Invicta's Michelle Waterson rediscovered martial arts in Thailand
Invicta FC, the all-female mixed martial arts promotion launched last April, will celebrate its anniversary with an April 5 fight card stacked with some of the best female fight matchups hosted anywhere, at any one time. The atomweight (105 pounds) title fight between Invicta's inaugural champ, Jessica Penne (10-1), and challenger Michelle Waterson (10-3) anchors a maincard that also stars the likes of Cris "Cyborg" Santos, Vanessa Porto and Sarah Kaufmann.
SI.com caught up with Waterson, who trains at Jackson/Winkeljohn's MMA in Albuquerque, to talk about Penne, the rise of women's MMA, and the burdens of being the sport's "Karate Hottie."
SI: You'll be the first to challenge Jessica Penne for her Invicta crown. What can you tell me about Penne?
MW: She is ranked the No. 1 fighter in this division so it's going to be a great challenge for me to take her on. She uses her length really well, she's just so long and she has good jujitsu. I know that I'm stronger than her. And mentally, I think I can push it past a certain level, [to a place] I don't think she has gone before. I think I have a stronger mental ability. She has one loss on her record. I have three. Even though it looks like she has a better record than I do, I have those experiences of getting those losses. I know the different ways that I have lost. I think that's beneficial to me because I know how I got in those situations in the past and I know how to avoid those situations.
SI: What were you doing before you decided to become a fighter?
MW: I was in Denver going to school at [Denver University as a theater and sports science major]. I had graduated from high school and I was going to college but I was really depressed. All of my life, since I was 10, I had been doing martial arts and then I just didn't have time to it because I was going to school fulltime and working as a waitress at Hooters. I was just really depressed. I didn't have time for nothing. I ended up going to Thailand for a little while with my mother to visit family out there [when I was 19]. Because martial arts was such a big part of my life, I wanted to do some muay Thai while I was out there and I ended up really falling in love with the physicality of it all. When I came back, I made it a point to make sure it was something I was going to get into. Once I took that path and started taking some fights, I ended up really falling in love with it and wanting to take that career path. I ended up getting out of school and fighting professionally.
SI: You're only 27 but still a veteran of female fighting. What's it been like to see Invicta launch and the UFC introduce a women's division all in the last year?
MW: Things always seem to fall in place weirdly that way. When I first started fighting, everyone kept asking me, 'Where do you see yourself in five years?' I told everybody, 'I'd like to fight on TV and I'd like to fight for a belt.' So here I am, five years later, basically doing those two things. It's great to see there's a push behind women's MMA because everyone who's involved in women's MMA is very passionate about it. I don't think the females do it for the money. Just like in any sport, the males get paid way more. We do it because we love it and we're passionate about it. It's good to see that people are coming around and starting to be a little more open to it.
SI: The marketing of female athletes is always tricky, especially when it comes to appearance. With your background as a model and nickname as the "Karate Hottie," how do you want to be marketed as an athlete?
MW: People are going to see me however they want to see me. Obviously, sex sells and whatnot. Part of that, as far as my image, was me. When I was first getting into it, I was working at Hooters and I was doing bikini competitions, photo shoots for calendars, and this and that. But it's not necessarily who I am now. If people want to view me as that and label me as that, that's perfectly fine. Because if that's going to get me in the door so people can actually see how skilled I am as an athlete, that's fine. I'll play the game. To me, people are going to judge you no matter what, no matter how you put yourself out there. In my opinion, they can judge however they want to. Hopefully, it's in a positive light.
SI: You took a brief hiatus from fighting to give birth to your daughter, Araya, who just turned two. How has motherhood changed you as a fighter?
MW: Once I had my daughter, it heightened my sense of reality ... It makes you really question, is this something I should be doing with my life and for my daughter? Will my daughter look up to me because of it? It's made me more passionate about [fighting] and it's made me more driven because I want to show my daughter that you can go after your dreams and still be a good mother. Anything is possible. If I can show that to her, and just set an example with what I'm doing with my life, that would be the best teacher to her.
SI: Invicta 5 is stacked with interesting bouts. As a fan of women's MMA, which fight most intrigues you on the Invicta 5 card, aside from your own?
MW: To be honest with you, I would love to be able to fight first and then watch the rest of the girls.