The Walmart Worker Turned UFC Fighter

By: Jason Burgos
May 16, 2019


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The path to earning a spot on the Ultimate Fighting Championship roster is different for every athlete. Some are former champions in a variety of martial arts. There are those who were athletes in other sports and decided to make the transition to combat. And then there’s Austin Hubbard, a former Walmart employee who entered the sport on a whim. That whim turned into a journey to reach the UFC. At UFC Fight Night 152 on Saturday night, he ends one journey and begins another.

Hubbard, 27, grew up just two hours outside of Chicago in Sterling, Illinois. From an early age, he had a competitive nature and a love for all sorts of sports. In addition to wrestling, he played basketball, baseball, soccer and football. Hubbard also had an interest in mixed martial arts. “For as long as I can remember, [my family] always watched the UFC,” Hubbard told Sherdog.

He wrestled and played football throughout high school, and he originally had designs on continuing once he began college. When he got to Sauk Valley Community College, however, things changed. The desire to continue on in those sports diminished. However, he still had a yearning to take part in athletics, as long as it was fun and stress-free. Enter mixed martial arts.

“It’s kind of funny. I never actually thought about doing [MMA as a kid]. It wasn’t until I was 20-years-old that I started training, [and] I basically started training out of boredom,” he said with a laugh. Hubbard started his MMA journey at local gym Combat Zone, where he trained while completing his associate’s degree in criminal justice. That “hobby” would end up turning into a serious personal passion.

“To me, MMA is the ultimate sport,” declared Hubbard. “It tests you in so many different areas. I feel it tests you as a person [too]. I just love it. I stuck with it, kept getting better at it [and] now I’m here about to make my UFC debut.”

Hubbard’s road to his eventual UFC debut at the Blue Cross Arena in Rochester, New York surely wasn’t easy. For the first year of his career, he led a dual life as a prospective fighter and an employee at a local Walmart distribution center, stacking boxes for 12 hours a day. While at Walmart, there was not much room for growth, and, when it came to his training, Hubbard realized that he had hit a ceiling at Combat Zone. He knew that, if he was ever going to reach his potential, he would need to make a change.

As he searched for a new MMA home, the Roufusport MMA Academy – just a two-hour drive away – seemed like a viable option. He went there a few times and enjoyed the experience. However, he was then made aware of a different option. “My coach at the time was like, ‘There’s this really good team out in Denver, Colorado, and they have a really good thing going right now,’” Hubbard recalled. That “good thing going” was going on at Elevation Fight Team. A visit was set-up, and after a week his heart was taken by the gym and the state.

“I just loved everything about it,” Hubbard said of his first week at Elevation Fight Team. “I felt like I had a better fit for myself here in Denver, just because I felt like I had more training partners at my size. And Colorado is just amazing. The mountains; there’s just so much to do. It just felt right. It just seemed like that was where I needed to go.”

Hubbard knew where he wanted to be, but, at 24, he couldn’t just pick up and move 12 hours away. He still had a job, and he didn’t have the type of money saved to live comfortably in Denver once he got there. With that in mind, on his first day back at Walmart after the trip, he put in for a transfer to the distribution center in Denver, all the while believing that it was unlikely to happen.

“It’s not like I’m actually going to get it,” he remembers thinking, “but what’s it going to hurt to try? I put in for this transfer, knowing how hard out-of-state transfers are to get, and they called me the next day.”

In 2016, as a 2-0 fighter and Walmart employee, he set out for Denver to begin his life as an Elevation Fight Team member. Since his arrival in Denver, he has won seven of nine fights; trained alongside UFC talents like Neil Magny, Justin Gaethje, Drew Dober and Corey Sandhagen; and, in December, captured the Legacy Fighting Alliance lightweight title.

In Denver, he evolved into a fully-formed fighter, and now he is a member of the UFC roster just like his teammates. After signing his contract with the Las Vegas-based promotion, he says he felt a level of relief at finally earning this coveted opportunity. But he also sees this career achievement as the end of one journey and the beginning of a brand new one.

“There’s definitely a relief, but for me my goal is not just to make it,” Hubbard proclaimed. “I want to make a career. I want to make some waves in the division. I want to make my name known. The whole journey kind of starts over again, just on a different level.”

The jump to the UFC can be a nerve-wracking experience for any fighter. The spotlight does not shine any brighter anywhere else in the industry. However, Hubbard truly believes that he is ready for several reasons. For starters, he feels that his experience cornering teammates at UFC events has given him an inside look at what competing on a UFC card is like.

“I think it helps a little bit to experience that a couple times. The walk to that big cage. The crowd and everything,” he remarked.

Hubbard is fully aware that that alone is not enough to make him ready for the moment ahead. His self-assurance also comes from training daily with talent already in the promotion, which he feels has given him the confidence that he can compete with the best the sport has to offer.

“Training with people like Neil Magny, Justin Gaethje, Drew Dober, Cory Sandhagen – an endless list of people at a high level – it just puts a little confidence in me to let me know I’m ready for this moment,” Hubbard averred.

When Hubbard enters the cage at UFC Fight Night 152, he will have more career fights than his opponent Davi Ramos. However, Ramos will face the newcomer having won the last three of his four UFC appearances. All of “The Tasmanian Devil’s” wins have come by submission, with the last two occurring in the first round. The Team Nogueira grappling ace is as serious a threat as Hubbard has ever faced, something of which he was not aware when he took the bout.

“It’s definitely a stiff test. It’s funny, when they first told me his name, I didn’t know who he was. I took the fight, then I looked him up [further] and realized he is a real, real good grappler,” he admitted with a laugh. Despite Ramos’ skills, the wrestler in Hubbard still has a great deal of confidence in his own grappling, and he views fights with heavy grappling as favorable to him.

“I feel I will still be able to dictate where the fight goes. Even with his grappling background. It’s a fight, anything can happen. We’ll see how it plays out,” said Hubbard.

Two years removed from quitting Walmart -- and after a short stint as an Uber driver -- Hubbard is devoted to his craft. The hobby became a career, and the original journey spawned a new one that is days away.

“It all kind of happened on a whim, but it was definitely the best decision of my life.” Advertisement

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