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UFC 218: Michelle Waterson ready to steal the show

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist
Rose Namajunas, left, takes down Michelle Waterson during their fight in April. (Getty)

Michelle Waterson for years has been one of the elite women’s mixed martial arts fighters, but despite her many successes, she didn’t have the profile that UFC fighters such as Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate or, for that matter, Paige VanZant had.

And so when Waterson systematically broke down VanZant on Dec. 17, 2016, and submitted her in the first round of their bout, Waterson became yet another of those overnight sensations who was a lifetime in the making.

This is a lifelong martial artist who once served as a ring girl in hopes of getting a shot to compete.

Beating VanZant, who became famous for her appearance on “Dancing with the Stars,” served notice that Waterson would be a player on the big stage.

A fight on Fox against Rose Namajunas in April was her opportunity to take the next step. Both women held convincing wins over VanZant and the bout carried with it a promise of a title shot against champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk.

But Namajunas won by second-round rear naked choke. And while Waterson wound up on the cover of ESPN the Magazine’s annual body issue a few months later, it’s kind of left a mixed feeling in her mind about the type of year 2017 has been.

She’s gotten a ton of notoriety because of her inclusion in the body issue, and she’ll face Tecia Torres on the main card of UFC 218 on Saturday at the Little Caesars Arena in Detroit in a bout that has a chance to steal the show on one of the most stacked cards of the year.

But there was that loss to Namajunas, and watching Namajunas take apart Jedrzejczyk to win the flyweight title left her thinking of what might have been.

She insists, though, that she didn’t dwell on the loss to Namajunas and saw Namajunas’ win in a positive manner.

“We watched the fight as a team and the most important takeaway we had after seeing it was that we are right there,” Waterson said. “We’re right there in the mix and I know I can make a run for it and be successful.”

Professional athletes don’t, by and large, think the same way the rest of us do. They have an ability to let go of failures almost as if they never happen and don’t dwell on them.

For a mixed martial arts fighter, that ability is critical. There is such a fine line between winning and losing, and there are so many ways to lose that letting go of a defeat is paramount.

Waterson says she’s at peace with the outcome of her bout with Namajunas, even though Namajunas went on in her next bout to win the title.

Waterson is focused on what figures to be a slugfest with Torres and only talks about the Namajunas fight when she’s asked about it.

“Of course I think I could have done better that night,” she said. “There are always those coulda, woulda, shouldas that are there. You ask yourself, ‘What if I did this?’ or ‘What if I’d done that?’ But you can’t allow yourself to be consumed by it. The biggest thing was hesitation on my part.

“I jumped up and was fighting a higher level of fighter. What I learned is at that level of competition, it’s not necessarily who’s the better fighter but more so which of you makes the fewer mistakes.”

So in a strange way, things have turned out for the best for her. She was originally scheduled to face Torres at UFC 194 in 2015, but pulled out with a knee injury.

Two years later and a lot smarter, Waterson is eager to throw down with Torres on Saturday.

“A lot has happened since we were first supposed to fight,” Waterson said. “I’m a lot more of a mature fighter now than I was then. I’m excited we’re finally going to meet. I do believe everything happens for a reason and now is the right time for me to fight Tecia.

“With the things I’ve learned in the last two years, I feel I have what it takes to beat her. I’ve learned about myself and I’ve learned about the sport and I feel this fight is coming at the perfect time for me.”