With roots already planted in three separate states, former national championship wrestler T.J. Hepburn is looking to plant one more in the competitive world of mixed martial arts.
Hepburn, a New Jersey native who grew up in Connecticut and wrestled collegiately in Nebraska, will return to the cage for the first time in more than a year on Friday, Dec. 6th, 2013 at Twin River Casino when he faces Rhode Islander Tundee Odumoso (1-1) on the undercard of “CES MMA XX” presented by Classic Entertainment & Sports.
Whether MMA is a legitimate career move or just a passing fancy for Hepburn (1-0, 1 KO) remains to be seen, but the scrappy, 5-foot-7 lightweight hopes to have an answer by the end of 2014, making Friday’s fight against Odumoso an important barometer as he moves forward with his career.
“I have a wife and two kids,” Hepburn said, “so if it doesn’t work for me this year, it’s the end of the road.
“Because I was a national championship wrestler, people automatically assume my goal is to get to the [Ultimate Fighting Championships], but the most important thing for me is to make sure my children have clothes on their back.
“I’ll see where this takes me.”
The 24-year-old Hepburn already has a backup plan; he’s a manager at the Grappler’s Lair in Kearney, Neb., where he currently trains, plus he has a bachelor’s degree in sports administration and physically education from the University of Nebraska-Kearney and plans on becoming a certified personal trainer in 2014.
A career in MMA may or may not be the right move, but, given Hepburn’s impressive wrestling background, it would’ve been a shame if he didn’t test the waters at some point. After moving to East Ledyard, Conn., in 2003, Hepburn became a four-time state finalist and three-time state champion at East Ledyard High, finishing with a near-perfect record of 200-4.
At UNK, he exceled in the 157-pound weight class, earning NCAA Division II All-American honors three times before ending his career as the D-II national champion in 2012. The decision to step into the cage later that year wasn’t exactly spur of the moment; Hepburn fought two amateur MMA bouts in 2007 and 2008 as an 18-year-old up-and-comer and one more in March of 2012 before making his professional debut three months later.
Ironically, the highly-decorated wrestler won that fight by first-round knockout, using a flurry of punches to stop Jeremy Mier with one second remaining.
“People have the wrong perspective about wrestlers not being able to throw hands,” Hepburn said. “Wrestling is such a hard sport to learn. If anything, we pick things up a lot faster than most fighters.”
Since his debut more than a year ago, fights have been hard to come by for Hepburn. On three separate occasions, a potential fight fell through when the opponent pulled out at the last minute. Then a promoter asked him to drop to 145 pounds, which Hepburn – who walks around at 170 – refused to do. As the disappointments added up, Hepburn began questioning his future in MMA.
“Starting your training camp, cutting weight and preparing for a fight is a big sacrifice,” he said. “To do that three times with a wife and two kids and not have a fight in the end is tough.”
Even Friday’s fight almost fell through a few weeks ago, but CES matchmaker Pat Sullivan promised Hepburn he’d make sure he’d have an opponent, so Hepburn stayed up north with family and friends until he got the phone call.
In addition to the uncertainty surrounding his next fight, Hepburn also dealt with the death of his 33-year-old sister, who passed away recently following a 29-year, on-and-off battle with cancer.
“She was a fighter, that’s for sure,” Hepburn said. “Losing her was tough to handle, but the show must go on.”
What happens beyond Friday is anyone’s guess. Hepburn would prefer to fight in New England “two or three times a year,” but admits he still considers MMA a “hobby” until he figures out whether or not it can evolve into a legitimate career.
“I train, I work hard, and I have two kids,” he said, “so I definitely need to make money.”
Tickets for “CES MMA XX” are priced at $40.00, $55.00, $100.00 and $125.00 (VIP) and can be purchased by calling 401-724-2253/2254, online at www.cesmma.com or www.ticketmaster.com, or at Players Club at Twin River.
Headlining the event, Boston, Mass., native Rob Font (7-1, 2 KOs), the reigning CES MMA featherweight champion, will put his record on the line in the main event against Canadian challenger Matt DiMarcantonio (4-3), while Providence, R.I., veteran Luis Felix (9-7, 3 KOs) and Boston’s Lucas Cruz (6-1, 2 KOs) will battle for lightweight supremacy in the highly-anticipated co-feature.
Also on the undercard, Woonsocket, R.I., featherweight Andre Soukhamthath (6-1, 3 KOs) will aim for his fourth win of the year and seventh consecutive overall, the latter which would make him the winningest fighter in CES MMA history, breaking a tie with the aforementioned Chattelle. Soukhamthath will face 5-foot-7 challenger Corey Simmons (5-5) of Defiance, Ohio.
In another battle between two of the region’s top fighters in the welterweight division, fifth-ranked Brett Oteri (11-5, 1 KO) of Dedham, Mass., will face Dennis Olson (13-7, 1 KO) of Amherst, N.H., formerly ranked No. 1 in the 185-pound weight class. Olson last fought at Twin River in April when he submitted Todd Chattelle in the opening round of their main-event rematch.
Not to be outdone, Providence light heavyweight Greg Rebello (15-5, 8 KOs) will end his short-lived retirement and return to the cage Friday following a loss in his last bout in June. Once considered the top fighter in his weight class in New England, Rebello won 11 consecutive fights between 2006 and 2010 before a tough loss to Dan Cramer at the Bellator Fighting Championships. After losing a split decision to Lewis Rumsey in June – his third loss in six fights – Rebello announced his retirement, but has decided to resume his career Friday in CES MMA’s 20th celebration show.
The undercard of “CES MMA XX” will also feature the return of fan-favorite Charles Rosa (5-0, 2 KOs), a rising star in the lightweight division who wrestled collegiately at Providence’s Johnson & Wales University before returning home to Boynton Beach, Fla., but still maintains a strong fan base in Rhode Island. Rosa made his CES debut in October with an impressive submission win over Steve McCabe and will now face the dangerous Ralph Johnson (6-8, 6 KOs) of Worcester, Mass., who is coming off an impressive, first-round knockout win over Jason Ward in November, making that six first-round knockout wins for the 6-foot-5 slugger in his career.
Looking to keep his perfect record intact, East Providence, R.I., lightweight Nate Andrews (5-0, 2 KOs) will step up face seasoned Miamisburg, Ohio, veteran Tyler Combs (13-11, 8 KOs), while another unbeaten prospect, Providence welterweight Eric Spicely (2-0) will return for his third and final fight of 2013 when he faces Connecticut native Tyler Rose (1-0) in a three-round bout. Providence featherweight Tom Evans (2-2, 1 KO) will look to snap a two-fight losing streak when he faces Ruso Khubejashvili (3-2) of Massachusetts. All fights and fighters are subject to change.