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In the often never-ending fight for respect that many combat sports athletes endure throughout the highs and lows of their careers, the late-resurgence of crowd-favorite Angela Hill at age 35 was already as feel-good as they come.
Hill (12-8), an original member of UFC’s 2014 « The Ultimate Fighter » season which launched the women’s strawweight division, has battled through being cut by the promotion to becoming one of its most unsung journeywomen until a recent turn to possible dark horse title contender.
Having won three of her last four fights, which includes a split-decision loss to Claudia Gadelha in May which could’ve gone either way, Hill saw her recent bump to main-event status at Saturday’s UFC Fight Night card in Las Vegas (8 p.m. ET, ESPN+) as a sign that she was finally being taken seriously. Yet it was far from the most significant result of the UFC’s decision.
After Glover Teixeira pulled out of his light heavyweight bout against Thiago Santos following a positive COVID-19 test, allowing UFC to name Hill’s co-main event bout against Michelle Waterson (17-8) as the new headliner, it made Hill the first African American female to compete in a UFC main event.
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Equally humble and hard on herself, Hill admitted during Thursday’s virtual media day that she failed to grasp the full volume of what the honor meant in terms of its cultural significance, simply because her personal goals were set on becoming a well-respected star and eventual champion of one of the UFC’s deepest divisions. Giving it time to sink in, however, and seeing the reaction of her fans allowed it to hit home.
« I think in a time like this, people need heroes, » Hill said. « People need someone to look up to, someone to root for. Just the fact that this hasn’t happened yet is indicative of the fact that it is important. A lot of people will say, ‘why does it matter?’ If it doesn’t matter to you, that’s OK. It does matter to the fans who see that and say, ‘Finally. Finally, we have some representation in this sport that we love and we have been waiting for it for so long.’
« You rarely see a black woman in the position I’m in within MMA. I think the public is kind of starved for that demographic to be represented, so I’m happy to carry the torch.
If the fight represents an opportunity for Hill, at a surprising point in her career, to score a victory over a big name and legitimize herself as a title contender on the rise, it provides the 34-year-old Waterson with a shot at stopping the bleeding of a two-fight losing streak which has left some wondering whether her days lingering within the title picture are over.
In truth, Waterson’s split-decision loss to Carla Esparza in May was just as much of a coin flip as Hill’s loss to Gadelha. The defeat also gave Waterson an opportunity to take a wider look at her approach and figure out her mistakes.
« [I learned] to not be so hung up on strategy, » Waterson said. « There is always going to be those shoulda, woulda, couldas, and what I understand is that everything happens for a reason. I had to come back to the gym and understand to not leave it in the hands of the judges. It was my fight to be won and I let it slip through my fingers. It was a very close fight and it didn’t have to be. I had to learn to take control of the situation, and if I have a chance to finish the fight, to finish the fight. »
Waterson said the fear of a potential three-fight losing skid was something that never entered her mind throughout training camp. Instead, she focused on the possibility of what is potentially at stake for her should she win emphatically considering that injuries and maternity leave have shelved three of the seven fighters ranked above her by the UFC, meaning a title shot is never out of the question given her level of celebrity.
« My focus is just to get better and unleash what’s inside of me, » Waterson said. « I’ve been doing martial arts for over 25 years. This fight camp, I’ve really embraced to love what I do and go out there and utilize all the tools that I have and to not restrict myself from any of it. I’m not just a standup fighter. I have an amazing, world-renowned wrestling coach and a husband — who is an amazing boxer in his own right — sharpening my tools. »
When asked about getting the call to headline the fight card, Waterson pointed out her division’s reputation within the UFC for always putting on exciting fights and that both fighters will be hungry coming off controversial defeats. While Waterson praised Hill for her grit, volume striking and scrappiness, Hill pointed out her need to make sure she provides the judges with enough reason to give her the nod should the fight go the distance.
« Michelle is tricky. She has her hip throws and has pretty quick transitions. She’s a good scrambler, » Hill said. « Those are the things that I’ll be looking for, just trying to hit her more and draw out her attacks. I need to make sure that I’m pushing the pace and not letting her get ahead of me with her volume. It’s one of the reasons she usually gets decisions when it’s close and one of the reasons I usually lose those divisions. I need to pick up the pace and just mash her up. »
Entering undoubtedly her biggest opportunity since rejoining the UFC in 2017 following a run as Invicta FC champion, Hill believes she’s finally on the doorstep of where she wanted to be all along.
« I’ve always been up against the hardest people and I’ve always done well against them and been competitive, » Hill said. « When it didn’t go my way, I still didn’t get the respect that people who were paying attention thought I deserved.
« Now I can see the growth and how far I’ve come when it comes to the fandom that’s attached to me. I can see how far I’ve come skill wise. People are finally able to see the value of what I bring to women’s MMA after grinding for so many years and trying to make a name for myself. I feel like it’s all happening. »
This card also marks the return of some veteran names looking for big wins. Bobby Green, the longtime lightweight, has come back to life in his last few trips to the Octagon and is looking to add another name to his resume when he takes on Alan Patrick at 155 pounds. Green, 34, has already won two fights this summer and could be one of the biggest winners of this quarantine season with another on Saturday. Plus, Roxanne Modaferri is back when she takes on Andrea Lee at flyweight. Modaferri shocked the world in January when she beat red-hot prospect Maycee Barber, but fell to Lauren Murphy her next time out.
This has all the makings to be the kind of high-speed thriller that the division has long been known for, especially considering what’s at stake for either fighter. The upgrade to five rounds as a main event also shouldn’t be an issue considering both have great stamina and an equal level of experience going deep into fights. Expect the fight to be won and lost on the feet with whichever fighter can dictate the terms and give the impression they are landing the harder blows.
Waterson hasn’t finished a fight since 2015, just as she began to make the move up consistently to the elite level. Hill, meanwhile, has finally come into her own as a reformed finisher who believes she’s finally gained the confidence and technique to break her opponents down similar to recent TKO wins over Hannah Cifers and Ariane Carnelossi.
The biggest X-factor could become whether Waterson, the more highly-skilled fighter historically, can figure out how to empty out any and all that is left inside of her for one more run back into contention. Should Waterson look flat at all, Hill is the wrong opponent to be facing when she’s this close to finally breaking through. But as she showed in a five-round 2019 loss to Joanna Jedrzejczyk, peak Waterson is scrappy enough to keep on coming forward and tirelessly looking for an avenue to victory despite the damage accrued along the way.
If Waterson still has that same level of fight inside of her, it should be enough to edge a game Hill given her variety of strikes. Either way, expect the judges to be split. Pick: Waterson via SD
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