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UFC Fight Night: Waterson v Hill Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

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Fighter on Fighter: Breaking down UFC Vegas 26’s Michelle Waterson and Marina Rodriguez

Former Invicta strap-hanger, Michelle Waterson, will throw down with rising Muay Thai specialist, Marina Rodriguez, this Saturday (May 8, 2021) at UFC Vegas 26 inside UFC Apex in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Waterson enters this bout in a strange position, having lost two of her last three but arguably performing better than ever in her most recent win. This is her second main event slot in a row, and if Waterson can prove victorious once again, she’s right back in the mix at 115 pounds. Meanwhile, Rodriguez has struggled with the judges more than anything else, as debatable draws and a split-decision loss have kept her from an undefeated run in the Octagon. She has consistently brought the violence, however, constantly attacking her opponents at every opportunity.

Let’s take a closer look at the skill sets of each athlete:


Marina Rodriguez started her martial arts journey in Muay Thai, and it’s very apparent when she fights. The aggressive Brazilian has all the classic hallmarks of a Muay Thai fighter, and thus far, they’ve worked wonderfully for her against several of Strawweight’s top athletes.

Aggression and combination building are the name of Rodriguez’s game. She does not hang back and jab. No, Rodriguez stalks her opponents, blasting them at distance with power kicks or chasing after them with left hooks and right hands.

UFC 257: Rodriguez v Ribas Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC

The difference between Rodriguez and a more garden variety brawler is how she follows those punches up. After firing a hook-cross or cross-hook combination, Rodriguez will judge her opponent’s reaction. If her foe is backing away from the punches, Rodriguez will follow up with a kick, digging into the leg, body, or head with equal zeal.

Alternatively, her opponent may stand her ground. In that case, Rodriguez likes to crash forward into the clinch, where she really excels. When able to secure control of the head via the double-collar or even single-collar tie, Rodriguez does a really nice job of yanking her opponent off-balance before landing the knee. Likely thanks to her physical strength and technique alike, Rodriguez is able to hang onto the head for long periods of time, exhausting her opponents and opening up further knees.

At any point between all the knees, Rodriguez will mix in heavy elbows.

Another habit of Muay Thai fighters is to stand their ground and fire back rather than retreat. Such was the case in Rodriguez’s stellar knockout win over Amanda Ribas. As Ribas stepped forward with punches, Rodriguez threw up a counter 3-2, and the right hand sent Ribas face-planting towards the canvas (GIF).

Meanwhile, Waterson is a Jackson-Winkeljohn-trained athlete with a Karate background. Her movement and style of range control is interesting. She likes to strike from the outside and draw her opponent forward, which often results in a lot of side-shuffling.

Waterson is primarily a kicker. On the outside, she does a lot of foot replacement into kicks. Usually from the Orthodox stance, Waterson brings her back font to her front leg’s position, taking the weight off her lead leg and allowing it to be thrown in a variety of kicks. The foot replacement is quick and covers distance, often giving Waterson the edge when initiating kicking exchanges. From this initial set up, Waterson can throw a lot of techniques. Most often, she’ll attack with a quick low kick, but that left leg can also be aimed at the mid-section, be delivered in a straight line to the knee, or fly up to the chin. Later, Waterson will foot replace and then step forward with her left foot, allowing her to throw a hard right low kick.

UFC Fight Night: Waterson v Hill Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

On the whole, “The Karate Hottie” does her best work when her opponent initiates without really pressuring her. Whenever her opponent looks to shoot out a jab or lead with a power punch, for example, Waterson does an excellent job of skipping back a half-step and jamming a kick into the mid-section. She can kick quickly with either leg (GIF) and often aims to kick under the punch, which is quite painful and tiring.

In addition, Waterson has a unique habit of double-kicking when her opponent pressures. Sometimes, the first kick will stop her opponent’s movement — like a side kick or teep — and the second will be a round house. Other times, she’ll fire two round house kicks in a row, landing with one leg and then immediately attacking with the other.


Between the two women, Waterson is certainly the superior wrestler, as most of Rodriguez’s problems have come from being taken down.

Over the last few years, Waterson has consistently out-wrestled most of her opponents. Some of those women, like Courtney Casey, were much larger than Waterson, but that didn’t stop her from throwing her to the mat and winning the fight due to her top position.

UFC Fight Night: Joanna v Waterson Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Like many of her peers, Waterson likes the headlock throw. Unlike most of them, she’s actually good at it, because she actually does it properly. Very often, female fighters fail to properly dig underhooks, instead reaching for the head and leaving themselves open to counter takedowns. Waterson, however, will quickly shift her hand position from the over-under, wrapped around the head and forcing her for over the hip.

In addition, Waterson will wrestle at the waist with reactive takedowns. Against Angela Hill, Waterson found some success with adding a trip into her shot, making it more difficult for Hill to sprawl effectively.

UFC Fight Night: Esparza v Rodriguez Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Rodriguez’s defensive wrestling problems stem from the same attributes that make up her kickboxing strengths: aggression and Muay Thai. On the feet, she tends to stand tall and punch her way forward, too traits that can leave her vulnerable to the double leg shot. Once in the clinch, Rodriguez can be a bit too focused on securing the double-collar tie, which isn’t always the best defense to a takedown — often, underhooks are the safer option.

In general, Rodriguez struggles when forced to chain wrestle, a sign of her grappling inexperience.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Rodriguez has yet to attempt a submission inside the Octagon, but she did elbow the hell out of Carla Esparza from within the guard, and that counts for something.

UFC Fight Night: Esparza v Rodriguez Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

A jiu-jitsu purple belt with nine victories via tapout, “The Karate Hottie” makes the most of her flexibility by attacking with high and rubber guard. From these positions, she’s very quickly able to rotate and attack the arm bar. Opposite Kowalkiewicz, Waterson used her flexibility to attack the armbar smoothly from top position. First, she slid her knee halfway across the stomach from side control, threatening the mount. Rather than complete the mount, she framed her opponent’s face into the mat and slid her other leg across the face, allowing her to latch onto the arm and fall back into the hold.

Aside from the arm bar, Waterson has shown solid technique in other areas. She’s very quick to step into mount during scrambles and after hip tosses, and she is able to control the position well by grape-vining her opponent’s legs. This eventually allows her to transition into back mount, which helps explain her four rear-naked choke victories.

UFC Fight Night: VanZant v Waterson Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

In one slick example of Waterson’s grappling, she used a rolling kneebar to reverse Herica Tiburcio. Tiburcio had slid into the back clinch and was muscling Waterson around, but the Colorado-native quickly dove forward and wrapped up her foe’s leg. Tiburcio nearly fell on her face, and Waterson was able to climb into top position before she recovered.


Both women are in their mid-30s, which adds real pressure to perform, as lighter weight classes prioritize speed over all else. If either woman is going to make a run at the title, victory in this match up is essential, particularly since the bout’s profile has been elevated because of T.J. Dillashaw’s withdrawal.

Remember that will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC Vegas 26 fight card this weekend, starting with the ESPN+/ESPN “Prelims” matches, which are scheduled to begin at 5 p.m. ET, then the remaining main card balance on ESPN+/ESPN at 8 p.m. ET.

To check out the latest and greatest UFC Vegas 26: “Waterson vs. Rodriguez” news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive event archive right here.

Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, is a professional fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport’s most elite fighters.

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