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‘Darkhorse’ Cortney Casey confident Michelle Waterson fight is ‘going to be an eye-opener for a lot of people’

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UFC 211 photos
Cortney Casey meets Michelle Waterson at UFC on FOX 29.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Cortney Casey may have caught the wrong end of a contentious split decision in her last fight, but if a casual observer didn’t know any better, it’d be easy to think she won.

Instead of losing momentum after her setback against Felice Herrig, Casey landed a featured fight on April 14 in her home state of Arizona against popular strawweight contender Michelle Waterson at UFC on FOX 29. It’s a massive opportunity for “Cast Iron,” a native of the desert who was born in Tuscon and grew up in nearby Mesa. And with an expected viewing audience of millions on FOX, it’s another chance for Casey to launch herself into the top tier of the 115-pound rankings against a highly-ranked foe.

“I think it’s a great matchup for both of us,” Casey told MMA Fighting. “We’re both coming off a loss. I know she has another loss, but her losses are like my losses — we fought tough opponents. We didn’t lose to nobodies, I guess you could say. We’ve both had tough fights and I feel like the fight made sense.

“I’m not really picky. The UFC knows. I feel like I get fights because I don’t turn them down. I’ve never turned down a fight that they’ve offered me. I mean, I’ve never fought anyone that’s been ranked below me, I’ve never fought anyone who’s had a smaller record than me, and I take short-notice fights. So I feel like just by being the fighter that I am, I feel like I get more opportunities to fight because they know they can call me and I’m going to say yes.”

Casey, 30, isn’t kidding about her gameness.

Since signing with the UFC as a still-green 4-1 fighter, “Cast Iron” has found herself matched against a hellacious slate of opposition. Counting Waterson, five of Casey’s eight Octagon opponents are currently ranked within the promotion’s top 15 strawweight rankings. Another one of those opponents — Jessica Aguilar, whom Casey defeated at UFC 211 — was widely regarded as the best 115-pound fighter in the world for years, reigning as World Series of Fighting’s champion before inking a deal with the UFC.

In sum, there’s been no slow build for Casey.

She’s has won some and lost some along the way, but because of her remarkably tough strength of schedule, Casey’s 7-5 MMA record isn’t exactly emblematic of her standing within the division. Yet while some fighters may get frustrated in her shoes, or ask for a chance to build some momentum against a lower class of opposition, Casey isn’t interested in rebound or showcase fights. An old-school fighter in spirit, she wants the hardest possible matchup every time, even if it makes it more difficult to go on a good run.

“I think that’s another reason why I don’t have a manager, is because I don’t want to take those [easy] fights,” Casey said. “I don’t want someone telling me, ‘No, maybe you shouldn’t take this fight.’ I want someone that’s going to be like, ‘Yeah, we’re going to f*cking take this fight regardless.’ I want someone to have confidence in me, but at the same time know that I’m the type of person that, I’d rather lose every single fight in my career but go out there and put on a great show and fight top fighters than win against cupcakes. I don’t want an easy fight. I don’t want a padded record. I want a record that people are like, ‘Damn, she fought the top of the top.’

“Sometimes fighters take that as like, ‘Man, I could’ve have a longer career in the UFC if I would’ve picked my fights.’ And it’s like, yeah — but why live life safe and why fight safe? We’re there to put on a show. Let’s put on a show, whether it’s a No. 1 contender or it’s a cupcake. But I’m not going to ask for no cupcakes.”

Casey’s tough path continues this Saturday when she takes on Waterson at the Gila River Arena in Glendale.

“The Karate Hottie” is only two years older than Casey, but is nonetheless a grizzled veteran of the fight game, someone who has invested far many more years into MMA. She’s also someone who Casey watched closely as she learned the ropes and rose through the ranks.

“I’ve followed her for awhile,” Casey said. “I actually fought her old teammate Emily Kagan in the Jackson’s promotion, and I think it was her first fight back after she had her baby. So I fought on a card with her before, and I’ve always been impressed with her. And she’s a natural atomweight who did well in that division and is now in the strawweight division still doing well, so it’s cool to see the different levels she’s gone through, through Invicta and everything like that. And same for me. We all kinda started at the same time. She always had three, four, five fights ahead of me, but we kinda grew up in that same little era.

“I like Michelle a lot. We hung a little bit at the [UFC Athlete] Retreat, and then obviously in Detroit [at UFC 218] we talked after the fights. She’s sweet. I like her inside and outside the cage, so I’m happy this fight is happening. One of us is not going to come out the greatest, but at the end of the day, I think we’re going to be just fine. It’s just another good fight for us, and win, lose, or draw, I have respect for her and I know she feels the same way.”

A win over Waterson would put Casey at 4-2 over her last six UFC fights, with her only two losses over that stretch coming in her controversial outing against Herrig and a 2016 meeting against longtime title contender Claudia Gadelha, the latter of which saw Casey injured in an auto accident in the lead-up to the fight. A win on Saturday would also set Casey up for a potential second chance against a top-five foe.

So after making a recent move back to Arizona to train full-time at The MMA Lab, Casey is confident 2018 could be a breakthrough year for her career.

“I feel like I am [starting to come into my own],” Casey said. “I feel like this move to The Lab has really kind of opened my mind and also my game a lot, so I feel like I’m only getting better. I kinda compare myself a little bit to Michael Bisping. Like, he grew up in the UFC. Most of his fights have been under the UFC banner, and same with me. So I feel like my record might not be the best, but I’m also fighting the best of the best.

“Not a lot of people can say their fifth fight in the UFC was against the No. 1 contender. I fought Claudia Gadelha in her hometown — no problem, yeah, I’ll take it. So I feel like once people kinda realize I’m down to fight and I’m going to put on a show, and they realize, ‘Oh man, she could be fighting these cupcakes, but she’s not’ — and I’m doing good. In each fight I feel like I’m getting better, and I feel like with this fight it’s really going to be an eye-opener for a lot of people. But I don’t mind being the darkhorse.”