Every once in a while, a fighter emerges that comes into his own very quickly and is good enough to bypass Bellator, World Series of Fighting and even The Ultimate Fighter to get right into the best cage in the game. One way to get a direct ticket into the Octagon is to beat a bunch of former UFC guys and get noticed by the UFC brass. After this weekend, James “Jay” Wood should be bee-lining right for the big show.

A former NCAA Division II wrestler from the University of Nebraska-Omaha, Wood first stepped into the pro MMA cage in April 2010, about a year after he started training in the sport. He had moved to Minnesota in 2009 so his wife could go to graduate school, and he got connected with Greg Nelson’s highly acclaimed gym, The Academy. In 2011, upon his wife’s graduation, the two moved to Omaha, where he instantly hooked up with Premier Combat Center, the top MMA gym in town.

In his two and a half years as a pro, Wood has amassed a 7-1 record, taking out five opponents by first-round submission and losing only once by decision. It was after that loss that he transitioned to Omaha.

Wood’s most recent victory was last December, when he wore down former UFC fighter Kevin Burns for five rounds to pull off a landslide unanimous decision, earning the Victory Fighting Championship welterweight title. Wood dominated the bulk of the fight and gained some valuable experience.

Wood (top) delivers punishment (Jerry Chavez/Victory Fighting Championship)

“The biggest thing was that he caught me in the first round with a good, solid punch, and that was the first time I’d really been hit hard in a fight,” admitted Wood in an exclusive interview with The MMA Corner. “I guess I can take a shot, because it wasn’t that bad. Then I kind of blew through him after that. After two minutes of the first round, it wasn’t even competitive, just because my style is very much ‘grind.’”

It’s no surprise that a collegiate wrestler has a grinding style, but it’s even more volatile when it’s a grinder that can go five rounds at a high pace without gassing. That’s a dangerous formula that works well in the UFC.

“A lot of people were telling me he was going to be that fast-paced, going to be able to go five rounds really hard, type of person that can make it difficult to keep the pace,” Wood explained. “I took away that nobody can keep my pace for a fight. People can go with me for a round or two, but after that, it’s pretty much bad news for anybody.”

Barely over three years into his pro career, Wood knows that he belongs in the UFC. He’s very in tune with the state of the sport and knows he belongs at the next level.

“I feel like I’m good enough to be in the upper tier of UFC fighters,” Wood said. “I beat Burns, and Burns had gone the distance with guys like Chris Lytle and was very competitive with Anthony Johnson. I feel like I’m going to be in that group. I don’t feel like those guys are head and shoulders above me, and I’m still new to the sport, so I’ve got a lot of stuff I can improve on.”

This Saturday night at VFC 40, Wood will get another chance to take on a former UFC guy, and it will also be his first title defense. Seven months between bouts is a long time for any fighter to sit on the sidelines, and for a young up-and-comer, it can generate some anxiety. However, this break from action worked out quite well for Wood.

“The next card they had was in March and I didn’t get offered to be on that one,” explained the native Nebraskan. “He won’t let me fight within so many miles of Omaha, obviously for contractual obligations, so I was kind of stuck, because I don’t like to travel. My wife was pregnant and she just had a baby. We have a three-and-a-half-year-old at home, and the traveling would have been difficult”

About a month ago, Wood’s wife Alisha had their second boy, Dominic, to give their other son, Carter, a little buddy. The break gave Wood some time to help around the house and also focus on his business.

Wood is a personal trainer at Lifetime Fitness in West Omaha. The busiest time of the year for him is from January until March. He knew he was fighting in July, but he didn’t know against whom.

“I was hoping to get a May fight, something earlier, but they couldn’t find anybody that they could afford,” said Wood. “DC [Management] was trying to find me something, but it just didn’t pan out. I just found out it was Brian Foster a month ago.”

Brian Foster, a HIT Squad fighter out of Granite City, Ill., is another UFC veteran and was last in the Octagon in November 2010. After a 3-2 UFC run, including a submission of Matt Brown, he was set to fight for the promotion again in April 2011, but he did not receive medical clearance after a brain hemorrhage was discovered that was linked to a hard sparring session during camp. This setback came shortly after he suffered a ruptured, and subsequently removed, testicle from an earlier sparring shot he took to the groin.

Foster was eventually cleared to re-enter the cage, but was no longer with the UFC. He came back in October 2011 to earn a first-round submission win, took 2012 off, and just lost in May for the first time in three years. Regardless of Foster’s previous misfortunes, Wood is still fully aware of what his opponent’s strengths are and isn’t afraid to disappoint another former UFC guy.

Wood (L) connects with a right hand (Jerry Chavez/Victory Fighting Championship)

“Foster is really explosive, good hands, and is really tough for about two rounds,” Wood said. “I guess I’m indifferent to it. I mean, you’ve got to fight anyone. If I’m in the UFC, I’ve got to fight tough guys, regardless.

“I feel really good about it. I’d say my style is very similar to Rick Story, and Rick Story kind of handled Foster, so we’ll see how it goes. I don’t think he’ll be able to finish me, and I think if he can’t finish somebody in a round or two, then he’s going to lose the fight. He’s never gone the distance. He had his time off with his brain thing, so I don’t know how good he is now. I guess we’ll find out on Saturday.”

Saturday night, at Ralston Arena for VFC 40, Wood will have his chance once again to prove why he belongs in the UFC. He knows he can win and he knows exactly why.

“For a five-round fight, we know that we just need to weather the storm,” Wood stated. “Everyone touts his takedown defense, but every fight I’ve seen he’s gotten taken down. He’s just got really explosive hands, so I’m going to be watching out for that. I see me grinding him out for about a round or two and then submitting him.”

Determined to win and confident as ever, Wood will keep his focus on the big show. Until then, he will keep grinding out wins to make sure he catches the eye of the UFC brass, as well as the fans. After this win, his next title defense won’t be after such a long break.

“I think they’re trying to set me up, if I win, for an October fight in Rapid City to fight one of their hometown guys,” Wood explained. “I’m not sure if I like the idea of defending my title in somebody else’s hometown, but I know that if I get a quick turnaround fight after beating two UFC guys in a row, I think that a quick turnaround fight against a decent name, that maybe the UFC will look at me.”

Jay Wood is focused, fresh and ready for greatness. He wants the fans to know one thing about him.

“If you watch me fight, it’s going to be non-stop action, non-stop coming forward. I don’t back up, and there aren’t a lot of guys that will back me up. They’ll be in for quite a treat. There’s no point in sitting around, feeling each other out for a minute, when you’ve only got 15 or 25 to get it done.”

Jay would like to thank Premier Combat Center, DC Management, and his wife and two sons, as well as his sponsors: Studio 13, Tommy’s Tires & Custom Wheels, Beer Transportation and Firewater Grille. Follow Wood on Twitter: @JayWood170

Top Photo: Jay Wood has his hand raised (Jerry Chavez/Victory Fighting Championship)

About The Author

Dan Kuhl
Interview Coordinator