Michelle Waterson was a 19-year-old Hooters waitress when she first started fighting. That's when she was given her "Karate Hottie" nickname.
Nine years later, Waterson is the 28-year-old mother of a 3-year-old daughter and doesn't necessarily still relate to the moniker. But she has long since embraced it as part of her brand.
"The name is still there, because it stuck," Waterson told MMA Fighting. "But I'm a different person now."
A person who happens to be the budding face of an entire organization. Waterson will headline her second Invicta FC event in three months Friday when she defends her women's atomweight title against Herica Tiburcio at Invicta FC 10 in Houston. The card will air live at 9 p.m. ET on UFC Fight Pass.
Waterson (12-3) headlined the first Fight Pass event, against Yasuko Tamada back in September. UFC commercials for the bout included the line: "Have a date with the Karate Hottie.'" The marketing slant drew criticism for its focus on looks. But Waterson said she wasn't offended by the way she was advertised.
"No," Waterson said. "It is what it is. If it makes me uncomfortable, I don't think I should be having the nickname 'The Karate Hottie.' I have no problem being the face of that. That's what people want to see. They want to see attractive women go in there and show that their skills match their looks. If I can accomplish both, I'm happy."
Waterson did not expect to be competing at this event. The main event was supposed to feature Cris "Cyborg" Justino's debut at 135 pounds. But Justino injured her ankle and Waterson was asked to fill in on somewhat short notice. The Jackson-Winkeljohn MMA fighter has become a safety net for the organization and perhaps the face of it after most top fighters in the 135- and 115-pound divisions have moved on to the UFC.
That's a role Waterson is very happy to embrace. She does admit there is some pressure that comes with it, however.
"First of all, there's just pressure as a fighter," Waterson said. "In the cage, putting your heart on the line, add in having that belt, add in having people saying you're the face of the organization. Oh, there's pressure. But it's good pressure."
In Tiburcio (8-2), she'll face a top 22-year-old prospect who has won three straight bouts. The Brazilian is known for her ground game -- six of her eight career victories have come by submission.
Waterson's biggest strength is her athletic, technical striking style. But she's also quick to point out that she's pretty darn good on the mat, too. Jessica Penne was supposed to have the advantage over her in that department in April 2013, but Waterson submitted her by armbar to win the Invicta women's atomweight title.
Penne is now competing on the UFC's Ultimate Fighter reality program in the 115-pound division. Waterson has fought at that weight class before and would not rule out a move up sometime in the future.
Right now, though, she has a growing organization to help elevate. And if you're not a big fan of her "Karate Hottie" nickname, she has a message for you.
"I think it's catchy," Waterson said. "I think it fits me. If you don't know by now how serious I am as a fighter, then watch me this weekend."
Spoken like a true face of a promotion.