Former county fair vendor Jaleel Willis recalls wild kickstart to MMA career
UNCASVILLE, Conn. – Twelve years ago, Jaeel Willis thought he had failed.
At age 18, Willis (13-2 MMA, 0-0 BMMA) had just finished high school. His next move was uncertain, but many of his avenues had come to a dead end. Knowing he needed to work to stay financially afloat, Willis began working odd jobs in the Memphis area.
Eventually he picked up a gig as a county fair T-shirt seller. Little did he know this decision would lead him down the road to becoming one of the hottest welterweight MMA prospects in North America.
One weekend, he woke up and got dressed for work like he would on any other workday. He headed out to the fair and positioned himself behind his T-shirt stand. What happened next would change his life forever.
A local promoter was putting on fights at the fair. The card suffered a last-minute fallout. Scrambling for a replacement, the promoter was desperate enough to ask anyone who was willing to step in the cage to do so.
“It just so happened I was at a fight show (that weekend),” Willis told MMA Junkie on Wednesday. “The fight promoters came up to me needing somebody to fight, seeing as I was selling shirts and I was a little big or something like that. They needed somebody to step in against the co-main event. I stepped in on an hour’s notice. They took me to get a mouthpiece.”
With no experience, Willis stepped into the cage for his first amateur fight. What was the outcome?
“I stepped in there against a guy who was 11-5,” Willis said. “He left there 11-6 – and you know, the rest is history.”
A decade later, Willis has put pen to paper on a multifight deal with a major promotion – all because he took a risk at the county fair in Memphis. There’s a lesson to be learned in there somewhere, Willis thinks.
“It’s crazy to think back at it,” Willis said. “But when I think back at it and I think how that story just popped up, the way that moment came to me, that kind of assured me that we’ve got to take chances no matter what the outcome may be. You’re going to learn, and you’re going to enjoy the life experience.”
The county fair is only part of the equation when it comes to Willis’ timely MMA journey. After compiling a 12-2 record as a professional, Willis stepped into the cage for the biggest fight of his life at LFA 88 in August. That night, he defeated hot prospect Vinicius de Jesus by unanimous decision to win the LFA welterweight championship.
Jaleel Willis after winning the LFA title. (Photo courtesy of LFA)
Like many regional fighters, Willis worked a full-time job outside of combat sports. One week after his belt-clinching win, Willis was given some bad news upon his return home.
“Right after I won the (LFA) world title fight, one week later, they brought me in and fired me. They straight-up fired me,” Willis said. “I remember being like, ‘What the hell? How could they do me like this, this that and the other?’ They (said they) had their reasons. I don’t know if it was because of 2020, budget cuts, or this, that, and the other. I know they basically let me go and let me know, ‘We don’t care about your family. We don’t care about none of that stuff. This is what we care about. We’re a family, and we need to keep rolling.’
“It’s such a blessing to be able to go like, literally, once they fired me, two days later, Bellator gave us the offer. It’s amazing. Now, they’re texting me like, ‘We love you.’ Nah. The world has a way to work out. I’m sure they’re going to be watching the fight. You know what I mean? Hoping for the worst. That’s Memphis there for you, right there.”
Bellator wasn’t the only promotion in the race to add Willis to its roster, but the deal it offered stuck up above the rest of the pack. Willis accepted the life-changing offer, and with it, a co-main event booking at Bellator 249 vs. Patricky Freire.
“They blew me away with the deal,” Willis said. “They 100 percent blew me away with the deal. The deal will be able to change my life. That’s more so what I’m here for. I enjoy competing. I enjoy doing what I do, but at the same time, I’m a prizefighter. I want to get compensated for it. Bellator, they made sure that me and my baby girl are going to be all right.”
Bellator 249 takes place Thursday at Mohegan Sun Arena. The main card airs on CBS Sports Network after prelims on CBSSports.com.