LAS VEGAS – Five years into her octagon run, Michelle Waterson still has a singular goal in mind: UFC gold.

“The Karate Hottie” took a step in that direction on Saturday night with a victory in the main event of UFC on ESPN+ 35 at UFC Apex. Waterson (18-8 MMA, 6-4 UFC) earned a hard-fought split-decision win over Angela Hill (12-9 MMA, 7-9 UFC) in the five round thriller, which was awarded the evening’s “Fight of the Night” bonus.

Afterward, while she was a little battered and bruised, Waterson said she was feeling fantastic and was looking forward to getting home to her daughter, Araya.

“Any time you take damage and you get a victory, it doesn’t hurt,” Waterson told MMA Junkie. “I’m super happy to come home with a victory and go home and see my little monkey.”

Things didn’t start out great for Waterson, who dropped the opening two rounds on two of three judges’ scorecards. But a big takedown in the third saw her seize some momentum, and changes to her strategy in the striking department helped her rally to win the fourth and fifth frames, as well.

“I think for me, it was just honestly an adjustment within a couple of inches – the difference in being a little bit further back and reserved and kind of trying to fight on the outskirts vs. just kind of biting down, sitting in a little bit deeper and intruding in her space and just deciding, ‘All right, let’s go forward,’” Waterson said.

While she took some visible damage in the process, including a small hematoma that was forming near her left temple, Waterson could occasionally be seen smiling down the homestretch. Despite being involved in such a grueling battle, she said that was simply a natural reaction to her emotions at the moment.

“It’s a fight,” Waterson said. “This is what we love to do, and I think everybody has that within themselves. It’s like fight or flight.

“I always remember being in like sport karate and getting kicked in the face and just seeing the blood come down and seeing the blood and not wanting to retreat but actually wanting to move forward. Sometimes you just have to get hit to feel that way. Like ‘All right let’s go. This is a fight.’”

As for what’s next, Waterson admitted she wasn’t sure. In the past, she admits that worrying about rankings and matchups and paths to the title got a little bit overwhelming, so she’s elected instead to just focus on the fight in front of her at the moment.

So while there may be a few matchups that could help steer her in that direction, Waterson isn’t really worried about how to put them together. Instead, she simply plans on staying the course.

“The goal has always been to fight for the belt,” Waterson said. “I’ve been chomping away at this for a really long time, and I want to get there. I see the light at the end of the tunnel. I’m like chipping away and chipping away and I can’t turn around. I’ve just got to keep going forward.”