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Michelle Waterson believes Paige VanZant is 'very green' as a fighter

Esther Lin photo

You're not going to get Michelle Waterson to express any contempt for the success Paige VanZant has managed to achieve at a young age.

The 22-year-old VanZant has become a bigger star than all but a handful of fighters on the UFC roster despite the fact she's not quite yet a championship contender, with her recent strong showing on the hit prime-time network television show "Dancing with the Stars" only serving to make her ever more famous.

"I think it's great," Waterson said on Monday's edition of The MMA Hour. "I think, I sent her out a tweet when she was on ‘Dancing with the Stars,' they say ‘don't hate the player, hate the game.' I can't hate on that, she's a beautiful person, she's a great dancer,"

But if you ask "The Karate Hottie" her assessment of her fellow strawweight's fighting skills, well, that's a different story. Waterson, the former Invicta atomweight champion, will meet VanZant in the main event of UFC on FOX 22 in Sacramento.

And on that count, Waterson doesn't believe VanZant can fight like she can dance.

"As far as her fighting skill, I wouldn't go so far as to say she's amazing," Waterson said. "She is where she is because of her hunger."

"I feel like she's very green in whole aspect of fighting," Waterson added. "And that's not necessarily a bad thing. ... In all of her fights, it's just like dancing. If you are dancing with someone who doesn't know what they're doing, they throw you off. They throw your rhythm off and that's what Paige is doing in her fights. Her style is very erratic and unpredictable, and it's been throwing people off, people who have a fight with her."

Of course, Waterson can only spend so much time worrying about her opponent. By the time she steps into the cage with PVZ, Waterson will have only fought once in two full years -- a first-round submission over Angela Magana in July, 2015.

Apart from that, she's been beset with injuries, so she's more focused on simply getting to fight night in full health than she is on what her opponent might be able to do.

"It's been a long time since I fought and I've just kind of been, injury after injury and just trying to stay positive through the whole thing," Waterson said. I guess they say it really is true what they say, patience is a virtue and I was just trying to stay patient through it all and I got the news we were going to headline and I was just really excited."

Waterson was first supposed to meet Tecia Torres at UFC 194, but had to pull out due to a knee injury. She was then scheduled to meet Aisling Daly in Hamburg, Germany, in September, but a broken right hand two weeks before the fight put a stop to that.

The latter injury, the fourth time the Jackson's MMA fighter has broken the hand in her carer, could only leave Waterson shaking her head in disbelief.

"I feel like at that point it was almost comical, it was so close, I was two weeks away, I did all my medicals, the light was at the end of the tunnel. Our flights were booked, me and my husband were planning on staying in Germany and taking a road trip down to France, everything was mapped out and planned."

Until a fateful moment in sparring, that is.

"I was sparring and hit the girl on top of the head and I felt down a tingle go down my arm and I was like okay, that's just from punching her in the head," Waterson said. "And i kept up and didn't feel any better and when the round was over I took my glove off and saw this huge lump in my hand and I got a huge lump in my throat and I was trying to be positive still I guess, and showed it to Coach [Mike Winkeljohn] and said this doesn't thing doesn't look good, and he looked at it and said yup, it's broke. I was just more crushed that I was so close to fighting and it was just all taken away."

Waterson certainly didn't find it easy navigating the waters over the past year, as she's married with a child and feels a responsibility to live up to her family obligations. But she also doesn't see any point in crying over spilled milk at this point.

"Looking back at it, I probably should have just gotten [hand] surgery to begin with, but there's no point in trying to be mad or upset about the past," Waterson said. "It's true, but at the same time it's been a tough year because while I'm here still training to perform as an MMA fight, I still have to pay my bills, my husband is working very hard, working overtime to ensure that my daughter can go to the school that she goes to and I can continue to train and not have to worry about paying the bills."

With that behind her, it's time to focus again on fighting. Waterson, who has seven wins in her past eight fights, knows that she's going to not only be fighting VanZant in her hometown of Sacramento, but also on the same night PVZ's mentor, Urijah Faber, has his final career fight.

Waterson, though, isn't going to sweat the fact she'll be the visiting team, so to speak, on that day.

"At the end of the day it's a fight," Waterson said. "At the end of the day, I don't think anyone's my enemy. it's just what you train. I think I'm going to get some love from Sacramento."