In the town of Oxford, just five miles across the Pennsylvania border from Cecil County, Nick Willey, a former wrestling state champion, trains for his professional mix martial arts debut.
As a senior in 2005, Willey completed one of the most dominant seasons in Elkton High School history, capturing the Class 1A/2A 171-pound Maryland State Wrestling Championship at College Park with a 12-4 win that capped a perfect 37-0 campaign.
Now, nearly nine years later, the 26-year-old fighter is preparing for perhaps his most meaningful competitive bout since he took to the mat against Stephen Decatur’s Nathan Bourne under the bright lights of the University of Maryland’s Cole Field House. Willey will participate in his first professional fight on Saturday as part of an 11-bout fight card for XFE 45 at Harrah’s Chester Casino and Racetrack in Chester, Pa.
“Outside of the Olympics, there’s really no pro league for wrestling. There’s really no next level for an ex-wrestler,” said Willey, who compiled a 7-2 record in nine amateur MMA bouts. “So this was a way for me to get back into competition and fill that void.”
Willey’s MMA career began in 2011, shortly after he first walked through the doors of Team Defiant MMA, an ultimate fitness gym located in Oxford. There, under the tutelage of a former professional boxer and another coach with a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, he molded himself into an all-around fighter who packs wrestling, martial arts and hand-to-hand combat in his arsenal.
“I always had my wrestling to fall back on, but I’ve always loved learning. I’m like a sponge for athletics, and every night I’m going to class and I’m learning something new,” said Willey, who originally journeyed to the gym hoping to train for wrestling tournaments but found himself enrolled in the MMA program not long after. “I’m coming up with my own ideas and I’m trying new things. That’s really the attachment I built to MMA, is that I never stopped learning.”
On Saturday, Willey will face Travis Funk (4-4 amateur record), who, like Willey, will be making his professional debut. When Willey steps into the ring, it will mark the culmination of hard work, dedication and focus first born during his state championship run in 2005.
After bouncing from foster homer to foster home in Maryland and Delaware, living in bad neighborhoods and attending four high schools in as many years, Willey settled down at Elkton, where, with guidance and support from his coaching staff, his mother and his younger brother, Justin, he produced only the second state wrestling championship in school history.
“He’s definitely overcame a lot of obstacles to win that state championship,” said former Elkton wrestling coach Steven Gray, who coached Willey on his way to his state title. “He’s somebody that didn’t have the all-American upbringing, and everything he got, he got by working hard and fighting and persevering.
“He works hard, he listens and he did everything he needed to do to be a state champ. I’m guessing that there’s a crew in Cecil County that knows who he is and follows his career and hopefully they can learn from (his example).”
With every punch thrown and every take-down achieved, Willey understands the impact that he is having on Cecil County. That significance will be in the back of his mind when he slips on the gloves on Saturday.
“It feels very rewarding to be in the position to be a role model,” Willey said. “That was probably one of my biggest things I achieved when I was wrestling – that I was leading the way for something bigger.
“Cecil County hasn’t had a lot of things to say positively as far as individual achievements, so (it’s gratifying) just to be a part of that and to continue to make it a trend and show people that no matter what is thrown against you – your obstacles and opposition – you can still do whatever it is that you want to do.”
Follow Jordan Schatz on Twitter: @Jordan_Whig