Artwork by Gian Galang
There's a part in Fight Mom, the documentary released late last year about UFC strawweight Michelle Waterson's dual life as a responsible parent and toiling MMA fighter, where Waterson's eye is swollen shut. It's also salty with tears after rehashing her Invicta FC title loss with her coaches in the dressing room. Then her preschool-aged daughter sits in her lap, stares at her mom's damaged face with a frown like a half moon, and says, "I wanted you to win." Waterson beats back her own emotions. It happens, she says. I'll get better. I promise.
Considering how easily pro athletes and celebrities manicure themselves for public consumption, it's just as easy to be skeptical of the warmness and earnestness Waterson displays elsewhere in the film, during slice-of-life moments where she disinfects tabletops with Lysol wipes and asks her daughter about circle time at school, suffering with a smile while elderly women in an elevator ask her about the crazy fighting stuff that she does, or tearing up while talking about her boxer husband going corporate to feed the family while she pursues dreams of fighting. But the aftermath of defeat is one of the rawest and least malleable occasions in combative sports. There is nothing false or contrived about watching Waterson stiffen up and set aside her own pain to ease her daughter's. If you don't feel something watching this scene, you have a rotting chicken carcass where your soul should be.
So basically, Waterson is an easy fighter to root for: a lifelong martial artist who's deadly on her feet and on the ground, telegenic, polite, an effortless role model whose thickly accented impression of her mom telling her what to wear to a press conference is a work of art. After she choked MMA's It girl Paige Van Zant unconscious last December, she absorbed the star power of her vanquished opponent, signing to the talent agency WME-IMG and getting a cross-media PR push. She's also been at this fighting thing for a while, with a pro career dating to 2007, briefly interrupted by pregnancy and labor, back in gear before she finished breastfeeding. Waterson is a reminder that even if you have the looks for a side career as a model, you can still fight, and you might still have to spend a decade building a résumé before the UFC puts you on Big Fox for untold millions of eyeballs.
That's the stage where Waterson returns this Saturday at UFC on Fox 24 against Rose Namajunas, a buzzcut-and-no-bullshit neck-breaker and another of the most interesting and dangerous fighters at 115 pounds. It's exactly the kind of fight a Fox card was made for. Either fighter has a credible claim to a title shot, either could conceivably beat champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk, and a victory for Waterson—if she can get it—would mark three in a row. Win or lose, the aftermath will be honest.