Michelle Waterson is a fearless fighter and a dedicated mom – two titles she’s proud to hold in and out of the MMA cage.
Waterson, who is known best to UFC fans as the Karate Hottie, has seamlessly blended her family life with her high-octane career by ensuring that her 6-year-old daughter Araya is there every time she fights – a parenting decision that has come under fire.
“At the end of the day, marital arts is an art and that’s what I’m trying to teach Araya at a young age,” Waterson tells PEOPLE. “There are so many stereotypes of fighting – that it’s barbaric, that it’s violent. But there’s a whole different side to it that people don’t see, and I’m just trying to break the stereotypes down.”
Waterson – who has been fighting professionally since age 21 – currently ranks in the top 10 of fighters in the UFC women’s strawweight division.
Though now on top, Waterson admits she feared her career was over when she discovered was pregnant with Araya in 2010, she and husband Joshua Gomez’s first child.
“I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to come back,” says Waterson, now 31. “I wasn’t sure if I was going to be good enough when I came back – I wasn’t even sure if I would want to come back after becoming a mother.”
Yet, just 10 months later, Waterson answered “the itch” and returned to MMA – but not without obstacles. She “had to re-learn everything,” and discover her new body: “I was navigating my way through this new chapter of my life.”
Support from Waterson’s family and team of coaches helped her rank competitively again and understand her new identity, she tells PEOPLE.
Part of that was allowing Araya into every aspect of her mom’s world – and the little girl hasn’t missed a fight yet.
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“Being around all these mega-athletes is normal to her, and that’s exactly how I want it,” she says, explaining that she hopes MMA teaches Araya to reach for her goals and work hard at her passions.
Says Waterson, “I want her to see the good, the bad and the ugly because that’s what life is. It’s not just all the ups. You don’t just see all the hands being raised, and all the smiles and all the victories. Because there are injuries and there are failures, and there are bad days.”
She adds “I’m trying to show her the artistic side of it,” and hopes that Araya understands that MMA is built on “honor and respect.”
And while Araya is already learning about MMA, her interests are “all over the place.”
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In addition to gymnastics, Araya loves to read and watch Disney movies: “She’s at such a wonderful age that she is able to explore all these things and find out who she is.”