This is an online exclusive story from ESPN The Magazine's Body Issue 2017. Subscribe today!
Michelle Waterson has been an MMA fighter for more than a decade, but she says her life -- and her career -- has never changed more drastically than when she gave birth to her daughter six years ago. For ESPN's annual Body Issue, the 31-year-old Waterson (aka the Karate Hottie) opened up to reporter Morty Ain about being an MMA mom, stretch marks and what she wants fighting to teach her daughter.
MMA is not for someone who wants to keep cute. Your body changes. You lose body fat, and that means you lose breast tissue. Your shoulders get broad, and you get scraped from the gloves. I do it because I love to do it. I could definitely be doing something else if I just wanted to look hot.
I like my Karate Hottie nickname. I think it's catchy. I don't mind saying that I'm hot. If you want to underestimate your opponent [because of her nickname], for sure, go ahead.
I was 10 when I started martial arts. It was a heavy influence on me going into adulthood. It's really given me a voice. It gave me the confidence I needed to go into the world without shying away. As a kid, I was outgoing, but I also never wanted to make anybody mad. I never spoke out. But martial arts allowed me to stand up for myself when I felt like something wasn't right or when I felt like I was being taken advantage of.
I absolutely fell in love with Muay Thai in college. We took a trip to Thailand to see family, and that's when I started exploring it. When I came back, I was going to college and working at Hooters full time. I got the opportunity to be a ring girl, and it was something fun to do and make some extra cash. I remember watching these MMA fights and saying, "Hey, I think I'd rather be inside the Octagon than out." One of the fighters -- he's a really big name now in UFC, Donald Cerrone -- overheard me and came to my work because they needed another girl for a fight. He left a note for me that said, "If you're serious about training, get your butt in the gym." I haven't looked back since.
It was a shock when I first found out I was pregnant. A million thoughts were going through my head all at once. "What about my fight career?" Being pregnant for me was probably one of the hardest parts of my career, just because I had so many unknowns.
There is nothing that compares to the pain of childbirth. On a scale of 1-10, any pain I've taken in the ring would rank a 6, and childbirth is a 10. Now I know that if I can get through 12 hours of labor, then I can get through a 25-minute fight.
I have a warrior instinct that was birthed with my child. I was like, "OK, you're fighting for a reason now." I was hungrier and more motivated because I had somebody to take care of. I would start visualizing the fight as me being Mama Bear and someone was trying to take my cub.
Being a mother, you have to be completely selfless, and being a fighter you have to be selfish. So when I'm training, I'm 100 percent focused on training, and when I'm at home and being a mom, I have to be 100 percent focused on being a mom, switching from that fierce primal warrior instinct to being maternal and loving and caring and understanding and open to her.
For a long time, I was embarrassed about my stretch marks. Now I embrace them, because for me it was like this nest that I created to grow this little human in my body, and I'm proud of that. They are like my battle wounds.
I've finally come to a place in my heart and my soul that has embraced my body and the things that it does for me -- and the way that it makes me feel. I'm really at peace with who I am. That peace came after I had my daughter. I really gained an appreciation for the work that I put in to get my body where it needed to be.
Fighting for me has nothing to do with bludgeoning my opponent or making them bleed. To me, fighting is finding myself, battling with myself and becoming more whole with myself.
I was raised Buddhist. The meditation part of Buddhism teaches you how to be in the present moment and block everything else out. In fighting, it's important to do that, because the minute you start thinking about what happened two seconds ago, or what might happen a minute from now, that's when you pull yourself out of the moment. That's when it's dangerous, that's when you can get hurt and that's when you lose.
There is so much I can teach my daughter just by her watching me fight. She's come to every single one of my fights, and I'm hoping she's learning just by seeing what I do day in and day out, dealing with having a great victory and staying humble, and dealing with defeat and how to handle losses. All of these things are life lessons that need to be taught to a child, and what better way to do that than through your own experience?
I don't want her to see me hurt, but at the same time, when I lost my belt [in 2014], I think it was important for her to see me at that point. "I've hit rock bottom and everything is still OK. Tomorrow I get up and work my way back up the mountain." It's important for her to see that.
For more Body 2017, pick up a copy on newsstands starting July 7.