How Michelle Waterson and Mackenzie Dern balance motherhood with MMA

Kevin IoleCombat columnist
Michelle Waterson kisses her daughter, Araya, before entering the Octagon during the UFC Fight Night event at Sprint Center on April 15, 2017 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Getty Images)
Michelle Waterson kisses her daughter, Araya, before entering the Octagon during the UFC Fight Night event at Sprint Center on April 15, 2017 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Getty Images)

This wasn’t a normal training camp by any stretch for Michelle Waterson. She was 8-3 and had already developed a reputation as one of the hardest workers in the sport when she signed to take a fight in 2010.

It would be more than two years before women were allowed to compete in the UFC, and it wasn’t easy being a female in a male-dominated sport. The pay was low, the opportunities were few and the reasons to walk away many.

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Never once, though, did Waterson ever consider leaving the sport.

“Martial arts is my life,” Waterson says now.

And so she threw herself into her training for that fight in 2010, but that wasn’t all she did. She also worked as a stunt double for Natalie Portman in a movie.

She put her body through the ringer, going through rigorous workouts multiple times a day as well as taking the falls her job as a stunt double required.

“I was doing all sorts of crazy stuff because I was getting ready for a fight,” Waterson told Yahoo Sports. “But the weight just wouldn’t come off.”

There was a reason for that: Waterson was three months pregnant.

The pregnancy test confirmed it, and the fight was canceled. Her career was put on hold. On March 18, 2011, her daughter Araya was born. Araya has attended every one of her mother’s 12 fights since, and will be there on Saturday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN+) in Tampa, Florida, when she faces Joanna Jedrzejczyk in the main event of UFC Tampa at Amalie Arena.

Waterson is one of two mothers who will compete on the show.

Mackenzie Dern, 26, returns to the cage to fight Amanda Ribas just four months after giving birth to her first daughter, Moa, on June 9.

Fighting is an all-consuming job, but being a mother is even moreso. Yet, Waterson and Dern are thriving in sports’ most difficult profession.

Dern dismisses weight concerns

The last time Dern fought, a first-round submission victory over Amanda Cooper at UFC 224 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on May 12, 2018, she missed weight by a whopping seven pounds, an egregious, almost unforgivable mistake.

If it was a problem for her making weight before, having a child would only complicate matters. Dern had her concerns, but she was pleasantly surprised.

She didn’t add the weight that is typical and said she’ll make the strawweight limit of 116 on Friday with no issues.

“It was a big concern of mine in the very beginning, but during my pregnancy, I gained very little weight,” Dern told Yahoo Sports. “I knew then that it would be easy; well, not easy, but I knew it wouldn’t be a problem because like I said, I had gained so little weight. But after my baby was born, the UFC was really concerned about my weight, especially because I didn’t make it in Rio.

“They don’t want to have that happen again, of course. I told them I was OK and I would make it and they kept saying, ‘No, no, let’s wait longer. Let’s wait a little more.’ I started sending them pictures of my scale and kept telling them it was good. It’s almost like my metabolism was better after the pregnancy than before.”

Dern attributed her problems making weight at UFC 224 to “just a miscalculation on my part. I made a mistake.” She wanted to continue to cut, but doctors became concerned as she was trying to complete the cut and ordered her to stop.

She’ll have been out of the cage for 17 months when she returns, and said the itch to fight remains strong. And, she said, it’s helped her in unexpected ways.

“When I was gone for 10 months, [knowing I’d get back] it really helped me stay motivated and made me wish to be back fighting,” Dern said. “I started at zero and I have a new foundation. I didn’t gain a lot of weight and I lost a lot of fat. I gained muscle back and in a way I think that’s helping me to be a better fighter.”

For Waterson, the toughest part is over

Waterson knows her daughter is tough, because she took punches while in the womb when Waterson was preparing to fight without knowing she was pregnant.

She never doubted she would fight again. Nine months after Araya was born, Waterson fought Diana Rael in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on Jan. 21, 2012. She won by first-round submission with a rear naked choke.

That camp was something of a learning phase for Waterson, who couldn’t solely focus on her fight. She’d carry her equipment with her to the gym each day, but also brought the baby and the car seat and the diaper bag and everything else the mother of a newborn needs.

Waterson, though, wasn’t going to do it any other way.

“There’s always going to be a transition phase whenever something changes in your life,” she said. “I would say the hardest part was actually during the pregnancy because I couldn’t train. After I had her and I got my body back, I was able to own that a little bit more. During the first three months, my focus was on her. I wasn’t thinking of anything else. I just wanted to be around her and hold her and nurture her and be with her. It was OK, though, because it was what I wanted to do and I wanted to cherish those moments. I felt a little after that that my fight career was calling me. There were still things in my career left unsettled.

“My husband [Joshua Gomez] and my team were very supportive of me going back in. We just found ways to make it work. My husband helped me out. My Mom helped me out. I’d bring her into the gym with me: Car seat, diaper bag, training gear, purse. My family at JacksonWink was there to help along the way. If she started crying while I was sparring, someone would pick her up and hold her until the round was over and I could run to the next room to feed her if I needed to or do what I needed to do for her. I did what I needed, then I got back to work.”

Dern still adjusting to the changes

Mackenzie Dern works out ahead of a fight against Amanda Ribas on Oct. 12, at Yuengling Center on Oct. 9, 2019 in Tampa, Florida. (Mike Ehrmann/Zuffa LLC)
Mackenzie Dern works out ahead of a fight against Amanda Ribas on Oct. 12, at Yuengling Center on Oct. 9, 2019 in Tampa, Florida. (Mike Ehrmann/Zuffa LLC)

Dern said she lost a lot of followers on social media after she gave birth and wasn’t tweeting or posting that much. It was, though, for the good because it enabled her to filter out negativity.

She struggled to meet schedules because she was never sure when exactly she’d be available to train. She knew she was going to do it, but it was always a matter of when she could.

“Fighters like to have routines but it’s hard to create a routine with a new baby,” Dern said. “When I started camp, I said, ‘OK Coach, let’s train on this day and this day at this time and that time.’ But then in the first week, I had to say, ‘Hey Coach, can I do it tonight? Can I push it to tonight? Can we do it earlier?’

“I’m bad at calculating. I’d figure out when I wanted to leave the house and then she’d burp up and I had to go change everything. If she got sick, I’d have to go take her to the doctor. I just had to find a schedule that was flexible so I could do everything I had to do. My husband [Wesley Santos] helped so much. But we just all worked together and did our best to find a way.”

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