Most fighters will tell you that the hardest part of mixed martial arts is the transitions, the ability to seamlessly flow from one element to another with the timing necessary to make each meaningful. T.J. Waldburger had it mastered when he was a teenager. In an impressive career, he has shown a knack for chaining together events that lead to good outcomes. He does it with his slick submission attempts, which have led to the majority of his 21 career wins, and he does it in his personal life, too.
The best example is from the time Waldburger was 16 years old. Growing up in Temple, Texas, Waldburger had played sports, and dreamed of being a pro soccer player. That changed soon after he started watching the UFC on television. Before long, he found himself on the hunt for a gym, when he discovered The Grapplers Lair in his hometown.
On his first day there, Waldburger found two, connected reasons to stay. For one, the gym's atmosphere was magnetic. And the other? We'll let him tell it from here.
"I saw this pretty girl kickboxing and beating up all the boys," he said.
That pretty girl -- Shayla -- wasn't just a student; she was the daughter of the gym's head coach, John Moore.
It might not seem like the best idea to walk into the gym of an experienced martial artist and head straight for his daughter, but as Waldburger was soon to show in his early MMA career, he excelled in tricky situations. Before long, the two were in love, and Waldburger was fast becoming the gym's top student, a successful chain move just as impressive as any that would come during his pro fighting days.
How good was he? Within a few months of beginning his training, he was already competing in his first professional match. Just 17 years old, he had to convince his parents to sign their consent before he could compete.
At the time, it seemed more like an adventure than a career, and even though he'd trained diligently for the match, Waldburger lost in a first-round TKO. A few months later, Waldburger was back at it, against the same opponent. This time, he was far more nervous than the first time around, but the fight went much more smoothly for him, as he avenged the defeat with a first-round submission.
He would soon become known for his attacking ground game, winning each of his first nine pro fights by submission, including a triangle choke win over UFC veteran Pete Spratt in 2007 that helped put him on the map as a prospect. At the time, he was just 19.
"I just let things develop as they would," he said. "I was fighting tough guys, wanting to prove myself. I really wasn't in too much of a hurry. A lot of people were telling me, 'Man, you need to join TUF, you need to get on TV. But I really wanted to fight and beat people and scratch my way in. To get known in the fighting aspect of it rather than get known for being on TV. To me, it’s more rewarding that way. I just took my time and fought who was put in my way, and I knew eventually somebody would see me and the UFC would call."
Waldburger eventually got that call after beating the tough veteran Pat Healy. He won his UFC debut by defeating David Mitchell, but in his next fight, suffered a setback with a knockout loss to Johny Hendricks.
Within months, he was back in the win column, pulling off a spectacular triangle choke following a submission chain that nearly saw him win via arm bar. His next win was even more impressive, an arm bar submission in just 55 seconds over Jake Hecht.
At UFC on FX 4, he faces Brian Ebersole, the crafty veteran who hasn't had a legitimate tapout loss since January 2005. Yet even though Waldburger's become known for his aggressive ground game, that's not always going to be the focus of his attack, he says.
"Submit him, knock him out, slam him, go the distance, it doesn’t matter," he said. "I’m ready to win, and it means a lot because he’s that next level up as far as the fighters I've fought in the UFC, so I think it’ll put me up the ladder, and prove it to everybody else that I'm meant to be there."
Now 24, Waldburger still wants to prove he's worthy of consideration as a top welterweight prospect, just as he wanted to prove himself in his own gym so many years ago. These days, he and Shayla are married, and they just welcomed a son, Colt, into their family.
He still trains with Shayla's dad and now proudly represents The Grapplers Lair on the major MMA scene. The funny thing is, ask Waldburger if he would have chased MMA if there hadn't been a gym so close by his hometown, and he pauses.
"You never know," he said. "Most likely I might not have fell into it. Something led me to it, and I just kind of followed my heart. It worked out, and I fell in love."
In love with the sport? In love with the girl? He doesn't say, but it doesn't matter, because when it comes to Waldburger, everything is connected.