The state of Texas holds a strong history of supporting athletics with an unparalleled passion. From football and basketball to soccer and track and field, crowds in the “Lone Star State” support their teams and athletes all the way to the bitter end. With the recent boom of mixed martial arts in the United States, the state now exhibits a firm appreciation for a new breed of professional athletes that blend a diverse array of martial arts techniques with a competitive mental drive, as well as the type of fighting spirit often associated with some of the state’s finest.

T.J. Waldburger, who trains out of Grappler’s Lair in Belton, Texas, represents this rising breed of athletes. A native Texan who played in a number of team sports in his early life, he embraced the spirit of MMA and possessed the desire to transition into the sport. For him, the journey into the sport included a number of disciplines from the onset, including the grappling art of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, which Waldburger personally forged into his signature style.

“We’ve concentrated on the ground coming up, because I see the ground as a more dominating part of the game,” Waldburger told The MMA Corner in an exclusive interview. “Royce Gracie showed in the beginning that it doesn’t matter how big you are or how talented or strong you are, jiu-jitsu can overcome that through technique and leverage. But when I started, we went into everything. I started off in Muay Thai, wrestling, jiu-jitsu, the whole package.”

For fans that do not immediately recognize the wizardry Waldburger owns, they need only look as far as his pro record of 16-7. Thirteen of those 16 wins came via submission, whereas only one pro win came by a form of knockout. Still, the well-rounded fighter knew that achieving success in MMA meant doing well in every discipline of both the striking and grappling aspects of MMA. Luckily, the art of Muay Thai came with the territory in regards to training at Grappler’s Lair.

“It was part of the program,” Waldburger said. “When I first came into the Grappler’s Lair, I told them that I was interested in fighting, and so that was what we did. We did Muay Thai, wrestling and jiu-jitsu, and so that was an everyday thing for me, and I enjoyed it all. I really love everything. I love standing, I love the wrestling part of it, and I love the ground, so there’s not one that I don’t like at all. I’ve grown to be better at some than others, but that’s how you develop as a person, and as a person, you work on your weaknesses and build your whole game up.”

The improvements in his game showed greatly when he came to The Ultimate Fighter 16 Finale to face Nick Catone. At the time, Waldburger carried a 15-7 pro mark and looked to rebound from a UFC on FX 4 loss to Brian Ebersole with a win over Catone, who presented a tough challenge for the young Texan.

“I knew he was going to be strong, but I knew that first round that I needed to tire him out one way or another,” Waldburger admitted. “It’s like every fight. I just go off of the situation and just play it out as it goes. I just stood with him for a little bit and ended up transitioning for that triangle and finished him off on the ground, so that worked out jiu-jitsu-wise.”

Waldburger found his rebound victory, a second-round submission of Catone. Not only did Waldburger find the choke, but he locked it up to where Catone passed out. Pro fighters endure hellacious holds and strikes in their quest to find a win, and Waldburger anticipated that Catone would take each submission to the limit.

“Any kind of choke, it can happen, but I never try to do it purposely,” Waldburger said of choking an opponent until they lose consciousness. “These guys are fighters, and we’re going to take every choke and armbar to the limit. And he took it too far, and that’s what happens. You just go to sleep, wake up, and everything’s okay. Luckily, [referee] Herb Dean saw it and I noticed it as well, and as soon as Herb [told me to break], we let him go, let him come to, and I got my hands raised.”

The matter goes all the way back to training, where fighters get told to never go full speed on their training partners. Come fight time, every fighter maintains the control they build to get through their work in the gym, but everything ultimately falls on the third man in the cage, who takes on the task of knowing when to call the bout so as to protect the safety of the fighters involved.

“In training, you’re taking it easier on the guy. There’s a different level and a different speed in training, but you still have control and you still understand the limits of the body,” Waldburger explained. “In jiu-jitsu, you understand the anatomy of the body, how to manipulate it, and how to lock it out. Some people are double-jointed, or they have iron necks, but that’s where the ref has to come in and he has to know. And he’s seen it outside of the box, because a lot of times you may not even be able to see or feel.

“Like the Nick Catone situation. I had no clue that he was out. I had the choke on, but I didn’t know he was out, but Herb Dean saw it, and so he told me. As soon as I realized, I let it go, but these fighters are going to take it to the limit, but you have to have control in your submission, and once the ref comes in, it’s your job as a fighter to stop. When the ref says stop, you stop, and then it’s over. You don’t continue to crank it and things like that, but I also believe that the refs need to know.

“I see a lot of refs nowadays—and not particularly in the UFC, though I see it in the UFC too, but especially outside the UFC—you’ll see a lot of new refs who don’t understand jiu-jitsu. They come from more of a boxing background, they don’t understand jiu-jitsu, and so they don’t know what’s happening. And so, like [Rousimar] Palhares, he’s attacking the knee, but he’s doing it by the heel. If I’m the ref and I’m stopping the fight, I have to know the mechanics of that move so I can shut it down. You take that fighter out, you jack his knee up, he’s done for years, and that’ll completely ruin a career, especially the knees. The knees are a horrible, horrible thing, and they take forever to heal, so it’s the ref’s job to know the art so they know how to save a person’s career. But it’s also the fighter’s job to stop and listen to the ref, so I see faults in both of them.

“You won the fight. You’re not trying to kill people and injure their career. That’s not the sport; that’s real life. This is a sport. This is first place and second place.”

At UFC 166 this weekend, Waldburger gets to head three hours away from home to meet former Strikeforce prospect Adlan Amagov inside Houston’s famed Toyota Center. Waldburger enjoys the opportunity to fight in his home state, not only because of the chance to hold home court, but also because of what comes with holding home court. The partisan crowd will add to Waldburger’s motivation when the spotlight shines on him and Amagov. Those fans will stand in support of one of their own, just as passionate Texan crowds always do.

“It’s a great feeling,” Waldburger admitted. “The more people in the crowd that are cheering my name, the more excited I get. I’m there to please my fans, so I’ll have plenty of fans in the crowd. It’s nice to fight close to home too. I’m only three hours from Houston, so I can leave nonchalantly, have my own car, drive around and bring the whole house and the kitchen sink too, so I’m good, man. This is an awesome feeling, and it’s just good to be back in the home state fighting again.”

Amagov, noted as a sambo specialist with the cardio needed to earn victories by way of the judges’ scorecards, will put up a commendable fight in his own right. On paper, his shots possess the kind of power that a welterweight needs to finish Waldburger within the distance, but can he land them against a competitor in Waldburger whose last TKO loss came in 2011 against current UFC contender Johny Hendricks? So far, nobody can claim to replicate the success Hendricks found in stopping Waldburger, but in Amagov, Waldburger sees a man who brings plenty to the cage.

“We’ve dipped into it a few times,” Waldburger said. “We always try to look at the guy to see what he does. It’s pretty smart to look at him.”

Most times, when a fighter encounters a foe with a powerful knockout blow, that one patented technique takes the form of a hook, a body punch, a straight or an uppercut. In Amagov’s case, however, Waldburger recognizes a different kind of finishing blow. See, Amagov opts to put his feet to work with a heavy barrage of kicks, and he will look to end things quickly if he gets enough room to fight “shin-to-head style” with any foe, regardless of how long ago their last knockout loss happened. Of course, when fight time comes, though, nothing Amagov throws will surprise Waldburger.

“He likes to kick. He’s a big kicker,” Waldburger noted. “And he’s got sambo, so he’s a well-rounded guy and dangerous in all aspects of the game. He’s got good foot locks, good positioning. You know, sambo is similar to wrestling. It’s got a lot of American wrestling aspects into it, but they do a lot more throws. Once it gets to the ground, they do a lot more positioning with a few submissions and stuff.

“And he likes to bang standing. He’ll bang from the top, too, with his ground-and-pound.”

At the end of the road for all welterweights will lie the winner of UFC 167’s headliner next month, where Hendricks will challenge UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre for the title. Like a number of welterweights in the sport, Waldburger will watch that bout closely, knowing that a few more wins may put him closer to the belt. However, he won’t take an eye off of Amagov. With the opportunity to score a huge win on home soil, Waldburger looks toward a successful homecoming first. Everything else can wait until he makes his mark in Houston.

“I will always think of the fight right now,” Waldburger declared. “I’m not looking past this fight at all, because this is what I trained for. I’m not ready for it to be over, but I’m ready to do it. All the hard training and everything, that’s the hard work. Going in there and fighting inside the Octagon, that’s dessert. That’s the fun and that’s what it’s all about, so I’m excited to fight, to be back in the cage. It’s been too long since I’ve been there. I’m excited to fight, and then after the win, it’s whoever [UFC President] Dana [White] and [matchmaker] Joe Silva want to give me—someone that’s going to continue [getting] me up the ladder. So, I’ll fight whoever they give me.

“Y’all enjoy the fight, because it’s going to be a great fight. I’ve trained harder than I ever have, I’m a new person coming into this fight, and you’re going to see it Oct. 19 in Houston, so just stay tuned and expect a war, but I’m looking for the finish.”

T.J. would like to thank his coaches and team at Grappler’s Lair, everyone who helped him prior to this bout, Azteca Boxing Gym, Hayabusa, his sponsors, Paradigm MMA and his fans for supporting him. Follow Waldburger on Twitter: @TJWaldburger

Photo: T.J. Waldburger (Paul Thatcher/Fight! Magazine)

About The Author

Dale De Souza
Staff Writer

Dale De Souza is a 22-year-old kid straight out of Texas, who grew up around Professional Wrestling but embraced the beauty of Mixed Martial Arts and Combat Sports at a young age. Dale is a Featured Columnist at Bleacher Report MMA, a writer at The MMA Corner.

  • T.J I’m behind you 100%. You have inspired the day I met you. And you continue to inspire me. I know you can win this fight.