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Commentary: Waterson shows how MMA is more than a passing fad

Michelle Waterson, seen at a training session at Albuquerque's Jackson-Wink MMA in May, 2015, has shown a Los Angeles Times columnist just how tough the sport can be. (Journal file)

Michelle Waterson, seen at a training session at Albuquerque’s Jackson-Wink MMA in May, 2015, has shown a Los Angeles Times columnist just how tough the sport can be. (Journal file)

I’ve never been much for new things. I just tried an ATM for the first time the other day. The instructions confused me, so I bashed it with a hammer till a bunch of twenties poured out. Needless to say, I plan to use that ATM again soon – once the cops leave.

Emboldened, I also tried mixed martial arts this week. Generally, my trouble with new things stems from suspicion over stupid trends. I like to see stupid new trends play out a bit, before stumbling in and bashing them with hammers. Powdered wigs, Proust and canned wine are just a few of the silly fads I’ve fended off. I haven’t missed out on much.

But I regret being so late to America’s fascination with MMA. Based on the Brazilian combat sport of vale tudo (“anything goes”), MMA involves pummeling opponents with your fists, feet and elbows. Pretty much anything you ever did in a schoolyard fight can now be done – legally and to significant acclaim – in MMA.

Its chief promoter is UFC, which stands for Ultimate Fighting Championship. Born 22 years ago this month, it is one of the few new leagues that overcame the stodgy traditionalism of American sports. Young and boastful, UFC seems in tune with these blood-lusty times. That one of the ways to win is “by submission” speaks to how spot-on it represents the spirit of modern life.

To sample and appreciate UFC, I turned to Albuquerque’s Michelle Waterson, who gamely took me through the basics of mixed martial arts – footwork, balance, jabs, kicks, grappling. I got a bloody nose just looking at her.

“I’m not a team player,” Waterson explained when asked what drew her to karate as a kid.

“Me neither,” I said.

Naturally, I was relieved to find someone else who also still believed in the benefits of rugged American individualism.

From there, it was on.

First, we worked on punches. Jab-jab-jab-jab-jab, which UFC fighters throw to set up “the cross,” the money punch – almost a hook, but not as parabolic or robust. With the cross, the fighter extends the shoulder, torques the torso, and if all goes right, rearranges an opponent’s mouth.

“Any injuries?” I ask as we spar.

“In my last fight, I broke my hand,” Waterson explains. “But I was throwing a punch when it happened.”

“Oh good,” I said.

“I’ve had my nose broken three times,” she added.

Waterson didn’t say how many of her opponents’ noses she’d broken, but I suspect more than three. She’s 13-4 as a pro, with eight wins by submission and three by knockout. Ranked 11th in her division, Waterson’s next fight is Dec. 12 at the MGM in Las Vegas, Nev., against fifth-ranked Tecia Torres.

Tiny and tenacious, with a sprinter’s thighs, Waterson trains rigorously, with hours of morning sparring and conditioning, plus bag work at night. Before having a baby girl four years ago, she fought at 105, winning an atomweight title. Now at 115 pounds, she competes as a UFC strawweight. Indeed, part of the sport’s attraction is its emphasis on superior fitness.

“I actually feel better at 115,” she admits.

“My breakfast weighed 115,” I tell her.

Gothic-infused nomenclature also explains much of UFC’s popularity. There’s the anaconda choke and the crucifix. There’s the rear naked choke, a very common move that, by the terms of my probation, I am unable to even explain.

I ask Waterson which move is usually more lethal: the kick or the cross? She says that depends on the strengths and weaknesses of the fighter. Let me just note that when I dropped my gloves, or spread my elbows too wide, Waterson quickly took advantage of openings, karate kicking the important core muscles that – in my case – are built on Dodger Dogs and broken dreams.

In short, it was a fine way to start a Monday morning. Of course, the sport also involves “grappling” down on the mat, where I thought I might gain an advantage, being broader in the shoulders and benefiting from 30 extra years of anger issues.

Unfortunately, Waterson offset that with advanced understanding of Euclidean leverage.

“Grab around to your own bicep like this,” she says, then flips me like a poker chip.

At which point, my neck cracked sharply – as would a walnut or a phone you dropped on a hard tile floor.

“I heard that,” Waterson says with a smile.

Yeah, kid. So did Beethoven.