(Abe Wagner takes gi training to a whole new level. Props to Abe Wagner Fights.)
Now that the latest season of The Ultimate Fighter has completed its run, Abe Wagner joins the ranks of other fighters who quietly came, lost, and left, becoming MMA trivia in the process. He could lose sleep worrying about lost opportunities, twisting over what people think about him. Lucky for him, Wagner has nothing to prove.
The fighter’s story reads like a hero’s origin myth. After suffering a lifetime of abuse at the hands of his father, Wagner was placed in foster care at the age of 15. He became an emancipated minor at 16 and moved to a dairy farm in Elcho, Wisc., where he worked in exchange for room and board. “Since then, that family and I have more or less adopted each other,” Wagner says. “When I go ‘home’ for the holidays or something, that’s where I go.”
Wagner was a standout on the Elcho High School football team and earned a scholarship to Michigan Technological University, where he played outside linebacker and graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering in 2002. He worked as an engineer for several years before becoming the Director of Finance and Operations at Precision Industries in Omaha, Neb. “Half of my job is financial reporting, forecasting, contract compliance; the other half is operational and process improvements within the company,” he says.
A true-to-life bootstrapper, Wagner made good with the help of his adopted family and the opportunities available to him at Michigan Tech. But five years ago a highlight reel of Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic stoked Wagner’s competitive fires and inspired him to start training in MMA. The heavyweight found MidAmerica Martial Arts in Omaha in 2005 and fought his first professional contest just five months later. He collected six wins against two losses over the next three years and became Victory Fighting Championship’s heavyweight champion.
Because of responsibilities related to his job, Wagner was unable to attend the open call out for The Ultimate Fighter Heavyweights, but he sent a highlight video to producers. “On the strength of that, they called me back for the second round of interviews and then chose me to be on the show,” he says. Little did he know that his participation in the show would actually represent a setback for his fighting career.
“Prior to The Ultimate Fighter I thought that if you had good stand up and good jiu jitsu you were considered well rounded,” says Wagner. “That was a little shortsighted and now I see that you need those in addition to good wrestling. I think it was an obvious hole in my game and I’m working to become more-well rounded.”
That hole was made obvious by Jon Madsen, a wrestler based out of Matt Hughes’ H.I.T. Squad facility in Granite City, Ill. Madsen took Wagner down easily, repeatedly, and opened a ghastly gash on Wagner’s forehead with elbows from the guard. Because of the cut, Wagner was unable to fully participate in team workouts until near the end of the six-week production. Rather than build on his success at the regional level and get six weeks of good training in with other heavyweight prospects, Wagner lost terribly and couldn’t take advantage of the training. But he isn’t bitter about his TUF luck.
“If I had to do it over again I’d probably still do it but I’d be more aware of how little of what actually happens makes it to TV,” says Wagner. What would and wouldn’t be aired was a concern for Wagner not only because of his white-collar 9-to-5 but because he is a volunteer for Big Brothers. “I have a life outside of fighting and I didn’t want to do anything that would jeopardize that,” he says.
Wagner is scheduled to defend his Victory Fighting Championship belt on Feb. 5 and he’s been told that if he strings together two or three wins the UFC will gladly give him another shot. If that happens, Wagner would be happy. If it doesn’t, he won’t beat himself up about it. In the end, he doesn’t need the money or the approval because his most important fights have already been won.