ESPN

Fighting For Araya

MMA is a violent and unforgiving sport. But instead of shielding her young daughter from her career, Michelle Waterson is bringing her along every step of the way.

The bodies started falling as early as 6 a.m. Irishmen, with their lilting brogue bouncing off the cavernous walls outside the Hakkasan nightclub at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, grappled on the casino floor, oblivious to the fact that the sun was starting to rise. Others, with their country's distinctive green, white and orange flag wrapped around their shoulders, stumbled through the slot machines, yelling at girlfriends and reeking of spilled beer. Throughout the day, diamonds, sheath dresses and slurring Russian accents filled nearly every elevator. It was a heady mix of wealth, alcohol and simmering violence, and rumors of possible brawls circulated in the hours leading up to the big October fight.

Which was why security had assigned a bodyguard, replete with the standard UFC uniform of bald head and long beard, to follow the 7-year-old girl with dark-brown braids as she navigated her way to her seat inside T-Mobile Arena. She was easily the youngest and smallest spectator here. But she knew more about rear naked choke holds and straight arm bars than most of the wannabe brawlers surrounding her in the stands.

video
Waterson brings the "It" factor to the Octagon

Every time UFC fighter Michelle Waterson steps into the Octagon, there's much more at stake than winning a belt.

Because Araya Gomez has never missed one of her mom's fights. Not one.

If her mother had followed the typical MMA playbook, Araya would never have been here at all. She wasn't part of the plan. She and her family have defied stereotype, allowing Araya to become the most powerful force behind one of the most successful fighters in the UFC -- a fighter who was about to enter the Octagon and launch the biggest night in UFC history.


A FEW WEEKS earlier, back home in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Araya jumps out of her grandmother's car, ditches her backpack in the kitchen and runs through the backyard toward the garage. Her family has been in the new house for only a few months, and cardboard boxes still line the dining room walls. But her parents didn't buy the house for the pool or the kitchen or the master bedroom. They bought it for the massive stand-alone garage.

Michelle Waterson has turned her garage in Albuquerque, New Mexico, into a full-blown training facility. Caitlin O'Hara for ESPN

As Araya comes flying in, past the sauna and the punching bags, her mother unleashes a flurry of punches at her father before hooking a leg around him, throwing him to the ground and elbowing him a few times in the head.

Araya barely takes note of any of it. Instead, she beelines for the giant rope hanging from the ceiling, launching her body at it to swing back and forth through the room until her parents wear themselves out.

Josh Gomez pulls off the padded headgear, bodysuit and boxing mitts with the word "Karate" stitched on one hand and "Hottie" on the other and laughs. "I guess you call that couples therapy."

Michelle Waterson, still taking huge gulps of air, asks Araya, "How was school?" Araya tells her it was great as she flies through the air on her rope. This is Waterson's fourth workout of the day. She and Gomez started that morning with a long run through their neighborhood's 5,900-foot altitude, then two hours sparring at Jackson Wink MMA Academy before a specialized workout with Waterson's jiu-jitsu coach here in the garage.

But the workout with Gomez, 34, was critical. Waterson's female training partners "know what hurts and what doesn't, and that sometimes doesn't benefit her because they're trying to stay back," he says. "And then sometimes with the men, when Michelle really starts to hit them, the ego comes out and they get very aggressive. That doesn't benefit her. So what I try to do is emulate the opponent that is coming up and let her beat me up."

"Josh volunteered himself as my punching dummy," Waterson says, laughing after catching her breath. "He puts his headgear on and lets me go to town. It really gives me confidence because Josh is a 190-pound grown man and couldn't buck me off."

Waterson has just found out she will face Felice Herrig in the opening fight of the undercard for Conor McGregor-Khabib Nurmagomedov. The October 2018 bout will become the biggest pay-per-view event in UFC history. "This fight between Khabib and Conor is such a massive fight," UFC president Dana White says. "People like Michelle will get more exposure in this one night than they will in their entire career."

The stakes are higher than they've ever been for Waterson and Gomez. But for today, her job as one of the top UFC strawweights is over. Waterson, 33, needs to go to her other job, the one she never expected would elevate her career the way it has. Still dripping with sweat and breathing hard, Waterson turns to Araya and says, "Time for homework."


Waterson found her combat sports career through Muay Thai about 15 years ago. Here, she's pictured in Thailand with one of her early supporters, Sityodtong. Courtesy Michelle Waterson

WATERSON AND GOMEZ met at Hooters in 2008. Sort of. Gomez's parents had driven up from El Paso, Texas, to visit him at his Air Force base in Albuquerque and wanted to watch the Dallas Cowboys game. They were seated at a table underneath a full-size poster of Waterson sporting the restaurant's trademark uniform. Even though he had never met Waterson, Gomez told his mother, "That's going to be my wife, Mom." The whole family started laughing but quickly stopped when Waterson suddenly appeared to take an order.

Gomez was too nervous and too shy to say a word.

Little did he know that Waterson had never been completely comfortable with her looks. "I think I was an ugly duckling growing up," she says with her distinctive giggle, adding that she's always felt that she looks "like a 10-year-old Asian boy."

She decided early on that if she wasn't going to make friends through her looks, "I'm going to make friends because I do cool stuff like martial arts in the assemblies and the talent shows." She dropped out of college to pursue martial arts full time, despite her 3.8 GPA her first year. "My life was martial arts, and I needed my college to be martial arts."

She trained during the day, waited tables at night and took on a handful of modeling jobs to pay the bills. When she signed up to model for a bikini website, the owner informed her he gave all his models nicknames. She remembers telling him she did martial arts. "We'll call you the Karate Hottie," he told her. "It's so catchy." Waterson agreed. "Sure," she said, "let's do it."

In 2007, she took a gig as ring girl at a local MMA fight, but she quickly became distracted by what was going on inside the cage. She told the promoter, "Hey, I have a martial arts background. I would love to fight. I think that would be fun." The promoter looked at her and laughed, giving her a sarcastic "Sure."

Donald Cerrone, who would eventually chalk up more wins than any other UFC fighter, overheard her and tracked her down. "If you're serious about training, get your ass in the gym," he told her.

Waterson also trains at Jackson Wink MMA Academy, which counts UFC legend Holly Holm, right, among its ranks. Her Brazilian jiu-jitsu coach, Rafael de Freitas, looks on as Waterson spars with Kayla Yontef. Caitlin O'Hara for ESPN

After going pro in 2007, Waterson moved to Albuquerque to train at Jackson Wink, which has developed legends like Jon Jones and Holly Holm, one of the very first people Waterson met when she arrived. "She came in, was very humble, hard worker, sparred with anybody and didn't complain," Holm says. "You can teach a fighter technique, but you can't really teach a technical person the heart and the fire. She's got that fire in her."

Money was so tight, Waterson slept in the attic at Jackson Wink and worked at Hooters to pay for her training. "I was in a really dark place at the time," Waterson remembers. "I was all by myself. I was struggling, and I was getting beat up every day."

It was then that Staff Sgt. Joshua Gomez finally found the courage to talk to her. He kept running into her at bars and parties after that fortuitous night in Hooters. "I remember finally saying, 'Hey, I don't know you, it's none of my business, but what are all these bruises from?'"

She told him she trained at Jackson Wink. He told her, eventually, that he was the No. 5 amateur middleweight boxer in the nation. "I'd come home and he would be watching tape," Waterson says of their early dating days. "He loved being at the gym. He loved watching other people fight. He loved talking about fights."

Gomez left the military and went pro in boxing while helping Waterson train for her professional fights. She had gone pro in 2007, but women wouldn't have the opportunity to fight in the UFC until 2012, so she was still taking on low-level, poorly paying promotions in an effort to build name recognition. In 2010, the two were preparing for Waterson's next fight when she realized something just didn't feel right. She told Gomez: "I think I might be pregnant."

And when she took the pregnancy test, it read "YES."


HER DOCTOR TOLD the couple that Waterson was already three months pregnant. In that time, she had done so many things pregnant women are told not to do, including lifting heavy weights, taking punches, dieting and even stunt work as Natalie Portman's double for the first Thor film, in which Waterson's body was ratcheted through the air at high speed using a crane. Despite it all, the baby was thriving.

Waterson says she never expected having her daughter, Araya, would elevate her fighting career in the way it has. Caitlin O'Hara for ESPN

But Waterson was struggling, both mentally and physically. "I was watching teammates grow and get better and excel and win fights, and all I can think of is that I'm falling behind." She couldn't train, was diagnosed with gestational diabetes and would later learn she had blown out her thyroid, meaning she must now take medication for the rest of her life to maintain a healthy weight.

Waterson wondered whether her fighting career was over. She didn't know of any women who had returned to fighting after giving birth. "There's this huge stigma of girls that get pregnant while they're fighting," she says. "It's like, 'Oh, they weren't serious enough about their fighting career that they get pregnant.' I think I was afraid of that judgment."

But when Araya Sage Gomez arrived on March 18, 2011, she gave Waterson the one thing she didn't even know had been missing: a reason to fight. Gomez had decided, against Waterson's wishes, that he needed to give up his pro boxing career in favor of the more steady paycheck that comes with being a financial planner. He thought Waterson had a better shot at really making it. Waterson says that sacrifice, combined with her instinctual need to provide for her child, gave her motivation unlike any she'd experienced.

"After having Araya, I feel like if I wanted to continue to pursue fighting, it had to be financially beneficial for my family," Waterson says. "I just couldn't do it as a hobby."

She was still breastfeeding when she re-entered the cage for her first fight back 10 months after giving birth to Araya. "It hurt really bad at first to get hit in the chest," she says. "I think I forgot how it felt to get punched."

After winning that fight, she joined the all-women's Invicta Fighting Championships and later beat the 105-pound atomweight champion, Jessica Penne, for the title, despite being a 10-1 underdog. "I knew deep in my heart that I could beat her," she says, "because on top of training harder than I ever had before, I was also taking care of my little one."

Waterson became the No. 1 women's atomweight fighter in the world with that win, a title she defended in 2014 with a knockout punch against Yasuko Tamada. But as she continued to excel, and as Araya got older, Waterson would soon test the decision she and Gomez made to allow Araya to watch all of her mother's fights.


Waterson and her husband, Josh Gomez, left, have decided to let their daughter watch her mother fight -- a choice that's been tested at times. Caitlin O'Hara for ESPN

ARAYA'S BED IN Albuquerque is covered with more than a dozen stuffed animals, and she has a name for every one. She has carefully placed the Hello Kitties, the snowman, the tiger and the puppy dog around her as she prepares to talk about the time the blood came pouring out of her mother's nose when Rose Namajunas put her into a rear naked choke in 2017.

Araya had just turned 6 when Waterson lost that fight. But while the blood pouring onto the mat might have bothered an adult, it didn't really bother Araya as much as the massive black eye her mother suffered when she was 3. "I get sad," Araya says. "Especially when she gets black eyes and stuff."

She's referring to the atomweight title fight Waterson lost to Herica Tiburcio in 2014. In the greenroom following Waterson's defeat, Araya cried as her mother held her tight. "Hey, baby," Waterson told her. "I'm OK." In video captured by the documentary Fight Mom, Waterson's eye is swollen shut and half her face is bruised. But Waterson calmly tells Araya, "Mommy just has to go back and work on what I didn't work on and get better."

Waterson says it's in those moments that she explains to Araya, "This is Mommy's job and this is what I signed up for. I know what I'm getting into when I go in there." There have been times, she says, "when I told her Mommy's hurting and that it sucks to lose. And that it makes me sad, it makes me angry, and it's OK to have those feelings."

"She's part of my journey," Waterson says of her decision to let Araya watch all her fights. "I've always believed that you learn so much more through somebody's actions, and I can only tell her so much. I would rather her experience it. It's her journey as much as it is mine."

Waterson then tackles the question of how she plans to raise her daughter surrounded by a sport that's been criticized for objectifying women. "I raise her the only way I know how: to be confident in who she is. And I do that through example."

She acknowledges that she gets some grief about her name and her past. "If people are going to tune in because my fight name is the Karate Hottie or because I used to work at Hooters, then so be it," she says. "I just need your eyes to watch, and once you see that I am a true martial artist, then I'll change your mind about how you view me."

Waterson then laughs her addictive laugh and asks, "Who doesn't want to be the hot mom?"


Waterson, who defeated Cortney Casey in her last UFC Fight Night appearance in April 2018, will face Karolina Kowalkiewicz on March 30. Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

THE COMBINATION OF that attitude and Waterson's fighting style eventually caught the attention of Dana White. "Waterson was a no-brainer," he says of his decision to sign her in 2015. "She's a very well-rounded fighter. Her striking, kicking, submissions, she has it all. And I always look for that 'it' factor in a fighter. If you have that extra little oomph, that 'it' factor, it doesn't hurt. And she's got it in truckloads."

Out of the 585 fighters in the UFC, about 90 are women. Only five other mothers have cracked the top 10, according to the UFC: bantamweights Cat Zingano, Sara McMann, Marion Reneau and Yana Kunitskaya, and flyweight Alexis Davis. Waterson is the only competitor in the lightest division, the 115-pound strawweight division, to make the top 10.

"Being a fighter is a completely selfish sport. Being a mother is completely selfless," Waterson explains. "You can't just come home after a hard day of training and forget about it. The fight's still there. And then Araya has homework, and in those moments I can't be this harsh fighter. I have to be this nurturing mother that she needs."

Holm marvels at how Waterson does it, especially during intense training camp sessions leading up to a big fight. "I know how much effort it takes, how much discipline it takes," she says. "I know how much I have to put everything else out of my life in order to have a good training camp. I don't know if I could do that if I had a child as well."

Araya knows life changes when training camp starts. "I have to train," her mother tells her. "She says that," Araya explains. "'I have to work hard.' She says that too. 'I have to not be messing around.' 'I have to focus on what I'm doing.' Stuff like that!"

Waterson says there are days when she simply cannot get up from the couch after a hard workout session, so her mother will often fly in for a month to cook, clean and help Gomez look after Araya. It makes Gomez philosophical: "Being able to put your ego aside when it's necessary with your family, your wife, your daughter, it's extremely necessary, right? I've gotten my nails painted, I've gotten lipstick, I've gotten all sorts of craziness, but being a man makes you do things that you would think are weak and they're not. It's harder."


Waterson says there was stigma around women who get pregnant and start families while training in MMA, judgment she initially feared. Caitlin O'Hara for ESPN

IT'S THE DAY of UFC 229, and Waterson and Gomez are worried about Araya's safety. Gomez has heard rumors for weeks about bad blood between the Irish and the Russians potentially spilling out into the stands during the McGregor-Khabib fight. As her training partner, Gomez will be with Waterson in the hours leading up to the fight. Waterson's mother and sister will be watching over Araya, but Gomez worries about their safety too. Now that they're in Las Vegas and can already feel the tension vibrating throughout the casinos, they're thinking, for the very first time, they may not let Araya sit in the stands.

When the head of UFC's security learns of their concerns, he tells Gomez a member of the security team can shadow Araya until she rejoins her parents following Waterson's fight. When they realize Araya is listening to their discussion as they talk in the arena, the two men shift into the coded language all parents know as they make plans for what to do with her if her mother is so badly injured that she needs to go to the hospital. They never actually say "hurt" or "hospital," so Araya remains oblivious to the discussion that's going on over her head, literally. But all the adults suddenly feel the gravity of what could happen that night.

So there Araya is, screaming her head off in the stands, when her mother enters the arena. But the woman who emerges from the tunnel is almost a total stranger. Gone is the addictive laugh and the contagious smile. Gone is the woman who told her to brush her teeth and clean her room. This woman is ferocious, with a locked jaw declaring to the world she's ready to demolish anyone who dares get in her way. And Araya loves every minute of it.

Araya's recitation of what happens next is frighteningly accurate. "Once the fight began, my mommy threw some punches and then she took her down for a little bit and then the round stopped," Araya says. "And then she went to the second round and she took her down right away. But then, little problems, and she hopped back up and threw more punches. Then she took her back down, came back up, ding, ding, ding. And then the third round she took her down first thing and she spent the whole time on the ground. And then ding, ding, ding, she won!"

When Joe Rogan starts interviewing her mother inside the Octagon right after the fight, Araya becomes unusually quiet. With her eyes riveted on her mother, Araya listens as an emotional Waterson tells the world something she'd been thinking about for years but has never said publicly before: "I want to be the first UFC champ that's a mom."

"That made me feel special," Araya would later say with a huge smile.

Security then whisks the 7-year-old backstage before the giant brawl that'd been simmering between the McGregor and Khabib camps finally erupts in the arena. As subsequent fights spill onto the sidewalks outside the arena, Araya remains happily unaware, eating ice cream in the greenroom as she celebrates her mother's victory.


AFTER A VICTORY over Karolina Kowalkiewicz in March, Waterson is now ranked No. 6 in the strawweight division. She knows she has only a couple of good years left, and her goal of becoming the first champion mother is a difficult one. Her next fight is October 12 against former strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk. It will be her toughest challenge in the UFC by far, against an opponent who has a unique striking skillset. She'll be one step closer to a title shot against Zhang Weili if she's able to win this fight.

What does Araya think? Well, she wants a career in gymnastics. But the UFC is growing on her; she says her mother grew up a fighter "and I think it would be cool to finally feel how it really is."

Her mother says Araya can be whatever she wants to be. "I want her to be confident in herself. I want her to be brave in scary situations. I want her to be happy." As for Waterson, she says Araya has made her into the very best version of herself. "I love the fact that I've transformed my body into a killing machine," Waterson says. "That I can protect my daughter. That I can nurture her. That I can be all those things."

Editor's note: This story was updated ahead of Waterson's fight on October12 against Joanna Jedrzejczyk.

Tisha ThompsonTisha Thompson is a reporter in ESPN's enterprise unit and can be reached at tisha.thompson@espn.com.
Simon P. BaumgartBaumgart is a producer in ESPN's enterprise unit and can be reached at Simon.Baumgart@espn.com.

More Stories