CJ LaFragola ran to Osborn Island in Little Egg Harbor Township while training in high school.
He saw Atlantic City over Great Bay.
He imagined wrestling at Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall in the state individual wrestling competition.
After a decade, his purpose remains the same. Last week, LaFragola, 26, debuted in professional mixed martial arts for Cage Fury Fighting Championships at Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City.
As usual, he won.
“You come out of the cage (after the win) — and even the walk out (to the cage) — that was amazing,” LaFragola said Sunday, two days after beating Aaron Walker, of Orlando, Florida, in a 30-27 unanimous decision at CFFC 120. I was chanted. Always wanted to accomplish that with sports in general and have an army behind me to support me and elevate people with whatever my sport ended up being.”
His next sport is MMA. LaFragola was the 2014-15 Press Male Athlete of the Year and a three-sport athlete at St. Joseph High School and NCAA Division I.
In Atlantic City, his family, friends, and Drexel University wrestlers supported him. Karen, Chris, and Domenic—his strongest supporters—were present.
The battle made everyone apprehensive, especially Karen. She was questioned how she could watch her kid compete in MMA days before the event.
“I watch him differently than the regular person,” Karen remarked Friday after her son won. “I know his progression, so I know when he’s in trouble or whatever.”
She said mother’s intuition.
LaFragola started playing sports after attending Cal Ripken Jr. childhood baseball competitions.
Chris LaFragola always imagined his son playing professional baseball. It’s possible.
After a successful wrestling career at Brown University, LaFragola earned a master’s degree in sports media at Sacred Heart University.
LaFragola was a unique D-I three-sport athlete, playing football and baseball for the Pioneers in 2019 and 2020. COVID-19 destroyed baseball dreams.
“He didn’t really get the look I thought he’d get,” the older LaFragola said Friday. “But he immediately—that’s typical of CJ—changed his direction and said, ‘You know what? I know I can win a title.
CJ was unsatisfied with team sports, despite their many benefits. He never liked giving 100% and not having control, even if his teams won a lot, notably at St. Joseph.
He enjoyed wrestling and fighting sports. MMA made sense.
Visited Brick Township’s Nick Catone Fitness. Catone, 41, wrestled for Rider University and won over 100 MMA fights. Catone was ideal for wrestling-based LaFragola to practice with. Sean Santella, Jess Pew, and Dante Rivera coached him Friday.
LaFragola made his CFFC amateur debut May 28, 2021, after eight months of preparation. His final amateur match with CFFC on March 31 was 5-0. CFFC pays him each fight plus incentives. He expects competing later this year.
“I think this is something I can be passionate about,” LaFragola added. Multi-sport athletes complement MMA. MMA requires several skills. It’s unique and multilayered.
“I think I really found a home with MMA, not that I don’t love to throw on some cleats for a (South Jersey South Shore Baseball League) game sometimes.”
LaFragola donned red-striped white shorts Friday for a reason. Reason he donned a black T-shirt with a friend’s image and entered the arena to her walkout song. And why he’s carried the same DVD in his backpack since freshman year.
“Rocky” enthusiast LaFragola. He runs the Philadelphia Museum of Art steps often. Rocky Balboa’s early movie shorts mimicked Friday’s.
He was inspired by the 2011 film “Warrior,” about two brothers competing in an MMA event at Boardwalk Hall. That movie makes him emotional since he wanted to wrestle at Boardwalk Hall in high school.
His main motivation Friday was battling for his late friend Sherry Schmidt, who died in a vehicle accident June 5. Schmidt, 29, fought in Catone’s gym. They became buddies and helped one other through their amateur careers.
LaFragola stepped out to “Faint” by Linkin Park before the fight. The referee pointed up after winning.
“I’m religious. Catholic school. “I may not go to church every Sunday, but I believe God put people here to support each other, and I believed she was watching me,” he added. I donned her jersey and played her last fight walkout music. I valued her. She was special.”