At age 31, as a wife and the mother of a 6-year-old girl, Albuquerque MMA fighter Michelle Waterson still embraces the nickname “Karate Hottie.”
“I think it’s cool,” Waterson said Monday at a media luncheon in Los Angeles, five days before her fight Saturday in Kansas City, Mo., against Rose Namajunas on UFC on Fox 24. “It’s catchy, it’s easy to remember, and it rhymes.”
It’s also accurate, and not just because Waterson is a former model who could pass for 21.
She’s blazing hot in the other sense of the word — popular, bankable, in demand.
During the buildup to Saturday’s fight, Waterson has been everywhere. Her media presence has far surpassed that of Namajunas, who sports a buzz cut and whose nickname is “Thug.” (To be fair, in the relatively few interviews she has done, Namajunas is not at all thuggish).
One gets the feeling, in fact, that if Waterson should lose, no one outside of Waterson’s family, friends and Jackson-Wink teammates would be more disappointed than the UFC.
Since Waterson beat Paige VanZant last December, the UFC has marketed her aggressively. When Jackson-Wink teammate Holly Holm fought on UFC 208 in Brooklyn, N.Y., in February, Waterson was there — conducting an open workout and giving interviews — even though she had no fight scheduled at the time.
It’s not just the UFC.
Waterson; her husband, Joshua Gomez; and their daughter, Araya, recently were the subject of “Fight Mom,” a documentary film.
After her convincing (first-round rear naked choke) victory over VanZant in a glamour matchup with the former “Dancing With the Stars” contestant, Waterson was signed by agent Brad Slater of the firm WME. Slater represents, or has represented, Ronda Rousey, Dwayne Johnson, Michael Strahan, Kevin Costner, Jon Jones, Ben Affleck and Brian Urlacher.
“(Signing with Slater) was a dream come true,” Waterson said. “… Right now, we’re just getting the momentum going, trying to spin the wheel.”
The spin she’s in, though, would slow considerably if she loses to Namajunas on Saturday.
“All that (publicity) is on the back burner, burning up while I’m gearing up toward this fight,” she said. “They (WME) know my priority is fighting, and I have to beat Rose …
“Let me rephrase that. I don’t have to beat Rose; I want to beat Rose. I want to show the world what I’ve been doing. I want to show everybody that I’m a well-rounded MMA fighter.”
No one, nickname aside, should question Waterson’s toughness and skills.
Toughness Exhibit A was her April 2013 victory over Jessica Penne on an Invicta FC card. On the receiving end of countless Penne fists and elbows, somehow escaping a third-round arm bar, Waterson applied an arm bar of her own in the fourth for the victory.
“What a war,” coach Greg Jackson said afterward. “(Waterson) really showed what New Mexico is all about.”
Skills Exhibit A was her almost methodical disposal of VanZant — clinch to takedown to submission in a fight that lasted just 3 minutes, 21 seconds.
In Namajunas (5-3), Waterson (14-4) is facing a casual friend. They’ve trained together in Albuquerque and in Namajunas’ hometown of Denver.
“Out of all the girls on the UFC (strawweight) roster, she’s probably one of my favorites,” Waterson said. “Unfortunately, I have to fight her if I want to climb the ranks. It’s just the nature of the game.”
Namajunas, less experienced than Waterson and perhaps less technical, is a junkyard dog — hence the nickname — who put a fierce beating on VanZant before submitting her (rear naked choke) in the fifth round when they met in December 2014.
“(Waterson) has never fought anybody like me,” Namajunas said during a UFC video.
But Waterson sees Namajunas as a maturing fighter with solid all-around skills.
“Preparing for her, you have to be ready for everything,” Waterson said. “… I’ve got to make sure every tool in my shed is sharpened.”
If Waterson gets the desired result Saturday, the Karate Hottie will get that much hotter.