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Michelle Waterson-Gomez reflects on pioneering 17-year MMA career, why she decided to retire

Michelle Waterson-Gomez knew it was time.

At UFC 303, “The Karate Hottie” officially signaled the end of her 17-year career when she announced her retirement following a loss to Gillian Robertson. During Waterson-Gomez’s post-fight interview with Joe Rogan, the promotion played a heartwarming video on the T-Mobile Arena screens recapping some of her best moments inside the cage.

In an emotional conversation, Waterson-Gomez appeared on The MMA Hour afterward to talk about what led her to make the decision to hang up the gloves for good.

“I’ve been fighting for over 17 years,” Waterson-Gomez said. “My husband sacrificed a lot in order for me to fight. He sacrificed his own fighting career. As long as my daughter’s been born, she’s been a gym kid. You take her to the gym, she was in the car seat, she’s had to sacrifice birthdays, events, change around things on her end so mommy can train, so mommy can fight. She’s getting older, and I want to be in her corner. I want to be in my husband’s corner. There are a lot of things that he’s doing right now that I want to be a part of.

“I’m not getting any younger. I think that you just kind of have to recognize things for what they are, and as a fighter and a competitor, if I could, I would stay in chasing the wins, chasing that incredible high that you get when you win, chasing the gold. But I think I just had to recognize where I was at in my MMA career, and the amount of time and sacrifice I was putting into that could be put into a different direction, where I can get a win in different areas of life.”

Heading into her final fight, Waterson-Gomez said she only told a handful of people (including close friend and teammate Holly Holm) that she was planning to retire, because she didn’t want to anyone to think she wasn’t fully committed to preparing for Robertson. She knew the Canadian was a tough opponent and all of her thoughts were on ending a four-fight losing skid.

The bout didn’t go Waterson-Gomez’s way, as Robertson outworked her to take a unanimous decision, but the support and respect she’s received since UFC 303 has been overwhelming.

“It fills my heart, it really does,” Waterson-Gomez said. “It’s crazy. If you were to ask me when I was a little girl, what did you think you were going to be when you grow up, I would have never in a million years imagined that I would be a professional fighter for the UFC, but that’s where the road took me and I am so eternally grateful for that. It’s really shaped me into the person I am today.

“The fight game is tough. It’s unforgiving. You’re met with challenges every step of the way and it can be a lonely road sometimes. You have to be very selfish in order to climb the ladder, but that’s kind of how life is and I think that’s why I fell in love with fighting is because it’s just a mirror representation of what life is. It’s tough. You’re going to be met with adversity. It’s supposed to be hard. You’re supposed to have struggles and you’re supposed to meet those struggles with excitement. You’re supposed to overcome those challenges and become a better person from it.”

Waterson-Gomez never fought for a title in her UFC run, and her 6-9 record with the promotion doesn’t scream all-time great, but she consistently went the distance with the best of the best and earned a devoted fan following. When she made her pro debut in 2007, it was five years before the first show held by all-women MMA promotion Invicta FC and six years before UFC would host its first women’s fight.

When Waterson-Gomez started as a pro, there was no promise of fame or riches for a female fighter. But she persisted, becoming a UFC mainstay and one of the most respected veterans on the roster.

“I think I’m the most proud of believing in myself enough to try,” Waterson-Gomez said. “Putting myself in front of really, really hard, almost untouchable goals, and reaching out like that. I’m a little karate girl from rural Colorado. Rashad [Evans] told me, ‘You’re not even supposed to be here, peanut.’ Truthfully, he wasn’t saying it in a mean way, but like, ‘You forced your way in.’

“I did point-sparring karate growing up, and it’s very outside of who I am to be a fighter — and I wanted to know that I could, and so I did. And I stayed at the top for a really long time and I’m really proud of that. I fought the best in the world, stayed in the top 10 for as long as I could for the majority of my career until this last year. I was able to climb pretty high, and I’m really proud of that.”

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