SINGAPORE: Rising mixed martial arts (MMA) star Angela Lee is not competing at the same level as athletes in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), said strawweight (52kg) standout Michelle Waterson on Friday (Jun 2).
Lee, 20, is the undefeated atomweight (also 52kg, under different rules) titleholder in Asian promotion One Championship, whose stock has risen with each of her eight straight victories over the last two years. A second successful defence of her belt last week in Singapore led to Lee talking up a cross-promotion fight with the UFC’s strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk.
Outside the region, however, Lee “is not very well-known”, said Waterson, herself a former atomweight champion in the all-female promotion Invicta. “(Even) if she decides to cross over to the UFC, they’re not going to give her Joanna right away. She needs to prove herself.”
Waterson, who is the UFC’s No.6-ranked strawweight with 14 wins and five losses, also had a word of caution for Lee.
“I’ve been in this game a long time and I’ve seen a lot of people rise really quickly,” said the 31-year-old, who turned professional in 2007. “But that can be taken away very quickly as well. We’ve all seen it happen multiple times. The true test is what you do after you fall.”
ROUSEY’S ROLE, HOLM’S HUNGER
Waterson was referring to Ronda Rousey, the once-dominant UFC champion who won 12 straight fights before being knocked out by Holly Holm and comprehensively beaten by Amanda Nunes in her comeback attempt.
“She met some girls a little bit more eager to want that belt, and that’s the fight game,” Waterson said with a shrug.
Nonetheless as the face of mainstream MMA and an up-and-coming Hollywood actress, Rousey continues to cultivate a strong global following - which Waterson believes she now has to answer to.
“Everybody deals with their losses in their own way,” she said. “I would definitely love her to get back for the sake of all the people looking up to her as a role model.”
“We all fail in life and if you just duck away and hide in the shadows then what is that teaching the people that admire her to do?”
Waterson also spoke about how hard it was to watch Holm, a teammate of hers at the Jackson Wink Academy, go on a three-fight losing streak after seizing the championship belt from Rousey.
“The thing about Holly… is she gets back up and she brushes her shoulders off and she’s right back into the gym. There’s no question about it.”
“It’s not like ‘oh should we retire’, her mentality is to do what she needs to do to get back to the top. There’s no doubt in her mind she’s going to regain what she’s lost.”
Holm will next face Bethe Correia in the headline bout of UFC’s second Singapore event on June 17.
“Holly’s going to own Bethe,” Waterson told Channel NewsAsia. “She’s just technically more sound in every area. She’s the bigger, longer fighter, has better footwork to keep Bethe out, keep her distance and pick her shots.”
SPORT VS ENTERTAINMENT
Waterson herself is coming off an April loss to the upstart Rose Namajunas, but she said it would take just “two good fights” to land her right back in contention for the strawweight title.
With no opponent in sight yet Waterson is busying herself with “building her brand” and fulfilling promotional obligations such as this very trip to Singapore. Like Rousey, she is signed to global entertainment agency WME - which also owns the UFC.
“Now, I’ve a lot more responsibilities outside of just fights,” she admitted. “But that’s something I’ve to be comfortable with doing. It’s taking me time to adjust to making room for these things, while still dedicating 100 per cent of myself in training.”
These days it would seem that sheer hard graft alone might not suffice, given the flashy, foul-mouthed theatrics adopted by the sport’s other mainstream star Conor McGregor.
“I’m not a good trash-talker,” said Waterson. “It’s just not my personality to go out of my way to make people upset.”
What she has in her arsenal, though, is an extensive background in modelling and reality TV, along with having recently starred in the documentary film Fight Mom, which chronicles her balancing act as professional fighter and mother to a six-year-old girl.
The obvious play on her attractiveness and even Asian descent is something Waterson - who is American-Thai - fully embraces. “People are drawn to good-looking women that can fight,” she said matter-of-factly.
What’s more important, she emphasised, is to not lose sight of the finish line. “You do get sucked into the more entertainment side of it, and being in front of cameras.”
“But it’s a test of your will. You have to make sure that all of it is not for nothing, and that while I’m out here promoting myself, I still have my main goal in my head - which is to fight for the belt and become the best martial artist I can be.”