From the mean streets of south Jersey to the historic villages of Connecticut, T.J. "Carnivore" Hepburn has seen it all growing up. Then much like his nickname implies, he has taken those experiences with him and consumed them. This has only made him that much stronger as a prodigious combat athlete.
However, Hepburn’s metamorphosis as a combat athlete took shape in a place a lot different from where he grew up. It took place in the exotic cornfields of Nebraska and really started to take form like maize in harvest a month ago, as he did what few, if any, have ever attempted in the span of three weeks.
Hepburn started off his own personal "March Madness" by finishing off one of the finest athletic careers in the history of the University of Nebraska-Kearney (UNK) at the 2012 NCAA Division II Wrestling Championships. After systematically working his way through the tournament, which included defeating top-ranked and undefeated Dillon Bera of Wisconsin-Parkside in OT (4-2), he completed his college career by pinning Jarrod Shaw of West Liberty State (W.Va.) at 2:17 to win the 157 lbs. national title.
The win would also help secure UNK’s overall team title, which was only the school’s second national title in the history of the program. Hepburn went 36-3 during his senior season. He ended on a 26-match winning streak and finished with an overall 118-16 record as a UNK Loper.
After bringing home all that hardware to Kearney, he immediately opted to jump into MMA without missing a step. He made this decision instead of preparing for something like the 2012 USA Wrestling Olympic Trials that took place this past weekend, which is something other wrestlers of his pedigree would consider doing after winning an NCAA wrestling tournament.
“That was never my dream, to win the Worlds or Olympics. When MMA came around, it gave me a chance to use my wrestling," Hepburn explained.
While most people would be content with the achievement of winning an NCAA wrestling tournament and take some well-deserved time off, Hepburn didn’t plan on slowing down the momentum he had built throughout his senior season. He got right back in the gym to prepare for an amateur MMA bout just three weeks later on the undercard of RFA 2 – Yvel vs. Alexander. The world-recognized event happened to take place in his new home of Kearney, Nebraska, which saw him receive a hero’s welcome from the ecstatic hometown crowd.
Most impressively, Hepburn took the quick three-week turnaround from wrestling to MMA in stride.
“You know it (the wrestling) was just another day, a walk in the park. With wrestling, I’d been wrestling all year and I had the focus on my wrestling. The biggest thing was focusing on my health. I got hurt a lot this year and that was the biggest problem I had.” Hepburn said.
Hepburn was healthy and ready to go on fight day. His fight was the third bout of the night on a stacked 19-bout fight card, but it would be remembered by the thousands of people in attendance as the “KO of the Night”, which is an accomplishment in itself, considering MMA legends Gilbert Yvel and Maurice Smith also scored devastating highlight reel knockouts in two of the card’s top-featured attractions.
The bout was a local grudge match against Kellen Fraser from nearby Hastings, Nebraska and the entire first round saw the two strong wrestlers trade powerful shots on the feet. The second round wouldn’t miss a beat. It picked up where the first round left off, but just before the midway point of the second round, Hepburn connected with an overhand right that instantly put Fraser to sleep.
Above: T.J. Hepburn knocked out Kellen Fraser in his final amateur MMA bout at RFA 2.
“I grew up in a rough neighborhood, man. Every day was a fight. So growing up in those neighborhoods, it was stand on your feet and go blow for blow. So I mean, that’s just kind of my mentality. Try to stand up and knock guys out. Now that I’m transitioning into MMA, I want to be like a guy like Dan Henderson that can stand up and knock guys out”, Hepburn explained.
Strikeforce commentator Mauro Ranallo, who previously worked in the same capacity for PRIDE, was on hand to commentate the professional side of the RFA card. He immediately took to Twitter comparing Hepburn’s KO punch to a Dan Henderson “H-Bomb”.
Considering that Henderson was a world champion in both Strikeforce and PRIDE during Ranallo’s tenure calling the fights for both of those organizations, that’s a tremendous compliment for a guy looking to adapt his style, who had just turned 23-years-old only two weeks before the fight.
Now the next step in Hepburn’s career evolution is set to take place on Saturday, June 30th at RFA 3. After signing his first professional MMA contract with the RFA, he will begin preparing for his pro MMA debut.
“Right now I’m training at Quintana Boxing. I’ve really been training my hands. Just trying to get used to keeping my hands up. In my last fight, I knew, I know I dropped my hands a lot. I was used to protecting my legs. There was a couple of times I actually went to sprawl and dropped my hands to protect my legs and I’m glad the kid didn’t capitalize and throw a punch, because that could’ve been me getting knocked out. Just working on my boxing at Quintana Boxing here in Kearney. I’ve been getting a lot of sparring sessions in, a lot of mits. It’s coming along.”
As for the jiu-jitsu side of his training, he notes the Nebraska School of Martial Arts where fellow RFA fighters Enrique Torres and Richard Barajas train, as the go-to place to train jiu-jitsu in Kearney, but he also has plans to visit a bigger, more well-known MMA camp in the state, which is right up the road in Omaha and home to UFC superstar Jake “The Juggernaut” Ellenberger.
“I plan on going out to Premier in Omaha where Ellenberger and Jensen are, it’s Ryan Jensen’s gym. I plan on going out there for a week or two to do some training before the fight also,” Hepburn added.
Hepburn also takes pride in the fact that he is fighting for his hometown promotion that is already making big waves in the MMA world by signing many established MMA stars, as well as top prospects, which include fellow wrestlers turned MMA fighters Bubba Jenkins and Lance Palmer.
Jenkins won the 2011 NCAA Division I national title at 157 lbs. for Arizona State and Palmer was a four-time All-American and 2010 NCAA Division I national finalist at 149 lbs. for Ohio State. While Palmer is already competing as a featherweight, both Jenkins and Hepburn plan to eventually join him there after a few fights at lightweight.
“That makes the RFA that much more reputable, having guys like me, Bubba Jenkins, Lance Palmer, having us, and we’re all gonna be at the same weight class eventually, so it’s gonna be interesting. This might determine whose boxing is better, whose wrestling defense is better. It’s anyone’s game. Wrestling is wrestling and MMA is MMA. Just because those guys won a Division I national championship, doesn’t mean they can’t lose to a Division II or Division III guy in a fight,” stated Hepburn.
While it’s safe to say that the RFA won’t unleash their talented young prospects on each other any time soon, one certainly has to like the future of the promotion and their hometown hero Hepburn. He will look to continue his local legacy at the end of June at RFA 3, while the the rest of the world will also surely take notice.