A dozen years into her MMA career, Michelle Waterson is still finding first-time experiences.
Joanna Jedrzejczyk wasn’t the first former UFC strawweight champion Waterson fought. But when the two went the distance at UFC Tampa this past October it was the first time Waterson had gone the full five rounds in a pro bout. Considering Jedrzejczyk is widely regarded as the best-ever to compete at 115 pounds, there were plenty of positive takeaways for Waterson, even though she wound up on the wrong end of a unanimous decision.
“It was great,” Waterson told MMA Fighting. “I think it was a huge eye-opener for me to just let me know, ‘Hey Michelle, this is where you belong. You’ve been fighting professionally for 12 years, you’ve been doing martial arts for over 20 years. You belong here.’ And after that fight, I think that really sunk in for me.”
UFC Tampa wasn’t the first time Waterson was scheduled for a five-round fight. “The Karate Hottie” headlined a UFC on FOX show against Paige VanZant in December 2016 and competed in a trio of title bouts during her time as Invicta FC atomweight champion. All four of those bouts ended before the final bell.
Going a full 25 minutes, especially against an opponent of Jedrzejczyk’s caliber, was invaluable to Waterson. Her only regret is that they couldn’t compete for longer.
“There’s nothing that you can replace with those five, five-minute rounds with an elite athlete like Joanna,” Waterson said. “I step away from that with tons of confidence, because I could have gone five more and I put my heart and my soul into that camp.
“I wish it would have been able to go five more, because my heart will never break, and I know that if we could just keep going until one person would give up, I guarantee it wouldn’t be me.”
Waterson is for now fine with five-round championship and UFC main event bouts, though she is interested in seeing the promotion try open scoring, especially after hearing how it was implemented at a recent Invicta show.
When Waterson steps into the octagon with Esparza next Saturday, it will be the third opponent she’s faced who has held the UFC strawweight championship at some point (she was Rose Namajunas’s last opponent before Namajuanas became champion, so only Jessica Andrade is missing from Waterson’s list). Having faced a high level of competition since her Invicta debut in 2012, Waterson takes pride in the fact that her mission has been the same since day one.
“What it says is I’m consistently always striving to get to the top,” she said. “That is my goal. Every time I take a fight it’s what is going to get me closer to the belt? I want to fight the top-of-the-top girls, and I think that’s what it says about my career. … For me, it’s just kind of like a personal achievement that I’ve been able to be in this sport as long as I am and that I’m still climbing the ladder and that I’m still learning and growing and evolving.”