On the second floor of a building in Brooklyn, up a steep flight of stairs, Michelle "The Karate Hottie" Waterson demonstrates a kick combination to a room full of media members. The audience eagerly points its cellphones and cameras her way, the lenses following each of her movements. She's careful to not kick her husband, Joshua Gomez, and helper in this situation, too hard in his thigh.
It's early February, and she's hosting an open workout ahead of UFC 208 at the UFC Gym in Brooklyn. Waterson, 31, stands at 5-foot-3 and fights in the strawweight division (115 pounds), but her personality outsizes her small frame. She tells stories of her background in martial arts and cracks jokes as she explains the techniques and thought behind the placement of her foot, poking fun at Gomez and herself in the process.
Waterson has been engulfed in a whirlwind of travel, meetings and engagements since she defeated Paige VanZant via first-round submission at UFC Fight Night in December. Getting that win was a big opportunity for Waterson, both to prove her mettle and to boost her own marketability -- though neither of those things particularly daunted her.
"I spar with these suckers that knock the s--- out of me," she says of her teammates at her training gym, Jackson Wink MMA Academy in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and of why she wasn't afraid of VanZant.
Waterson is now slated to fight Rose "Thug" Namajunas (5-3) in Kansas City, Missouri, on April 15, headlining another UFC Fight Night event. Namajunas hasn't fought since her split-decision defeat to Karolina Kowalkiewicz in July 2016, and she and Waterson are ranked No. 5 and No. 8, respectively, by ESPN.com in the strawweight division.
Winning is arguably the most important component to sustaining a brand and energy within the UFC, so Waterson stands to lose plenty should she not pull off another. Not that she's worried.
"I've been preparing for [Namajunas] for eight weeks," she says. "I'm pretty aware of what she's going to bring to the table."
It's no secret that the UFC is hurting for stars in its women's divisions. With Ronda Rousey down (and possibly out), Holly Holm on a three-fight losing streak, Meisha Tate retired and VanZant without a scheduled fight, there's an undeniable hole. The reigning champions Amanda Nunes (bantamweight) and Joanna Jedrzejczyk (strawweight) don't carry the name recognition to make up the difference.
Enter, Waterson. She fills the room with a personality that begs onlookers to pay attention. She makes routine demonstrations fun and interesting. She's approachable, playful and, as an added bonus, she's biracial, breaking the model of the blonde female UFC star. Since defeating VanZant, Waterson signed with WME-IMG (who also owns the UFC) in February and met Snoop Dogg. She's already talking about movies, her brand and building an empire.
She's also seemingly the only option in a promotion that doesn't have momentum building behind its Brazilian and Polish fighters.
As for her nickname, that predates her career as a professional fighter. "The Karate Hottie" was born while Waterson did some modeling and calendar shoots while in college (she also worked at Hooters). Once she turned pro, a promoter asked her if she had a nickname. Though she answered "no," Google betrayed her, and "The Karate Hottie" stuck.
"She has a phenomenal look, a great smile, all the things that you're looking for," says Brad Slater, her agent and a partner at WME who also represents Rousey. "She is wildly intelligent and charismatic, so the sky is the limit. We've represented her for an extremely short time, and producers and directors she's met with have been really blown away by her. I think she's going to have a lot of opportunities."
To win her upcoming fight, Waterson has to excel at everything -- striking, wrestling and jiu-jitsu, says Mike Winkeljohn, co-owner of Jackson Wink. Namajunas is athletic and quick, and five of her six wins have come via submission; she's great on the ground, but Winkeljohn says he expects the fight will be a mix of styles.
Waterson is working to improve her ground game and is intimately familiar with boxing, spending many hours in the ring herself, training with her husband. Gomez, once a professional boxer, gave up his own fighting career to take a job as a financial adviser and support Waterson's goals. "Michelle is a hundred times better fighter than I ever was," Gomez told MMAjunkie.com in 2014.
"It's a scary fight," Winkeljohn says. "[Waterson] is highly marketable. I think [Namajunas] is marketable as well, but it's to the point where they have to fight each other to get to the title. Unlike boxing, where you can take the fights that build your career, the UFC just throws two people in, with the best woman coming out on top. It's a zero-sum game."
Waterson began training karate at age 10 and has a black belt in the discipline. She has also trained in boxing, Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, wrestling, wushu and Muay Thai. Her first bout was in 2007, and she has been professional ever since. In 2013 and 2014, she held the Invicta FC Atomweight (105 pounds) belt. Now, she's 14-4 and has her eye on the UFC strawweight belt. She's giving herself five years from now. Maximum.
Her camps are intense. Including sparring, wrestling, jiu-jitsu, strength and conditioning, and sprint runs, she averages three to four workouts per day. It's difficult to expect anything different when she trains at the same gym as Holly Holm, whose work ethic is unparalleled.
"I'm not depleting myself," Waterson says. "I'm not over training. I'm trying to train smart."
Waterson is all about being smart. Her body has changed over the course of her career, largely due to giving birth to her daughter, Araya, in 2011. Her pregnancy came right in the middle of her career, and Waterson doesn't hold back about how challenging that experience was for her.
"When I was pregnant, I was depressed," she says. "At the beginning, being pregnant devastated me. When some women get pregnant, they can continue to work. I couldn't. I couldn't spar when I was pregnant. I was watching everyone get better and I felt like I was falling behind."
She loves her daughter and regrets nothing, but Waterson was concerned about whether she would return the same fighter. She wondered how her body would be different. During her pregnancy, she had gestational diabetes; soon after giving birth, she realized she had hyperthyroidism, which affected her metabolism, and needed to start daily medication. Her hips widened (not that she's complaining) and she holds on to weight easier than she used to, though some of that certainly comes with age.
With her body shifting, and aging she cannot reverse, Waterson focuses intently on how she eats and trains. When cutting weight, she still eats five or six smaller meals a day. No Big Macs, though she still enjoys some treats.
"I'm still eating steak and bacon," she says. "I just have to make sure I'm staying fueled between workouts, which is the hardest part."
Her eyes trained on Namajunas, Waterson is also thinking about her own future. She recently worked on a short film, and is familiar with the camera. Albuquerque is a place with plenty of film opportunities, and Waterson has worked behind the scenes as a stunt performer on a handful of movies, including "The Lone Ranger," starring Johnny Depp. (She waved at him on set once, and he waved back. She says it's one of her favorite celebrity moments.)
Even with the possibility of movies, and maybe stardom, out on the horizon, Waterson's dreams never stray too far from fighting. She harbors a desire to open an MMA academy and teach martial arts. She fell in love with martial arts because of her teachers, so she wants to inspire others in a similar way. She wants to get a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and continue to hone her own craft.
It takes nothing to get her to ramble off everything she hopes to accomplish, but ask about her next fight and the first thing she will mention is the need to stay present. But Waterson is a dreamer -- a quality she tries to hold onto as she balances her career with family.
"I think it's important to go after your dreams, and know that it's OK to do both," she says. She pauses, and flashes a knowing smile. "It's just a little harder."