TJ Waldburger enters the Octagon the same way he entered the world: ready to fight for his life.
The Texan welterweight, who squares off against Nick Catone this Saturday, was born two months premature and drastically underweight.
“I was born three pounds and two ounces,” he tells Fighters.com over the phone from Las Vegas, where he’ll compete in The Ultimate Fighter 16 Finale.
“I was a little thing – they had me in an incubator for a while. I wore Cabbage Patch doll clothes until I was big enough for real clothes.”
It was a dubious start for someone who would go on to become one of the more promising young talents in the MMA – a jiu-jitsu specialist with a respectable 3-2 record in the UFC since his 2010 debut.
In fighting, as in life, he has always been a scrappy underdog – joining the UFC at 22 years old, having launched his pro fighting career straight out of high school.
Now 24, Waldburger prefers a submissions-based offense – he beat Jake Hecht with an armbar and Mike Stumpf with a triangle choke – but he insists he’ll do whatever the situation demands to defeat Catone this weekend.
“I don’t really ever have a strategy going in,” he says. “I’ll go in there and feel the guy out, work around his strengths and use mine.”
Of course, during the fight he’ll listen to the instructions shouted by his coach, and the encouragement hollered by his father-in-law. After all, they’re the same person.
Waldburger is married to Shayla Moore, the daughter of his coach, John Moore. It’s an unusual blending of business and pleasure, fighting and family. And although Waldburger insists “it’s awesome now,” it wasn’t without its hurdles.
Their longtime coach-pupil relationship was jeopardized when Waldburger started dating the coach’s daughter (Waldburger couldn’t exactly skip training to go on a date, among other inconveniences), and he says he “had to learn a lot of things, sometimes the hard way.”
But going in to this weekend’s fight, Waldburger says there is nothing but love and support coming from his corner.
“We’ve built back our relationship as friends, and it’s grown into him becoming a father to me.”
In fact, coach Moore is also now a grandpa, since Waldburger and his wife recently had their first child.
With the domestic situation finally harmonious again, Waldburger has been able to focus on his training. He trains out of Grapplers Lair in Belton, Texas – a gym run by his father-in-law, imbued with a deeply Christian philosophy (Thursday nights at the gym include Bible study).
Waldburger believes fighting in the UFC is his purpose in life, and he’s determined to fulfill it. He confidently predicts he’ll finish Catone within a couple of rounds and move on to bigger, more prominent fights.
He says his dream fight would be against Georges St-Pierre. Asked if he thinks it will actually happen, Waldburger’s response is immediate: “Definitely.”