MMA In the Military

When the editors at FIGHT! asked me to write an article on the history of mixed martial arts in the military, my first thought was about how it is being rewritten as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan rage on.

Sure, there is a story to tell about the evolution of training programs, doctrine, and methods the military has used to train its troops. But as Americans in uniform march toward their seventh year of the fi rst protracted US military engagements in more than 30 years, never has the value and critical nature of strong hand-to-hand combat skills been more apparent. Training in mixed martial arts is spreading like a virus among the troops.

This explosion of training is being driven by the demands of the battlefield, and has resulted in the birth and rapid growth of a truly American brand of martial arts in the Army and Marine Corps. We at the Army Combatives School have conducted hundreds of post action interviews with soldiers who have been involved in actual hand-to-hand combat. These soldiers have recounted in colorful detail instances where potentially lethal encounters with combative Iraqi citizens were quelled with a choke, or where armed bad guys were disarmed with a joint lock, no shots fired.

We have also documented cases in which soldiers have survived gruesome one-on-one fights to the death with a determined enemy, by using a combination of proven techniques and a more than just a pinch of the will to live. That’s what separates the training regimens at civilian mixed martial arts schools and what the military must teach. Men and women in uniform are far more likely to face an armed opponent in a narrow, dark room, unlike a civilian facing another fighter wearing board shorts in a brightly lit cage. The fusion of these two scenarios is what has propelled men and women in the armed forces into utilizing their gritty survival skills as a sport.

In the two years since the first Army Combatives Championships in November of 2005, combative tournaments have popped up like daisies across the Army. Units such as the 101st Airborne Division, which has spent two of the last three years in Iraq, and the Armor Training Center, where soldiers learn to drive the 70 ton Abrams main battle tank, are having official unit championships. Regular soldiers compete for the right to represent their unit in the Army Championships at Ft. Benning, Georgia.

Beyond the barracks, the Army and Marine Corps each have fearsome professional fighters who kick butt at home championships while also making names for themselves in the larger arenas.

Staff Sergeant Tim Kennedy, a Special Forces soldier who was the 2005 and 2006 Army Combatives champion and has a victory over Jason “Mayhem” Miller, recently defeated both Dante Rivera, Renzo Gracie’s 205 pound fighter, and Ryan McGivern, Pat Miletich’s 185 pound fighter, in the IFL. Staff Sergeant Damien Stelly, an Airborne Ranger, won the 2005 All Army championship and is an instructor at the Army Combatives School where he learned his skills. He is 7-1 as a pro and has been fighting on the Art of War cards in Texas. Additionally, Marine Lt. Brian Stann, a martial arts instructor trainer who began his training at the Marine Corps Martial Arts Center of

Excellence at Quantico, Virginia has been dominating his opponents in the WEC. These warriors are combat veterans with multiple tours to Iraq and Afghanistan. Kennedy and Stelly have each turned down opportunities to fight in the UFC in order to deploy with their units.

While each branch of service has a training program with distinct differences, the demands of training for the battlefield have led Kennedy, Stelly, and Stann to develop similar mixed martial arts abilities. This is where a little history will help explain the diverse philosophies in their approach to the fight, and why combatives is gaining popularity as a sport among the troops.

The root of today’s modern Army combatives program is in the 75th Ranger Regiment. In 1995, as a member of 2nd Ranger Battalion, I was asked by the commander to help develop a better method for training hand to hand fighting.

At that time, the Army had a combatives manual but no program to produce qualifi ed instructors or an implementation system. The program was left to the local commanders’ discretion. Even new soldiers in basic training laughed at the combatives techniques they were being taught.

J. Robinson, a Vietnam era Ranger and the head coach of the University of Minnesota wrestling program, had coached our battalion operations officer at the University of Iowa. He came out to evaluate the emerging program and gave some valuable advice, mainly that a successful program must have a competitive aspect in order to motivate soldiers to train, and that it must include live sparring to address the real combat needs of armed conflict. We began to develop a mixed program based on wrestling, boxing, and the various martial arts we each had experienced, such as Judo and Muay Thai. Eventually, after looking at many different systems, we sent several men to train at the Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy in Torrance, California.

The Jiu-Jitsu taught at the Gracie Academy fit many of the battalion’s needs. It was easy to learn, had a competitive form, and was proven effective within the arena of mixed martial arts fighting. But it had some shortcomings for the military. Gracie Jiu-Jitsu was principally designed for one-on-one arena fighting without time limits..

As our system, matured we began to realize what it was about the techniques of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu that made them work; you could practice them at full speed against a fully resistant opponent, the same as wrestling or boxing. With this knowledge, we were able to determine which techniques did not work and abandon them. We also began to draw from other martial arts that share various levels of this live training to fill in the tactical gaps of pure Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. The classic plan of takedown and submission works well in the arena, but in the real world the techniques must fit the tactical situation, and this basic take them down and finish them on the ground approach wasn’t
enough for our needs.

With success in the Ranger Regiment, the program spilled over into the conventional Army with a new field manual which I authored in 2002. The training methods are now doctrine and they continue to evolve.

As we began to explore the various training methods of the other “feeder arts,” the ways they complemented each other and exposed each other’s weaknesses become clear. The concept of positional dominance from Jiu-Jitsu was expanded to the other ranges of combat, and blended with techniques from wrestling, boxing, Muay Thai, and Judo. With weapons fighting lessons from Mark Deny of the Dog Brothers, and the inclusion of western martial arts, by Sept. 11, 2001 we had developed a totally integrated system of Close Quarters Combat, and laid a sound foundation from which to learn the lessons of the battlefields to come.

Realistic training, driven by feedback from the battlefield, and competitions as a tool to motivate soldiers to train remains the cornerstones of the program. Today there are official Army Combatives competitions anywhere soldiers are stationed, from Italy to Korea, from Kansas to Guam. There have even been Combatives Competitions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

To avoid having soldiers specializing in one range of combat, competitions follow a graduated set of rules. Preliminary bouts are submission grappling, with rules derived from BJJ, although better takedowns are rewarded more highly, like SOMBO or wrestling. More techniques are allowed in each round, with the semi-finals being similar to Pancrase rules, until the finals are full-on MMA.

Winners of unit championships qualify to come to the US Army Combatives School at Ft. Benning, to represent their unit in the All Army Combatives Championships each fall.

The Marine Corps Martial Arts Program, known as MCMAP, began in 2000 as an initiative of the Commandant of the Marine Corps. The program was built around the three pillars of mental, character, and physical discipline. At the same time they are learning combative arts and conditioning, Marines study martial cultures such as the Zulu and Apache, as well as case studies of Marines who have displayed heroism in the past. The program is designed to synergize the three disciplines and blend them into a complete system.

Although the Marine Corps does not have official MMA competitions, there have been Pancration tournaments held at Camp Pendleton. Marine Corps recruiting has sponsored both the UFC, which held an event on Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, and the WEC. Many Marines such as Lt. Stann are doing quite well in MMA with what they have learned from the MCMAP.

With the demands of the battlefield driving the training, realistic Combatives training is spreading to the other services as well. Air Force personnel who are deploying with the Army receive training in Modern Army Combatives, and small elements of the Navy receive training from either the Marine Corps or the Army.

With literally hundreds of thousands of students, the military combatives systems cannot help but become an ever larger part of the American martial arts scene. With soldiers fighting MMA as a part of their job, it won’t be long until Combatives begins to be a major force in the world of mixed martial arts.

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