UFC hopeful Jason Sampson's career is shaped by a tragic incident on the wrestling mat years ago.
Trouble always seemed to find Jason Sampson when he was growing up.
As the middle child of three brothers, Sampson was caught up in one thing or another throughout his formative years in grade school and junior high. Whether it was fighting or just doing something he shouldn’t have been doing, Sampson was one of the first names on the tip of the tongues of every teacher in his school when the words "trouble maker" came up.
At 12 years of age, Sampson was already reaching a crossroads. Would he would make something out of himself or become a lifetime screw-up? That’s when he discovered wrestling for the first time.
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"I’m the middle of three brothers and we always grew up fighting and getting into trouble in school. I was the meanest out of all three of us, getting into fights at school. So I put all my energy into wrestling and I was hooked," Sampson told FOX Sports. "As soon as I stepped onto that wrestling mat, it was everything to me."
From the first time he laced up his shoes and got on the mat, Sampson was a wrestling addict. He lived for practices and thrived during meets. He was the kid that had to be told to go home when the gym was closing for the day.
"That’s where I got my work ethic. I started wrestling as a kid. Wrestling took me to another level," Sampson explained.
I snapped him on his back and I was going to go for the pin, but his head was on my chest when I sprawled and I broke 4th, 5th and 6th vertebrae. Now he’s quadriplegic
— Jason Sampson
Sampson developed into such a good wrestler that he eventually went off to college in Newport, Virginia, where he would continue his career. Wrestling at the collegiate level just made Sampson work even harder as he started to progress up the rankings at the Division-II school.
Sampson never expected to watch it all get washed away in a second after an accident during a match left him on suspension and the kid he was wrestling paralyzed.
It all went down at a team dual when Sampson was taking on a wrestler from Lafayette College in Pennsylvania.
"(The) move I did is a legal move. In high school you can’t do this move, but in college you can do this move, and the move I did paralyzed the wrestler I was competing against," Sampson said.
"He started in referee position and stood up to escape and I picked him up and I snapped him back with two underhooks from the back. I snapped him on his back and I was going to go for the pin, but his head was on my chest when I sprawled and I broke his fourth, fifth and sixth vertebrae. Now he’s a quadriplegic. It was a freak, freak accident. It could have happened to me. I feel very sad that it happened to him. He was a tough competitor."
Sampson said when it happened he heard a really loud noise and then his opponent went limp. It happened over 12 years ago at this point, but there’s hardly a detail about the incident that Sampson doesn’t remember.
The fallout from the accident not only left a boy paralyzed, but it put Sampson into limbo for several years when it came to his wrestling career. The boy who suffered the tragic accident ended up filing a lawsuit with Sampson’s name attached, and he was yanked from the wrestling program all together.
"He sued his school, my school, and my name was in the deposition so I couldn’t wrestle for a long, long time," Sampson said.
"It took two and a half years for the lawsuit to go through and I was found not guilty, but they were trying to garnish my wages for life if I was found guilty. It hurt me in the long run because it took two and a half years of not wrestling. It hurt me because they tried to sue me, and I didn’t do anything wrong. It messed me up, too. He has to live with it and so do I. I didn’t get to further my wrestling career after that."
I’m 32 now and that was when I was 20 years old. It really took a lot out of me. I still look back and say “what if?”. It’s called life. Life will beat you down if you let it
— Jason Sampson
With wrestling no longer around to keep Sampson in line, he moved back home to Texas where he got caught up in the same kind of problems that haunted him when he was a kid. By this point his brothers were both involved with crystal meth and it didn’t take long for Sampson to walk down the same path as his siblings.
"I hit a dark place in my life," Sampson added. "I moved back home, got around the wrong people and started doing drugs. It was pretty bad."
Instead of hitting the mats everyday like he did for years, Sampson instead started hitting the pipe. His addiction was so bad that he overdosed on three occasions and at one point he weighed all of 98 pounds.
Eventually, Sampson’s brothers ended up in jail on drug charges and he was left alone with his thoughts and back at that same crossroads again. His choices were simple. Either clean up and find something worth living for again or end up in jail or dead.
Around this time, some of Sampson’s friends suggested that he should check out Brazilian jiu-jitsu. A school was advertising in the area and there was just something about getting back onto the mats again that lit a spark in Sampson’s spirit. It was a feeling he lost ever since wrestling was taken away from him years earlier.
So he wandered into a grappling academy and his passion was reignited.
"It kept me off the street, it kept me off the dope. It put me around people that wanted more out of life," Sampson said about jiu-jitsu.
Sampson made it all the way to brown belt status and then decided to pursue another goal in life. He wanted to be a fighter. So he started cross training in mixed martial arts and just like wrestling and jiu-jitsu, Sampson found out he was pretty good at it.
Now 12 fights later, Sampson is 11-1 as a pro and his next goal is to make it to the UFC.
He knows it’s not going to be easy to get there and even harder to stay there, but considering the hell he lived through for the first half of his 20’s, Sampson is confident nothing will be tougher than what he’s already seen in his life.
"Everybody has a story in life. You’ve just got to learn how to deal with it. I was sick to my stomach and I hit rock bottom. But then I found jiu-jitsu," Sampson said. "Then I moved to my MMA career and it just kept me in the gym. I won my first eight fights in a row. I work my ass off in the gym, day in and day out. It’s just staying positive and staying focused and here I am today."
It’s hard for Sampson not to think back to that fateful day when he was just 20 years old and a split-second decision to go for a throw in a wrestling match changed his life forever. He could easily sit around and contemplate where he might be right now if wrestling was never taken from him, but there’s no going back now.
Sampson is just able to keep a better perspective these days and a philosophy that’s served him well for the past eight years.
"I’m 32 now and that was when I was 20 years old. It really took a lot out of me. I still look back and say, ‘What if?’ … It’s called life. Life will beat you down if you let it."