A number of local fighters have enjoyed success in professional mixed martial arts in recent years, a list that includes Cesar Balmaceda (Atlantic City), Jeff Lentz (Mays Landing), and Tim Williams (Millville) all became champions in the Vineland-based Cage Fury Fighting Championships while Lentz also won a title for Atlantic City's Ring of Combat.

C.J. LaFragola is hoping to continue that trend; A former three-sport standout in high school and college, LaFragola's got his pro MMA career off to an impressive start on June 17th with a three-round, unanimous decision victory over Orlando, Florida's Aaron Walker (1-1) at CFFC 120 at Hard Rock Hotel & Casino.

LaFragola had a huge crowd of supporters, most of whom sported "C.J. LaFragola" t-shirts and filling the arena with cheers.

"I wanted to come out and put on a show," LaFragola said. "Hearing those fans cheering my name, that was just amazing. And it's a great feeling to do this in A.C. I've been coming to A.C. my whole life. I wrestled here (in the high school state championships) and now it's come full circle."

LaFragola, who is from Little Egg Harbor, starred in baseball, football and wrestling for St. Joseph Academy in Hammonton. He focused on wrestling at Brown University, then played football and baseball for Sacred Heart University in Connecticut.

He knew he wanted to pursue a career in sports on the professional level and decided his brightest future was in MMA.

"I'm crazy and I'm willing to do anything," he said with a laugh. "I'd try out of for the (Philadelphia) Eagles right now if they'd led me and I think I would make the team. And my dad would tell you that baseball is my best sport. But it's the one-on-one aspect of (MMA) that's great. You have an army of coaches and supporters behind you, but at the end of the day, it's just you in there."

It is a philosophy he has literally carried around for years; After the fight, LaFragola left the arena carrying a backpack over his shoulder and inside was a copy of the 2011 movie, “Warrior.”

“It’s always been my favorite movie,” he said. “When I was wrestling at states in high school, (security guards) would check my bag and ask, ‘Why do you have that movie in there.?’

“It’s about family, overcoming challenges, and getting through the difficulties of live. It’s the story of fighting. It’s the story of life.”

It helped him get through an emotional week; Before his pro debut, LaFragola attended the funeral of Sherry Schmidt, a close friend and training partner who was killed in a car accident earlier this month.

“It’s been a rollercoaster week,” said LaFragola, who wore a shirt with her picture on it after the bout. “A lot of emotions.”

Wes Hills continues to excel

Wildwood native Wes Hills enjoyed an outstanding regular season for the New Orleans Breakers of the United States Football League.

Hills, a 2013 Wildwood High School graduate, led the league in rushing with 679 yards and finished second with 10 rushing touchdowns. Houston's Mark Thompson topped the USFL with 14 rushing touchdowns.

Hills and the Breakers finished second in the USFL's South Division at 7-3 and will face the first-place Birmingham Stallions on Sunday in the first round of the playoffs.

The 6-foot-2, 218-pounder is hoping to sign with a NFL team over the summer, which would mark another step in what has been a serpentine journey that has featured stints with two colleges and four franchises in three professional leagues.

Hills, now 28 years old, was a standout at the University of Delaware and Slippery Rock University (Pa.) before signing with the NFL's Arizona Cardinals as an undrafted free agent in 2019. He was released with an injury settlement in August of that year, then signed with the Detroit Lions and scored two touchdowns against Tampa Bay later that season.

Next he headed north and signed with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League. Last fall, he rushed for 384 yards and a TD on 69 carries and added 10 receptions for 105 yards, which led to him signing with the Breakers to play spring football.

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