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?
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?