Don’t look at Anthony “TJ” Waldburger’s age and assume that, at 22, he’s in over his head as he makes his UFC debut against David Mitchell on Wednesday night in Austin, Texas. Don’t scoff at the 12-5 record, because if any 12-5 record is misleading it’s his.
In other words, throw out any misconceptions you may have about the soft-spoken welterweight prospect from Belton, Texas, because he has every intentions of making believers out of you this week.
“I’m a fighter who likes to put on a good show,” said Waldburger. “I’m willing to take risks and who’s just fun to watch. I’m not a boring fighter, I’m willing to throw down, and I like for people to see the whole game of MMA and say this guy can do it all.”
If it sounds familiar, it’s because many Octagon first timers have the same pre-fight attitude, yet when the bell rings, things change. Not for Waldburger though, and it’s not because he’s some other worldly talent from another planet. It’s just that he’s got more experience than a lot of newcomers, and has also been plying his trade for a while now, so he knows what he can deliver in a fight. And as far as being ready for the bright lights of the UFC, he knows that he’s put in the work under longtime coach John Moore at the Grappler’s Lair gym.
“I’m just blessed,” said Waldburger. “I was in high school when I started, so my parents took care of me, and I was able to train twice a day so I put in eight hours a day. And my coach is amazing. He’s able to put so much on you where you’re constantly learning. He’ll have guys with three months experience beating guys with a year’s experience. So the way he teaches puts a lot on you where you’re learning it quick, and you understand the whole game. I’ve been training for five and a half years, but I like to say that I’ve put in over ten years of training.”
If you do the math, that means Waldburger has been training in the sport since the age of 16. And while he planned on taking a slow and steady route to the pros by competing as an amateur, after three fights, amateur MMA was banned in Texas. Waldburger, still a student, had a decision to make.
“It was either don’t fight at all, or just turn pro,” he said. He knew what he wanted to do, but he did have to convince his parents to get on board. “That was the only thing I really had to talk them into, and it took a little bit, but eventually they gave me the consent.”
On November 26, 2005, the high school junior made his pro debut, getting stopped in the first round by Sammy Say (a loss avenged less than three months later). Needless to say, when he walked into school that Monday morning, his weekend exploits were a little different than those of his peers.
“Some people thought it was cool, and then some people just gave me the cold shoulder, so there were a lot of mixed feelings,” he said. “Some people felt like they weren’t good enough to talk to you, some people didn’t think you were worth talking to.”
Not that any of that mattered to Waldburger, who, before his 18th, 21st, or 30th birthday, figured out what he wanted to do for a living. And oddly enough, he got the trouble that those in their late teens and early twenties usually get into out of his system before he even put on the gloves for the first time.
“I fell off and went crazy partying and did that whole thing,” said Waldburger. “It’s a long story but I’m glad I got that stuff out of the way. It’s cool how God has orchestrated my life and how it’s fit together because I’ve learned certain lessons being younger, like being in high school and finding what I want to do for the rest of my life.”
Waldburger also counts his faith as a Christian and a close relationship with his coaches with keeping him on the straight and narrow at an age when many get off track.
“My coaches are like parents to me, and in a literal sense too, because I’m about to marry my coach’s daughter,” he smiles. “They made me want to be a better person. And once I realized what really matters in life, there’s no sense in doing a lot of things. This is what I love to do, and if you want to be the best, you have to make sacrifices.”
You also have to learn how to weather the ups and downs, and Waldburger has been handed few, if any, gimmes over the course of his nearly five year career. For proof, look at some of the men he’s beaten (Brian Foster, Pete Spratt, Shannon Ritch, Pat Healy) and those he’s lost to (Spratt, Josh Neer, Ricardo Funch). Yet when you ask him whether he regrets some of those early defeats and chalks them up to inexperience and being young, he comes back with an answer that only a mature pro could muster.
“My pride, I know I can beat ‘em now, but then if I didn’t lose I wouldn’t have looked at my fights so hard and examined them,” he said. “I’ve made dramatic changes because of my losses. So there’s that no and that yes, and I’m not ashamed of my losses. I love to fight, and win or lose, I’m gonna learn something and I’m gonna be better.”
Now he gets to prove himself on the sport’s biggest stage.
“I really want to fight the best of the best,” he said. “That’s why I’m so thankful to be in the UFC, because that’s where they’re at. And not to be all WWE or whatever (Laughs), but to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best.”
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“I really want to fight the best of the best. That’s why I’m so thankful to be in the UFC, because that’s where they’re at. And not to be all WWE or whatever (Laughs), but to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best.”