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually.”
She feels everything is in place thanks to the team behind her, including the three men who will be in her corner Sunday — husband, Joshua Gomez, coaches Mike Winkeljohn and Greg Jackson — and Holm, who has her second UFC fight on Wednesday in San Diego.
Some question whether Waterson can make the leap from her usual 105-pound atomweight fights with Invicta to the UFC’s 115-pound strawweight opponents.
“I think that’s a ridiculous statement,” Waterson said. “… To me, size doesn’t matter. To me, skill trumps size any day. I train with Holly Holm, who’s a 135er. She and I are training partners for this camp. I feel I know how to deal with size.”
The way Waterson and Holm have worked together over the past several months in their training camps has Winkejohn thinking the sky is the limit for both fighters.
“They are willing to put aside their wants at the moment and are willing to help each other,” Winkeljohn said. “That’s the reason why they’re both going to be the best in the world.”