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Army Ultimate Fighting

Philip L. Graitcer

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Two Soldiers Spar
(Philip L. Graitcer)
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Army Ultimate Fighting Match
(Philip L. Graitcer)

The Army says mixed martial arts fighting - a mix of boxing, judo, karate and wrestling - is tailor-made for combat. But mixed martial arts fighting is not just a training strategy. Since the sport is also wildly popular among 18- to 25-year-old guys, it's a useful tool for the Army to attract new recruits. This weekend, the Army's best fighters will compete for the title of All Army Combatives Champion.


At the sound of the bell, Master Sergeant Sean Morris and Sergeant Charles Ganoung circle each other in the ring. Within seconds, the two are going hard at each other, jabbing and simultaneously kicking. Morris lets loose a few more jabs, then he clips Ganoung with a kick, right behind the knee. Ganoung goes down.

If this sounds more like ultimate fighting than your average basic training, you're right. The Army calls it Combatives, but it's essentially the same thing as the popular sport known as "ultimate fighting" or "mixed martial arts." It's a brutal mix of wresting, boxing and karate. And it has a big following among 18- to 25-year- old men.

"It gets guys that we want in the Army--guys that want to fight," says Sergeant Damien Skelly.

Skelly also competes in civilian mixed martial arts competitions. He's billed as the Fighting Ranger. When Skelly beats a civilian in an ultimate fighting match, he hopes some the guys in the crowd will consider joining up.

"We can get guys who want to fight, scrap with the other guy; that's what we want right there. Don't really get that a lot with the college options and the GI bill. You get a lot of people thinking 'What can the Army do for me?'"

Mixed martial arts started in 1993 as a way to pit wrestlers, boxers and karate experts against each other. Early on the matches were so brutal that it was called human cockfighting.

But as it grew in popularity, the sport became a mix of more types of martial arts forms with stricter regulations. Now there's no gouging, no fish-hooking and no elbows to the back of the head.

In 1995 the Army started their own program called Combatives. But unlike mixed martial arts, Combatives isn't a sport; it's about training soldiers in hand to hand combat.

Still, the Army program has elements that seem more like gang initiation than basic training. One drill, according to Skelly, is particularly traumatic. It's nicknamed the punch drill.

"The student has to close the distance on their opponent while getting punched with a closed fist in the head with little protective gear, and they can't punch back, they just have to close the distance, wade through the punches and achieve the clinch."

The clinch is when the student gets inside his opponent's fists, close enough to bear-hug him.

The idea of pitting soldiers against each other, one-on-one, might seem odd. After all, the Army relies more on teamwork to win battles than individual acts of glory. Matt Larsen, the director of the Army's Combatives program, believes that the training is more of a team- building exercise than one might think.

"You know, you always get that soldier who, this is the first time away from home, and he's not really developed into a grownup yet. Of course, he starts getting beat up right away, but pretty soon, he beats somebody. And at that moment, they flower into a full member of the unit."

Larsen admits that the program is grueling. And he thinks that's how it should be. Unlike the civilians who call themselves ultimate fighters, Army combatants are not fighting for fame and fortune.

Larsen says, "On the battlefield, it's a fight for life. We're not training to win in the cage or in the ring. We're training to win on the battlefield in Iraq or Afghanistan or wherever we fight next and of course in those fights there are no rules."

Sergeant Keoyki Smythe knows this firsthand. Smythe's built like a bull and just as powerful; he's been training in Combatives for 12 years.

Last year, Smythe was on patrol with his unit in Ramadi, Iraq. They were jumpy, because the last time they were here, they'd been hit by an IED.

"We halted real quick before we crossed the main road, and this Iraqi was coming towards me, military aged male, I told him in Arabic to stop," explains Smythe. "I stood in front of him and told him to stop and he shoved me."

Under military rules, that shove was considered an assault; Smythe could have shot the Iraqi. Instead, he used what he learned in Combatives.

Smith continues, "…as he passed by me, I wrapped him up in the rear naked choke; so I took my arm, I wrapped it around his neck, I grabbed my bicep, my opposite hand goes behind his head, … stepped on the back of his knee and faced him towards the wall so that we could continue movement without interference from him."

Combatives probably saved the Iraqi's life. And for Smythe, he learned that he didn't always need his weapon to gain the upper hand.


  • Comment | Refresh

  • By jon ssg

    From athens, GA, 01/19/2009

    the guys name is Stelly. Damien Stelly. Not Skelly.

    By Mark Andrews

    From Omaha, NE, 10/06/2008

    After I heard your story I was curious about the roots of MMA. I didn't have to look far to find at least a little on the Internet; use Google to search for "RioHeroes" and you'll see what I mean.

    I started martial arts training in 1997; I trained 18 months in Danzan Ryu Jujitsu before switching to Aikido. As the previous poster said, Jujitsu is more what you want in combatives, not Aikido.

    What I am doing is backing in to the question of "What martial art is the best?" People ask this question a log on martial arts related blogs and conversation sites. The response is also a question: what problem are you trying to solve?

    * Dominate on the mat = Brazilian Jujitsu.

    * Point defense on the battle field = Army Combatives.

    * Dominate in the Octagon = MMA

    * Physical conditioning and deep consideration of how to stay cool under pressure = Aikido.

    * Meditative, very safe, suitable for older people with infirmity = Tai Chi

    * Deeply meditative, suitable for self-defense after 40 years of careful, continuous practice = Tai Chi

    You see what I mean. No one martial art solves all problems or is suitable for every situation. Every art has its place. Each in its own way can be beautiful.

    By Todd Christensen

    From Seattle, WA, 10/04/2008

    I just heard this edition of WEA wand this story caught my attention with one glaring error: Why I am uncertain about modern Army Combatives, MMA does not consist of techniques or training methods from Karate.

    As a former Karate instructor, a boxer and kick boxer and dabbler in MMA for the last dozen or so years I am pretty familiar with both sets of training in traditional Karate and MMA. Karate, while an fantastic form of expression and self discipline, has a defensive posture (chin up) and training style (often relying on Kata - pre-arranged choreography) that is opposite ends of the spectrum from preparing people for real fighting.

    The early Vale Tudo and UFC fights pretty much invalidated the Karateka from competing in the open rules format, particularly where ground fighting was allowed. Karate fighters were eviscerated in these competitions. With the exception of Chuck Lidel's whose Kempo (a non traditional Karate form) background... an art he accesses precious little from in NHB fighting.

    MMA is most often a blend of Thai Kickboxing, Boxing, Wrestling, and ESPECIALLY Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ - a ground fighting derivative of Judo NOT karate. BJJ is essential for both MMA and Army Combatives and was left out of your report.

    This distinction is very important to those of us who both train and teach these forms. Going into an average Karate school expecting to find MMA would be supremely disappointing to your listeners (regardless of how some schools may be attempting to capitalize on the success of the UFC).

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