By Julien Solomita
Photos by Jeffrey Hitchens & Carlos Tapia-Grillon
A Marine Corps veteran, a Denver Broncos fan, and a mixed martial artist, 32 year-old Joseph Wagaman has lived a testing life as he now pursues his dream as an amateur MMA fighter looking to soon jump to the professional ranks.
Inside the cage, Wagaman appears as just more full throttle entertainment for any fan of MMA, but outside of fighting, he is a complex individual. The backstory of this Colorado native is one that makes his appreciation for fighting even stronger, as he has gained perspective beyond his years.
After growing up in Colorado Springs for the first 14 years of his life, Wagaman’s father was transferred from the naval air station in Florida to California California. Moving out west, Wagaman was a high school wrestler that was used to the military life. Right out of high school, he followed his father’s path and joined the Marine Corps himself. From age 19 to 23, Wagaman served with the USMC, and with everything gained from the experience, he feels the mental edge has directly translated to fighting.
“I got to see a lot of things that helped me grow up, and I gained a sense of direction and responsibility,” Wagaman said. “When you defend your country, and have to be part of something bigger, you learn to push yourself through a lot more than you thought was possible. The corps tested my aptitude on a lot of things, and taught me to adapt and overcome.”
Upon his return back home from service, it was a year later that Wagaman began his quest as a fighter. Now a 155-pound fighter out of Team Quest, Joe “Werewolf” Wagaman (3-2 amateur) is a soft-spoken and quiet figure. That is, until he gets in the cage.
“I’m pretty quiet, and mellow. I just speak how things are,” Wagaman said. “I try to stay low key but when you see me in the ring, I look more like the werewolf.”
Seeing the ‘Werewolf’ at work is an invigorating sight, with an animalistic attack and killer instinct that earned him a third round TKO over Ken Sells in August 2011.
For Wagaman, his mental approach is a crucial component to his fighting game. In his decision victory in July 2011 over Quincy Davis (3-2) at the University of MMA’s ‘Fight!’ event in Los Angeles, Wagaman displayed an incredible ability to both take punishment and push forward with kicks, combinations, and sneaky takedowns into dominant positions. The Werewolf finished both the second and third rounds with ground and pound from the top, and worked his wrestling game into the later parts of the fight to wear his opponent all the way down.
“I try to put myself in situations when I fight. I keep my mind clear and focus on more of what I can control,” Wagaman said. “I don’t think about my opponent.”
Unlike the common aspiring MMA star, the Team Quest lightweight looks up to a figure that isn’t a UFC fighter. His hero? None other than movie star, and former governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“He started out as an immigrant, and almost nobody took him seriously because of his accent but he’s made huge movies, become governor, and he just has that mentality that has brought him to accomplish so much,” Wagaman said.
The father of three girls, Kylie (6), Eva (3), and Zoey (2), Wagaman finds himself spending most of his time with his kids when he isn’t fighting or training. A fourth Wagaman baby is due in September.
“My wife and kids are definitely a big part of what motivates me to get up and train every day,” said Wagaman.
It’s no question that Joe Wagaman is resolute inside the gym every day and when he steps into the cage for battle, but what about when the gloves come off? The Team Quest amateur team manager, Steve Egg, has worked with Wagaman for a year, and has gotten to know what the lightweight is truly made of.
“Joe is a hardworking family guy,” Egg said. “He has a true desire to win, and he doesn’t stop.”
In October, Wagaman suffered his first career knockout loss against Brian Pate at ‘Epic Fighting: Southern California Championships.’ The acrid taste of a knockout loss is something that fighters want no part of. In fact, many fighters say that the fear of being knocked out has at one point or another led to a knockout loss. The reality of the sport is that anyone, in any fight, at any level, and at any moment can get knocked out, yet fighters can improve exponentially after their first sudden defeat. Both disposing of the daunting and unknown sensation of being knocked out, and experiencing what physically and mentally led to his demise has been paramount in Wagaman’s growth as an athlete.
“Now in training I take everything more seriously,” Wagaman said. “I have seen that I have the potential to go professional, but I know that means I must train like a professional. That fight also taught me a lot about how to mentally process big time pressure.”
Looking forward after a tough loss, Wagaman’s manager believes he is ready for the future.
“He’s ready,” Egg said. “[Joe] took the time to realign his life after his last fight, and now he is 100 percent ready to go through a few more amateur fights and then turn pro.”
Egg believes three more amateur fights stand between the 32-year-old and the jump into professional mixed martial arts.
For every athlete there is a different story. The upbringing of any person molds them as a competitor and a human being. For a 32 year-old fighter who has seen death, birth, and the raw side of a knockout, fighting is just a piece of the Joe Wagaman puzzle.
Joe ‘The Werewolf’ Wagaman is scheduled to take on Jose ‘Froggy’ Estrada (West Coast Jiu Jitsu) at the U of MMA’s CHAMPIONS OF TOMORROW! on Sunday, May 20th, at Club Nokia at L.A. LIVE, in downtown Los Angeles. Tickets are available at Ticketmaster.com.