Michelle Wa­ter son is among the bright est stars in our com­mu­nity. The 32- year-old own san im­pres­sive MM A record of 14-6, and she’s re­garded as one of the nice st com­peti­tors in the sport. More in­ter­est­ing to Black Belt read­ers, how­ever, is the path she


Black Belt caught up with Michelle Water­son — whose ca­reer spans karate, muay Thai, wushu, XMA, kenpo and taek­wondo but now fo­cuses on MMA — and came away with this re­veal­ing in­ter­view that’s guar­an­teed to en­ter­tain.

Every­body knows you from your MMA fights, but few know that you started in the tra­di­tional mar­tial arts. Could you tell us about that? I grew up in Col­orado. My dad was in the mil­i­tary, and he met my mom in Ger­many. I wanted to get into gym­nas­tics grow­ing up, but it was too ex­pen­sive for my fam­ily. There was a mar­tial arts class at the com­mu­nity cen­ter in Aurora, Col­orado, and it was af­ford­able enough for me and my brother and sis­ter to go. I was 10 when I started. What art was taught there? It was Amer­i­can freestyle karate. The in­struc­tor had a back­ground in box­ing, taek­wondo and karate, so he mixed them. It sounds like you’ve been mix­ing mar­tial arts since you started. Yeah, but it wasn’t some­thing that we thought about. We just knew we were go­ing to karate class. But when we went to tour­na­ments, we would do taek­wondo forms as well as kata. What was the most im­por­tant thing you learned from that early train­ing? Go­ing through my tween years, I was very un­sure of my­self. Plus, I was a late bloomer and had braces, so I was self-con­scious about the way I looked.

I re­mem­ber com­ing to class one day, and noth­ing was click­ing. Think­ing some­thing was wrong, my in­struc­tor said, “Are you OK?” I broke down and started telling him how I felt like a mis­fit. He made me look in the mir­ror and asked me what I saw. I told him a skinny lit­tle girl with braces who can’t

do any­thing. He said, “That’s not what I see at all. I see a young lady who has the am­bi­tion and courage to do things that not a lot of peo­ple can do.” It changed my world. He gave me the con­fi­dence to be the per­son I am to­day.

You were lucky to have a good teacher. I know. He was very strict and some­times in­tim­i­dat­ing, and it was very hard to see the softer side of him. But train­ing there taught me a lot. I learned about re­spect, loy­alty and honor. The creed for the school was virtue, valor and vig­i­lance. That guided me through my high-school years. In school, there were other things I could have done — I wanted to get into cheer­lead­ing and dance — but be­cause mar­tial arts was such a pas­sion for me, I al­ways kept go­ing back to it.

How many years did you stay at that karate school? I stayed un­til my in­struc­tor and his fam­ily had to move away. He was a cor­rec­tional of­fi­cer and got trans­ferred to a dif­fer­ent state. That hap­pened when I was about 17.

You men­tioned com­pet­ing in forms. Did you also spar? Yes. When we would prac­tice spar­ring, the in­struc­tor would cus­tom­ize things to take ad­van­tage of our strengths. For ex­am­ple, my strength was flex­i­bil­ity. I was al­ways the smaller one, so es­pe­cially in point spar­ring, I would de­pend on my flex­i­bil­ity to get the point first without tak­ing dam­age.

Were you good at point spar­ring? The first time I did it, I got beat up pretty bad. I was like, “OK, I think I’ll start do­ing forms.” But not be­ing good at it both­ered me. I needed to chal­lenge my­self and be­come good at it. So in tour­na­ments, I would do forms and spar. The more I sparred, the more com­fort­able I got with it. We would go to the tour­na­ments ev­ery month and see the same peo­ple, so that helped me with my nerves. I ended up get­ting bet­ter and re­al­iz­ing that I had that fight in­stinct in me. When I’d get punched hard, I wanted to fight back. I wanted to get that per­son. That was a good feel­ing to have.

Many peo­ple dis­cover as­pects of the mar­tial arts they’re not good at and then try to avoid them. You were the op­po­site. You grav­i­tated to­ward spar­ring be­cause you weren’t good at it. What makes you that way? It’s the chal­lenge. When a chal­lenge is harder, it makes the re­ward that much more sat­is­fy­ing. I have to prove to my­self that I can do it.

When you would get hit in a match back then, what went through your mind? I’d feel like I had to even the score. I couldn’t let the other per­son get one over me. I had to go in and get ahead of the per­son.

What was the next phase in your mar­tial arts ed­u­ca­tion? Af­ter my in­struc­tor moved, I wanted to see if I could com­pete on one of the big­ger cir­cuits. I wanted to raise money and com­pete in Ve­gas. I did XMA a lot be­cause it was the thing to do when you’re a teen. We idol­ized the XMA guys and loved to watch them when they per­formed.

What came af­ter XMA? I ven­tured into kenpo. I learned wushu un­der sifu Jerry Silva in Col­orado for a cou­ple of years. I com­peted at Berke­ley a few times with the straight sword and whip chain.

Then while I was in col­lege, I was start­ing to lose my­self. I thought I had to grad­u­ate high school, go to col­lege, get a de­gree, get mar­ried, but it just wasn’t my path. So I needed to find my­self. I went to Thai­land with my mom — that’s where she’s from, a vil­lage four hours east of Bangkok. While we were there, I said, “What the heck? Might as well try muay Thai in the moth­er­land.” So I did.

You tran­si­tioned from karate, taek­wondo, XMA, kenpo and wushu to muay Thai? That couldn’t have been easy. It grabbed me like when I was get­ting beat up spar­ring. I spent two weeks chang­ing the way I threw a round­house kick. I was throw­ing it like a karate kick and not a muay Thai kick.

I know ex­actly what you’re talk­ing about! Be­fore I started at Black Belt, I did taek­wondo for a few years. Then I went to Thai­land to train for four months, and it opened my eyes about how to gen­er­ate power by turn­ing your hips and piv­ot­ing on your foot so you’re not just kick­ing with the leg. Yup. And they would make fun of my kicks at first be­cause I didn’t do them that way. We trained on con­crete, and

“I do. That or who was able to get their op­po­nent out of their rhythm or out of their zone first.”

I got blis­ters, too. But I loved my time in Thai­land.

Do you think muay Thai taught you how to gen­er­ate power with your kicks?

Like you said, it opened my eyes. I thought I had a re­ally good foun­da­tion, thought I was a black belt, but af­ter Thai­land, I felt very el­e­men­tary. I felt I was start­ing all over again. I saw that there was still so much to learn. It pulled me in, and when I came back, I started get­ting into the more com­bat­ive side of mar­tial arts. I met Don­ald Cer­rone out in Col­orado, and he took me un­der his wing. We took a cou­ple of smok­ers, and he has that at­ti­tude where it’s like, “Just go for it.”

Was that kick­box­ing or MMA?

Kick­box­ing — at first. Then, when the op­por­tu­nity pre­sented it­self to get an MMA fight, he was like, “Just do it.” So I just did it.

Tech­nique­wise, were you ready for that first MMA fight?

I’d had prob­a­bly five am­a­teur kick­box­ing smok­ers and no MMA bouts. My pro MMA [de­but] was sup­posed to be am­a­teur, but the girl I was go­ing to fight fell through, and the only girl who was avail­able was a pro. I said OK. I’d prob­a­bly had six weeks of jiu-jitsu train­ing. We had as­sumed the fight was go­ing to be stand­ing, but when we came out, she was throw­ing bombs, try­ing to take my head off. I in­stinc­tively ducked un­der and took her down. I did ground and pound and won by de­ci­sion.

That’s a great way to start a ca­reer.

It was lots of fun. Then I did Fight Girls with Mas­ter Toddy in Ve­gas.

The TV show Fight Girls? I in­ter­viewed Mas­ter Toddy about it, but I didn’t know you were in the se­ries.

It was a long time ago. Felice Her­rig and Gina Carano were also in it. I learned a lot about my­self there be­cause re­al­ity TV isn’t re­al­ity. ( laughs) I learned a lot about my­self men­tally. I learned that I some­times re­vert back to be­ing a sub­mis­sive per­son be­cause I want peo­ple to be happy. But in the fight game, you have to be some­what self­ish if you want to win. Those op­pos­ing things helped me stay bal­anced in a way.

While I was on the show, Don­ald moved out here to Al­bu­querque and told me there were some girls who would give me some good train­ing. I said, “What the heck? I’ll check it out.”

Where were you liv­ing at the time?

I was in Denver, but af­ter the show, I didn’t want to go back to Denver. I wanted to swim with the big fish. I had been think­ing about maybe go­ing out to Cal­i­for­nia, but I fig­ured I’d come here [to Al­bu­querque]. I came for a cou­ple of weeks to check it out and fell in love with the in­struc­tors, with the gym (Jack­son Wink MMA Academy, op­er­ated by Greg Jack­son and Mike Winkeljohn), with the en­vi­ron­ment, and I’ve been here ever since.

How long have you been here?

Ten years.

How are things go­ing in your MMA ca­reer?

Be­cause of my karate back­ground, I’m light on my feet, and peo­ple would just take me down. So I had to learn how to fight off my back. Coach Jack­son re­ally honed my jiu-jitsu, and be­cause of my flex­i­bil­ity, I’m able to snap off sub­mis­sions eas­ily. The ma­jor­ity of my wins in MMA have been by sub­mis­sion.

Did you be­come com­fort­able on the ground quickly, or did it take a while be­cause you were pri­mar­ily a stand-up fighter?

I did be­come com­fort­able on the ground just be­cause that was where every­body kept putting me. ( laughs) If I wanted to win, I had to learn how to fight well there. Oth­er­wise, I would get smashed. Then I got to a point in my ca­reer where every­body was get­ting hip to the jiu-jitsu game and wrestling was tak­ing over, so I had to get bet­ter at wrestling.

Within the past cou­ple of years, I’ve been able to mix my karate into my MMA style. When I started MMA, I was too point-style. There are still things I do now that are habits I de­vel­oped in point spar­ring — I’m still try­ing to break them.

What is your MMA strength?

Do those things have to do with mak­ing con­tact and de­liv­er­ing power?

It’s mostly “Oh, I got you!” and that’s it. I of­ten will tag some­body and be ex­cited that I got them and not re­al­ize they’re still charg­ing for­ward. Or I’ll pull a punch to try to show con­trol, but it ends up biting me in the butt. ( laughs) But karate is re­ally ef­fec­tive if you use it in the right way. It’s been cool to see that I can cir­cle back af­ter so long and feather that into my game.

“My strength is that I take risks. When I see an open­ing or op­por­tu­nity, I’m usu­ally able to cap­i­tal­ize on it. But some­times I take a risk at the wrong time, and it costs me the fight.”

Michelle Water­son and Mike Winkeljohn train­ing at the Jack­son Wink MMA Academy.

Do you think a lot of fights are de­cided ac­cord­ing to who makes the first mis­take be­cause the fight­ers are so close in skill?

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