At one point during the last 17 months, Michelle Waterson was nearly ready to just move on with her life -- regardless of what that meant for her fighting career.
Waterson, 28, has not fought since she won the Invicta FC atomweight title in April 2013. She will finally seek her first title defense this weekend, against Yasuko Tamada in the main event of Invicta 8 in Kansas City, Mo.
Affectionately known as “Peanut” at Jackson-Winkeljohn MMA in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Waterson (11-3) admits staying positive during this layoff was a challenge. Due to a transitional period, Invicta has staged just two events since Waterson won the belt.
The lack of Invicta events prevented Waterson from defending her title -- while her contract with the promotion blocked her from trying out for a historic season of the UFC’s reality series "The Ultimate Fighter," which debuts next week.
The season will crown the promotion’s first-ever strawweight champion. The roster includes Jessica Penne, whom Waterson submitted to win the Invicta title.
With no fight income in sight and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity passing her by in the UFC, Waterson, who is married and has a 3-year-old daughter, told head coach Greg Jackson she was considering getting pregnant again.
Her fighting career was on apparently on hold, and Waterson had started to wonder whether her life had to be on hold as a result. Jackson encouraged her to be patient.
“Jackson just has a way of saying things so nonchalantly that makes you, like, ‘Yeah, you’re right,’” Waterson said. “I felt I wasn’t getting these opportunities I should be and he looked at me and said, ‘Peanut, if it was easy, everybody would do it.’
“He was right. I was getting too wrapped up about what was going on outside. I had to learn how to be a fighter without having a fight in front of me.”
So that’s what Waterson has done in the last 17 months: learned.
Her submission grappling proved to be a strength in the title fight against Penne, but Waterson says she is sick of always going to the ground on her opponents’ terms. Offensive and defensive wrestling has been a major focus during her time off.
She says she’s also benefitted enormously from simply watching the training camps of her teammates. Absent the pressure of an announced fight, Waterson worked at a comfortable pace and found time to observe others, rather than constantly grind.
She watched UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones prepare for his seventh title defense against Glover Teixeira in April. She was in the gym regularly during Travis Browne’s camp for a heavyweight fight against Fabricio Werdum.
“It’s crazy how much better you can get just by observing,” Waterson said. “I was in the gym when Jon was having camp -- Travis Browne, Holly Holm. Just observing their training habits, I think I learned a lot. Having that time, no obligations and just really learning helped me become a stronger fighter.”
As beneficial as Waterson believes that time has been, she’s glad it’s over. And as it did when she won the title last year, her future looks bright.
Invicta 8 will air on Fight Pass, the UFC’s Internet subscription service. It is the first event of a deal announced earlier this year that made Fight Pass the exclusive provider of Invicta content.
Waterson says she would like to leave her mark on the Invicta 105-pound division and be a much-needed face for the all-female Invicta promotion. And then at some point, she admits, she’d like to fulfill a personal dream of fighting in the UFC.
“I would be lying if I said it wasn’t a dream of mine [to fight in the UFC],” Waterson said. “It’s the show to be in. Hopefully, if everything works out right, that will end up happening without burning any bridges.”