I'm one minute into my first-ever sparring session, and I've already drawn blood; this is only the warm-up before I face professional UFC fighter Michelle Waterson. Sweet corgi in the sky, give me strength.
I've never been in a physical fight. I quit wrestling in high school after one semester because I hated wearing a singlet. The only professional fight I've even seen on TV was the legendary match between Ronda Rousey and Holly Holm, and as soon as I saw the first drop of blood, I looked away from the screen and begged my friends to tell me when it was over.
Why on God’s green Earth would someone who hates blood and hasn’t been in a psychical fight challenge a UFC fighter to a match? Well, I’m working with BODYARMOR Sports Drink to increase awareness for their superior — and delicious, if I may say so myself — hydrating sports drink with natural flavors. They have an extensive list of athletes they work with, including James Harden, Andrew Luck, Maddie Mastro, and Michelle Waterson. To put the hydrating capabilities of BODYARMOR to the ultimate test, I’d need to push myself as hard as I possibly could both physically and mentally — so I volunteered to train with Waterson. Clearly, I didn’t know exactly what I signed up for, but ignorance is bliss, right?
Michelle Waterson is the karate hottie, a badass mother and wife, and a strawweight kicking queen. We're at her home gym in Albuquerque, 6,000 feet above sea level at the foot of the Sandia Mountains. Not only am I training with a professional, but we’re also doing it at a higher altitude than I’m used to (i.e., 5,961 feet higher). Stellar. Waterson jokes that she'll take it easy on me, and that’s when I look her dead in the eyes and say something I’ll soon come to regret: "If I'm going to train with a UFC fighter, I'm going to do it 110%." I'm an idiot. Waterson laughs and relays advice she once received from her coach. “What makes a great fighter is their ability to be comfortable in uncomfortable positions.” I'm definitely in an uncomfortable position.
In fighting, there’s off-season training, and there’s camp, which is the 6–10 week period leading up to a fight. Today is off-season training, and we're going to focus on strength and conditioning, high-intensity drills, mitt practice, and mixed martial arts sparring. Each bullet point Waterson rattles off strips away a little piece of the curtain of delusion I've been comfortably hiding behind. She can sense my hesitation. "Our bodies are capable of a lot more than we give ourselves credit for,” she says. “When you hit a wall, go to a place where you’re not focused on the things you can’t do — focus on the things you can do."
Channeling those words of wisdom and the energy Waterson is putting out, I decide to dive into this high-level regimen head (err, arms and legs) first. We start with arm stretches and leg kicks up and down the mat. I'm already starting to get short of breath. GREAT. Not a beat is missed as we jump from one stretch to the next. We go right from arms and legs to working our bodies. Waterson tells me that during a fight your body is thrown in every possible direction, so it's important to practice stability and agility. She clasps her hand behind my neck and jerks my head down. We practice knee kicks, a key component of MMA fighting and what I would soon discover is one of her strongest skills.
In the Octagon (what the ring is called in UFC), you're constantly on your toes, calculating your steps to dodge your opponent or catch them by surprise. So, in order to improve our footwork, we do ladder drills. I've climbed ladders. I'm rather good at climbing them, actually. This was not that. Michelle demonstrates the moves: right foot into the square, tap left, right foot out, tap left foot, repeat. When it's my turn, I get flashbacks of embarrassing myself playing DDR as a teen. My feet struggle to follow the rhythm she executes, but with a little patience, I catch my stride. We do several variations of this, Michelle cheering me on, providing critiques for how I can improve my movements. Finally, we high-five — and then she asks if I'm ready to start strength and conditioning. My heart sinks. I thought this was strength and conditioning.
Before we fully move on to strength training, Waterson helps me ~find my fight moves~ so I don't hurt myself. At first, I thrust my fist forward like a clumsy kangaroo trying to give a dap. Michelle lifts my arms to cover my face and tells me to keep my chin down. She shows the proper way to punch: turning your fist inward like you're about to bust a whip (and watch me nae nae).
She fashions an X out of two ropes. My goal is to move down the rope, punching with each right step and blocking with each left step. My flow is all right, but I keep dropping my arms, which means an instant KO. Her solution? Hit me with pool noodles every time I drop my arms. Punch. Slap. Punch. Slap. Michelle cheers me on even as she continues to deliver devastating noodle blows. "How can you stay focused in a fight if you can't handle a couple of pool noodles?" she asks.
I've spent only a few hours with her, but I can already see that she is all muscle, that her warm and bubbly personality outside the ring doesn’t interfere with her ferocious fighting in the ring, and that she. never. stops. A UFC match is 15 minutes of pure motion and energy, so she trains accordingly, without pausing between sets. I can hardly commit to completing a full rotation in this one workout, let alone train for hours on end without rest. Her dedication to this sport is inspiring, and it ignites a fire within me: I have to give this everything I have.
As we approach the second half of strength training, Waterson's support never wavers. When she sees my self-doubt start to creep in, she lets out a battle cry, telling me to keep working, keep fighting, and push past the pain! During medicine ball slams, I channel all my frustrations and insecurities into each downward dip; this is therapeutic. My skin is tingling, and I am in the zone. I draw on that same energy for our second session of rope slams. I counter each upward and downward motion with an exhale and a scream. My whole body is aching, my heart is racing, and determination is coursing through my veins. After the final thrust, Michelle’s face erupts with pride. She’s been tough on me, but it’s because she knows that the biggest obstacle isn't the fatigue but our mind’s tendency to flood our heads with the can'ts, the won'ts, and the shouldn'ts.
We grab wraps and gloves from the shelf, and Waterson shows me how to weave the wraps around my wrists and between my fingers to protect my hands and wrists during impact. By now, it's a whole family affair; her husband, daughter, brother-in-law, and nephew are all watching. Great. I love an audience.
Before we spar, Waterson’s husband, Josh, wants me to face him. Josh boxed in the Air Force, so this is not an ideal appetizer. He says that in the heat of a fight, adrenaline can take over and cause you to do irrational things, and he would rather my jitters be taken out on him first. OK, but...how irrational does he think I could get? He throws on mitts, and we go over jabs, hooks, uppercuts, and crosses. The gloves are only 16 ounces, but my arms are already gelatin, and the little bit of extra weight feels like cinder blocks. Then he starts pulling out more equipment: shin guards, headgear, and a cup. OK, now I really need to know what I signed up for. Josh turns his stereo on: gritty throwback rap starts playing, and at that moment, sh*t gets real. I realize I'm about to fight not one but two people whose whole lives are dedicated to this sport.
*Wheezes* Let's Do This Thing!
We bump gloves, and the fight begins. Josh starts working me across the mat, punches landing to the side of my face, my ribs, my chest. I stay focused, moving with him, deflecting hits, and attempting to get a jab in myself. Less than a minute has passed when he delivers a fierce undercut to my jaw. My teeth clamp down on my tongue with the impact, and the metallic taste of blood fills my mouth. But this only fuels me further. I manage to make contact with a few of my hits, and we start to understand each other's movements. It's a struggle to keep my gloves up, but when your options are to keep fighting or get hit, you go with the former.
Finally, our match ends. I survived. But I don’t have long before the main event. Waterson flashes her signature smile and reminds me to follow my instincts, to remember everything she taught me. We’ve come a long way from being slapped with pool noodles. The timer counts down from 10. It’s showtime.
Right out of the gate, she's flying around the mat like a dog sprinting around a living room after a bath. I struggle to match her movements; they're sporadic, and she’s impossible to predict. Finally, I see a window of opportunity and lunge forward, thrusting a punch her way. Before I've even extended my arm, her right foot batters my stomach, knocking the wind out of me as I stumble backward. I wasn't expecting there to be kicking involved. And that's exactly what she wanted.
A split second of hesitation could mean the match-winning hit; I don’t have time to recover. I pivot to the left and hold my hands up to protect my face. Her eyes are taunting me, teasing me to try a shot on her. One jab. She deflects it. Undercut. She dodges it. We go back and forth in this tango of brute force. She delivers kick after kick, and I'm getting frustrated. I can't land a single punch. So I shift my strategy, mirror her actions, and start throwing in a few kicks. Her pace stays the same, but my kicks open up new windows of opportunity. One jab lands on the side of her face. At this point, I can't tell if we've been fighting for 30 seconds or three minutes, but I suddenly hear the clock start counting down from 10. The end is near, and neither of us are holding back. More kicks, more hits, more chaotic choreography... Five. Four. Three. Two.
I did it! I survived in the ring with a UFC fighter. I didn't land nearly as many hits as I would have liked, but I’m shocked by my own perseverance, and I’m still standing.
After spending the day with Waterson, I have a newfound respect for everyone who does this regularly. Off the mat, Michelle is kind, compassionate, and outgoing. Following our fight, when the mat is cleared, her daughter steps up with her own set of gloves on, and I’m once again a witness to how supportive she is. But in the ring, she transforms into an unstoppable force, nailing kick after crippling kick. It’s truly awesome.
Fighting is as much a mental game as it is a physical one, and there are countless lessons learned that I realize I can apply to my daily life. There will always be challenges and obstacles, highs and lows, but you have to stay focused and keep fighting.
With a bottle of BODYARMOR Sports Drink in her hand (her flavor of choice: Blueberry Pomegranate LYTE), Waterson shares some final remarks as we rehydrate. "You have to embrace those challenging times because it gives you character. It allows you growth, and you learn not to fight it. It’s like a tree in the wind. When the wind blows, if you fight it, the tree will break, but if you blow with the wind, the worst that can happen is that you bend."
Today I bent in ways I never thought possible and pushed my body past its breaking point. But I stayed rooted. I fought. I persevered. And now...I am going to take a long bath and watch a bunch of dog videos.
All images from Sarah Stone / BuzzFeed.
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