Pitt wrestler James Lledo, a rising redshirt sophomore, announced Friday that he is fighting in an amateur MMA fight this summer. The fight, booked by 247 Fighting Championships against Derrick Brown II and takes place July 9 at Hollywood Casino at The Meadows in Washington, Pa.
MMA stands for mixed martial arts and includes different modes of fighting, but the basics include grappling, striking and ground fighting. The sport takes different techniques from a variety of combat sports from across the globe, including boxing, wrestling, kickboxing, ji-jitsu, karate, judo and more. The most popular MMA fights take place in the UFC, where the fighters compete against each other in the “cage” or also known as the “octagon.”
The road to MMA fighting started years before for Lledo, who started wrestling in seventh grade, far later than your average Division I wrestler. He wrestled at Bala Cynwyd Middle School in Lower Merion, P.A. and then wrestled at Lower Merion High School. At Lower Merion, Lledo posted a record of 130-27 with 76 pins and as a senior, he won 38 of 42 matches, with 28 wins ending in pins.
Despite an impressive high school career, no division one school offered him a scholarship. His club coach, Greg Hagel, connected him with Pitt assistant coach, Drew Headlee, who then offered Lledo a visit to the school. Lledo’s visit to Pitt convinced him that this would be his new home for college and credits Hagel’s connection with Headlee as the main reason he wrestles at Pitt today.
Lledo redshirted his first year, but managed to get some experience, winning four of his six matches, two coming in the 197-weight class and two in the 184 weight class. He competed full time in the 2021-22 season, compiling a record of 15 wins and 10 losses, competing in both the 184 and 174 weight classes. Lledo says his time at Pitt has been great so far and that his teammates, coaches and parents provide a supportive environment for him to succeed.
“It’s been great,” Lledo said. “I love the city. I have great coaches and a great team surrounding me. I have a teammate on the team, Geoff Magin, who’s also fought for the same promotion and under the same gym and he’s been helping me out a ton. My coaches are very supportive, not only in wrestling, but anything that I want to do. My parents are also very supportive, even though I live like five hours away from where I’m from.”
Lledo’s interest in fighting MMA started far before coming to Pitt. He has always had an interest in combat sports, like jiu-jitsu, boxing, kick-boxing and of course wrestling. Lledo says his father is a big part of why he chose to pursue more than just wrestling when it came to combat sports.
“Me and my dad actually, we were joking about it one day and talking about believing the dream, because it is a dream of mine to one day be in the UFC and be a champion,” Lledo said. “My dad has been extremely supportive in not giving up on something that I really want to accomplish. So he’s been a huge part of me pursuing this and he’s been very influential and supportive the whole way.”
Lledo works long days to practice both wrestling and MMA. He practices and lifts four days a week at Pitt, and goes right after practice to train MMA three to four times a week. Lledo trains at Stout Training Pittsburgh, in the Strip District neighborhood. At Stout, Lledo works with Will Morrill, who coaches him on kickboxing and Mike Wilkins who coaches him on different forms of MMA.
He draws inspiration from two fighters in Cuban Yoel Romero and American Jon Jones. Lledo especially likes the style in which they fight and hopes to emulate that going forward in his fighting career. Both Romero and Jones were successful wrestlers before their transition to MMA, with Romero competing internationally with the Cuban National team and Jones winning the New York state championship in high school.
Fighting as an amateur means that Lledo can continue to wrestle at Pitt throughout his collegiate career. Lledo believes that his wrestling experience, particularly going forward at Pitt, is what will make him stand out against other opponents he fights, not just as an amateur, but professionally after college.
“I think that being a [Division I] wrestler and when I’m done with my career in wrestling, I’ll hopefully have five full years of [Division I] collegiate wrestling under my belt and I think that’s going to be a huge advantage that not a lot of other fighters can say that they went through,” Lledo said. “I plan to use my experience and my grappling, not only from a physical standpoint, but from a mental standpoint that I’m willing to go other places other people aren’t.”
In his amateur fights, Lledo plans to fight at 185 pounds, in the middleweight class, and then once he goes pro, he plans to drop down to 170 pounds, in the welterweight class.
Despite this, his fight against Brown is a catchweight fight. This is because Lledo is fighting at 195 pounds, which is heavier than he is. It is a fight that is negotiated between two fighters, knowing that they both aren’t in the same weight class as each other.
In spite of the weight difference, Lledo is ecstatic to fight as an amateur for the first time this summer and is glad that he gets to fight after his first opponent dropped out.
“The promoter sent the contract and I signed it immediately,” Lledo said. “The first guy, yeah, he dropped out, he didn’t sign, but this second guy did sign so this fight is on and it’s going to happen and I’m very excited for it. I really don’t plan on saying no to anybody.”
Lledo says that fighting MMA isn’t an obstacle to Pitt head coach, Keith Gavin, or his assistants. They want him to succeed at Pitt in wrestling and also as an amateur MMA fighter and then as a professional in the future.
The road to fighting MMA starts early for Lledo compared to other wrestlers who fight in MMA later down the line after college. He sees this as a challenge, but one that he is prepared to take on and understands the difficulty of going forward.
“I think that this new challenge is exciting and the opportunity really excites me,” Lledo said. “Something that I’m reminding myself along the way, my dad always influenced me to take the toughest route and not be scared of anything and to be excited for the opportunity. I mean I have a great attitude towards it and I think I have a good plan. I know there’s going to be bumps in the road and a lot of adversity, but I’m prepared for it and I’m excited for it.”