As a high school kid in Belton, Texas, UFC welterweight T.J. Waldburger sat and watched fights with his buddies, and eventually wrestled with those friends in the house because they were still on a high from the action they saw on television.
They would rip the sheets off the mattresses and roll like the fighters they saw on the broadcast, boxing in the bedroom like the strikers featured in the octagon.
“We’d act like we knew what we were doing,” Waldburger told GRACIEMAG.com, referring to what was, at the time, his lack of MMA knowledge.
He was just a kid who loved sports. His stepfather watched the teenager engage and thought it would be best to focus that energy somewhere else — an MMA gym.
At first, Waldburger thought his old man was joking around, but sure enough it was for real. After all, he played sports and was active all his life, so getting into the highly physical world of MMA might be the right fit.
“It was one of those things where I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” he said. “And I was good at it. Me and the coach hit it off and we became best friends.”
That friendship proved to be important beyond MMA because the coach, John Moore, ultimately became his father-in-law.
But before the nuptials, Waldburger wanted to fight, and he had his first bout before legally becoming an adult. At 17 years old and still in high school, Waldburger was a pro. And as much as his parents might have worried that their boy would fight in a cage while still legally a child, they eventually had to give in to the young man’s charm.
“After a long talk and puppy dog eyes, I talked my parents into signing the waiver so I could turn pro,” he said. “They noticed that I was getting good at it.”
Looking back, Waldburger thinks he may have turned pro a little early. But it all worked out, he said. Even after “15 or 16” fights of making little to no money.
But it’s not all about the cash, he said. Fighting is something he genuinely loves doing, so it wasn’t a big deal that he didn’t see what he could consider income until he landed in the bright lights of the UFC.
The love of the sport is what motivated him, he said, along with the challenge of overcoming opposition.
“It’s just what I want to do,” he said when asked of what drove him to compete when there was little money at stake. “The pressure, it’s like nothing else.”
And the next spike in pressure will come in his next fight, which takes place Saturday, Dec. 15, at the Ultimate Fighter 16 Finale in Las Vegas. He’ll meet Nick Catone on the evening’s undercard, and, unlike before his pro debut, the fight won’t be with his buddies at the house. Instead, he’ll face a welterweight looking to get back on the winning track after suffering a TKO against Chris Camozzi.
This time, stepfather will look on a man who was once a teenager messing up the living room with his buddies and see a fire in him on FUEL TV.
“I was in high school and people were telling me that I was crazy,” he said. “It just lit a fire.”
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