Pitt Wrestler James Lledo Announces July Amateur MMA Fight

Wrestler Pitt James Lledo, a rising redshirt sophomore, announced Friday that he is fighting in an amateur MMA bout this summer. The fight is against Derrick Brown II and takes place on July 9 at Hollywood Casino at The Meadows in Washington, Pennsylvania.

MMA stands for Mixed Martial Arts and includes different fighting modes, but the basics include grappling, striking, and ground fighting. The sport borrows different techniques from a variety of combat sports around the world including boxing, wrestling, kickboxing, ji-jitsu, karate, judo and many more. The most popular MMA fights take place in the UFC, where fighters compete in the “cage” or also called the “octagon”.

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The road to MMA fighting started years before for Lledo, who started wrestling in seventh grade, much later than your average Division I wrestler. He wrestled at Bala Cynwyd Middle School in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania, then wrestled at Lower Merion High School. At Lower Merion, Lledo posted a 130-27 record with 76 pins and as a senior won 38 of 42 games, with 28 victories ending in pins.

Despite an impressive career in high school, no first division school offered him a scholarship. His club coach, Greg Hagel, put him in touch with Pitt’s assistant coach, Drew Headlee, who then offered Lledo a tour of the school. Lledo’s visit to Pitt convinced him it would be his new home for college and credits Hagel’s connection with Headlee as the main reason he struggles at Pitt today.

Lledo spent his first year in the redshirt, but managed to gain experience by winning four of his six matches, two 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 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 him with an environment conducive to his success.

“It was awesome,” Lledo said. “I love the city. I have excellent coaches and an excellent team around me. I have a teammate on the team, Geoff Magin, who also fought for the same promotion and in the same gym and he helped me a lot. My coaches are very supportive, not only in wrestling, but in everything I want to do. My parents are also very supportive, even though I live about five hours away from where I’m from.

Lledo’s interest in fighting MMA started long before he came to Pitt. He has always had an interest in combat sports, such as jiu-jitsu, boxing, kickboxing and of course wrestling. Lledo says his father is a big part of why he chose to pursue more than wrestling when it comes to combat sports.

“Me and my dad actually used to joke about it one day and talk about believing in the dream, because it’s a dream of mine to be in the UFC one day and be a champion,” Lledo said. “My dad has been hugely supportive of me not to give up on something that I really want to achieve, so he’s been a big part of me to pursue that and he’s been very influential and supportive throughout the process.

Lledo works long days practicing both wrestling and MMA. He trains and lifts four days a week at Pitt, and goes straight after practice to train in MMA three to four times a week. Lledo trains at Stout Training Pittsburgh in the Strip District. At Stout, Lledo works with Will Morrill, who trains him in kickboxing and Mike Wilkins who trains him in different forms of MMA.

It is inspired by two fighters, the Cuban Yoel Romero and the American Jon Jones. Lledo particularly likes the style they fight in and hopes to emulate that in his fighting career in the future. Both Romero and Jones were successful wrestlers prior to 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 Lledo can continue to wrestle Pitt throughout his college career. Lledo believes his wrestling experience, especially Pitt, is what will make him stand out from other opponents he fights, not just as an amateur, but professionally after college.

“I think being a [Division I] wrestler and when I finish my wrestling career, I hope to have five full years of [Division I] collegiate wrestling under my belt and I think that’s going to be a huge upside that few other fighters can say they’ve come through,” Lledo said. “I plan to use my experience and my fight, not only from a physical standpoint, but from a mental standpoint that I’m ready to go to other places where others aren’t.”

In his amateur fights, Lledo plans to fight at 185 pounds, in the middleweight category, then once he turns professional, he plans to drop down to 170 pounds, in the welterweight category.

Despite this, his fight against Brown is a catchweight bout. This is because Lledo fights at 195 pounds which is heavier than him. It is a fight that is negotiated between two fighters, knowing that they are not in the same weight category as each other.

Despite the weight difference, Lledo is excited to fight as an amateur for the first time this summer and is happy to be able 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 signed so this fight is on and it’s going to happen and I’m very excited for that. I really don’t intend to say no to anyone.

Lledo says fighting MMA isn’t an obstacle for Pitt’s head coach, Keith Gavin, or his assistants. They want him to succeed in Pitt in wrestling and also as an amateur MMA fighter and then as a professional in the future.

The road to MMA wrestling starts early for Lledo compared to other wrestlers who fight in MMA later after college. He sees this as a challenge, but one that he is ready to take on and understands the difficulty of moving forward.

“I think this new challenge is exciting and the opportunity really excites me,” Lledo said. “Something I remember along the way, my dad always pushed me to take the hardest road and not be afraid of anything and be excited by the opportunity. I mean I have a good attitude towards him and I think I have a good plan. I know there will be bumps in the road and a lot of adversity, but I’m prepared and I’m excited about it.

Robert J. King