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Local

Sterling native returns to area for MMA fight in Quad Cities this month

Back home and ready to rumble

Justin Wetzell – Sterling native
Justin Wetzell – Sterling native

Sterling native and MMA fighter Justin Wetzell has a bout coming up in the Quad Cities.

It just won’t be against the guy he thought he would be facing.

Wetzell was initially slated to face Adem Mujakic, a 10-16 fighter out of Waterloo, Iowa, at Caged Aggression 24 at the Rivercenter in Davenport, Iowa, on March 23, but Mujakic suffered a knee injury and had to pull out. Wetzell will instead face Steven Merrill, another Iowa native with several appearances through Legacy Fighting Alliance.

“It’s a little different when you get an opponent swapped out so soon, but I train year-round and I always stay prepared to fight anyone at a moment’s notice,” Wetzell said. “I don’t think it really affects me. I’m staying ready for anyone.”

Merrill’s last bout, a first-round loss to Youssef Zalal, was on the same LFA 56 card as another Sterling native, Austin Hubbard, who scored a lightweight title win over Killys Mota on December 7 in Prior Lake, Minnesota.

Merrill (5-4) won his first four professional fights, three of those with a rear naked choke, before losses at LFA 19 and LFA 25. He bounced back with a win at Ballyard Brawl in Lincoln, Nebraska, last July, catching Kevin Gray with a guillotine choke in the first round, but has since lost his last two fights.

“He’s similar to my style in a way, he’s more of a grappler,” Wetzell said. “He’s got five victories, and all five of his wins have come in the first round via submission, so I know he’s going to be looking to secure a submission win.”

For Wetzell, a fight in the Quad Cities marks a return to the area. His last two fights, with Pinnacle Combat, were in Dubuque in 2017 and 2018. He won both, scoring unanimous decisions against Dalton Grinstead and Earnest Walls. He will be back in the Caged Aggression ring for the first time since losing to Joseph Richardson in 2016.

“I’m really excited to come back and fight in the Quad Cities,” Wetzell said. “It’s really close to home, and I know I’m going to have a lot of fans there, a lot of people there when I walk out and feel the energy of the crowd. Whether I’m getting booed at or cheered, I love feeling the energy of the crowd, and I know that’s going to be there, and I just can’t wait for it.”

He has been training in Denver with Elevation Fight Team since 2017.

“I had been training in Sterling for about 5 years, and shortly after my first loss in MMA, I made the move out here and really haven’t looked back since,” Wetzell said. “I think the biggest thing since coming out here is just the overall training like a professional athlete, not just taking needless days off, recovering the right way, eating right, and just being more well-rounded as a fighter.”

A former Sterling wrestler, Wetzell came into MMA with that grappling background, but has tried to expand his style in the cage as his career progresses.

“Once I came out here, it opened my eyes that I can’t make it with just those skills,” he said. “I have to be a well-rounded athlete in every aspect of the game if I want to make it to the top.”

He said his striking has come a long way working with the Elevation coaching staff. In training, he gets to step into the cage with another 135-pound fighter, Cory Sandhagen, who has made the jump to UFC, where he’s picked up wins over Austin Arnett, Iuri Alcantara and Mario Bautista, with another bout planned for April 27.

“He’s probably the most talented fighter on our team, pound-for-pound,” Wetzell said. “I’m fortunate enough that he’s in my weight class. I just try to follow his style and just the way he trains and what he does, and carry that into my fights. I think he’s going to be a world champ in UFC some day, and I think he’s the right guy to follow.”

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