There’s no way to know for sure what the UFC would have done this weekend if Michelle Waterson wasn’t available.
Saturday’s card, which was without an official headliner as recently as early Monday, features a number of notable UFC veterans including longtime fan favorite Donald Cerrone, welterweight contenders Neil Magny and Geoff Neal, and the always game Angela Hill. But officials appeared intent to place have Waterson be one half of the main event and it was unclear if they had a Plan B.
Fortunately for everyone involved, all the contracts and paperwork were sorted, setting the stage for Waterson and Marina Rodriguez—a pair of strawweight contenders—to take a short-notice bout at 125 pounds and make Dana White’s life a lot easier.
But why was Waterson so integral to the UFC’s plans?
“It’s great,” Waterson said. “The last time around, I think what kind of sealed the nail in the coffin is that last time Angela and I—the main event fell through—and they gave us a week to step up to the plate and go five rounds and we did. We ended up going five rounds of war and putting on a great show, closing the show, winning Fight of the Night.
“I think they have faith in me that I’m able to do that. That I’m strong enough mentally to show up, to make the weight, to do the rounds with the media, and to also show up physically and actually put on a good performance.”
Indeed, based on how Waterson has done the usual media rounds this week, you’d hardly be able to tell that her bout with Rodriguez and UFC Vegas 26 itself were ever in jeopardy. It shouldn’t be surprising that Waterson was the one they called to salvage an event ravaged by the loss of it’s original headliner, T.J. Dillashaw vs. Cory Sandhagen, and Cerrone’s original opponent Diego Sanchez.
In her recent outing against Hill, the two strawweight contenders were asked to move into the headlining spot of a UFC Fight Night in September and go an extra two rounds on short notice. She’s once again doing the company a favor by taking on Rodriguez, but at least she has the benefit of fighting at the 125-pound limit for the first time in her MMA career.
And she is relishing it.
“No stress at all,” Waterson said when asked if she still had to deal with any weight cut challenges. “I’m still able to hydrate with my BODYARMOR, keeping my electrolytes nice and strong, and it’s crazy, my coaches are having to pull me back because I have energy to go and I’m eating and it’s all good. I’m excited to see how I perform not having to deplete myself.”
Asked if she’d ever request her own signature energy drink flavor, Waterson said it would have to be “something spicy,” which seems like an odd fit for a thirst-quenching beverage.
One can’t blame Waterson for her enthusiasm though as she finds herself now facing the woman who replaced her when she withdrew from January’s UFC 257 card. Rodriguez stepped in for Waterson and went on to defeat Amanda Ribas by second-round TKO. Waterson is looking forward to reclaiming her spot in the rankings.
“It was her opportunity to take,” Waterson said. “I wasn’t envious or anything at that point, it was actually a great matchup for those two ladies to go at it. I think that Rodriguez was the silent horse for a long time, just knocking down her wins and nobody was paying much mind to her and she kind of came out of nowhere. I was paying attention to her, I did see it coming up on the rise, I do pay attention to other girls.
“I knew it was gonna be a hard fight for Ribas. Ribas was doing really good in the first round, and that’s just what happens when you go against a heavy puncher, all it takes is one punch and Rodriguez was able to capitalize on that moment and good on her and here we are.”
In her 14th year as a pro, Waterson can’t say how close she is to that elusive UFC title shot, even with the top of the strawweight division experiencing a shakeup with Rose Namajunas winning back the championship from Zhang Weili. If Namajunas and Zhang rematch, it will keep everyone on hold; if the division keeps moving, Waterson could be one or two big wins away from getting her shot.
Waterson admitted that she’s in the process of planning out how she wants to end her career and even if she never gets to fight for a UFC belt, she’s still proud to tout herself as a “Mom Champ.”
“I never in a million years imagined even fighting for the UFC when I first started fighting,” Waterson said. “It was very taboo to even talk about women fighting. Dana was totally against it, ‘women would never be in the UFC,’ and now he’s all about it because he sees that we are technical, that we are actual fighters, that we can put on a show, we can hit submissions, we can do knockouts, we can go five rounds, we can bring a crowd, we can do all of that. Main eventing for four fights, being able to fight the best of the best, being able to challenge myself, being able to represent mothers all around the world who are getting after it and going after their dreams, it’s been an incredible ride and I guess this is where my perspective has shifted.
“You know, I am Mom Champ. A belt is just a belt. Obviously, it would be amazing to get that put around my waist, but to be able to face my fears, go after my dreams, and still be there for my daughter and allow her to flourish and for her to go after her dreams, that is in essence what Mom Champ is. Being a boss in both arenas.”