More than 20 years ago, a mix of comedians, musicians, and eye candy was standard entertainment for deployed troops. Celebrities still do large numbers, but there’s another big ticket these days—mixed martial artists.
During a stint in the early 1990s as a military police officer in the Marines, jiu-jitsu coach Kurt Shrout remembers the impact of a Billy Ray Cyrus concert that drew 70,000 service members. Today, MMA fighters have surpassed all but stand-up comedians as the most requested personalities overseas, says Shrout, who founded Fighters for FIGHTERS, a group that brings some of the UFC’s best (and soon, Bellator) to the Armed Forces.
“Whenever you’re stationed overseas—and it really doesn’t matter if you’re in Germany, Afghanistan, or Guam—you start to think that America doesn’t care about you,” says Shrout. “You’re just another piece in the machine. Our goal is always to remind troops that they’re missed and loved, and we want them to come home safe.”
Since 2010, Fighters for FIGHTERS has gone around the world on that mission, touching down at military bases in the Pacific Rim and Middle East. Mike Swick, Jon Fitch, Chris Leben, Kyle Kingsbury, Dustin Poirier, and Tom Lawlor are among a growing list of fighters who have made the trip, braving 36-hour flights, shakedowns in Kurdistan, and rocket attack scares in Shindand, Afghanistan. They receive no pay, other than a small per diem.
Their impact on the troops, however, is unmistakable.
“We met a group of guys who are in explosive ordinance disposal, and in six months, they lost 10 percent of their unit,” Shrout says. “Our visits are such a needed break for them, because, for a few hours, they’re not thinking about what happened or what could happen.”
“At the nicer bases, we’d have 20 or 30 people show up to meet us,” says Kyle Kingsbury. “Then we went to Djibouti, where it’s just a hellhole and nobody wanted to be there. We showed up, and there were 250 people who all wanted an autograph or to take a photo. It’s a really cool experience. They really appreciate you coming.”
Shrout says that over the two-week jaunts, they speed through military bases and outposts on the front lines. The itinerary is: “You’ll be told when you get there,” but might involve flying over an active firefight or sitting in a bunker.
There could be crash courses in the inner-workings of a Cobra helicopter or a Squad Automatic Weapon. There will definitely be an education on what some service members endure while protecting our country.
“Djibouti is right on the equator,” Kingsbury says. “It’s walking distance to Somalia. They took us out on the U.S.S. Nassau, which has 1000 Marines and 1000 Navy Shipmen. Those guys had been out to sea for over a month without a dock, and their plan was to go 75 days without a port. Put it this way, when we ate at the chow hall, I had to sit back away from my food, because I was dripping sweat like a running faucet. Their job is to protect against Somali pirates. Knowing how long those guys were out there, how can you complain when something little goes wrong in your life?”
The fighters do endless meet-and greetsand autograph sessions. And whenever possible, they get out the mats to teach. Of course, there are many military members who are pro and amateur fighters, competing on their downtime away from their military duties, and they love the extra technique sessions. But soldiers aren’t just keen on learning the best double-leg takedown. They want Swick to explain why Josh Koscheck is such a headache at American Kickboxing Academy.
“They’re on the forums, they’re on the websites, and they know what’s going on,” says Shrout, who coaches at Easton Training Center-Fitness in Colorado when he’s not playing tour manager.
Besides getting down on the mats for a little MMA practice, Tom Lawlor’s trip overseas gave him a greater understanding of why people enlist.
“These people sacrifice a lot and get sent halfway around the world,” Lawlor says. “They give up a lot of the luxuries that we take for granted in order to sacrifice for their families and their future. Literally, the very least I could do is participate, and if there were 10 MMA fans on a trip, that was pretty much worth it for me.”
With three trips already in the books, another tour is planned in the fall for Kuwait, Bahrain, UAE, Djibouti, and Qatar. As long as there are FIGHTERS overseas, Shrout plans to bring the fighters to them.
“It’s important to keep morale up,” Shrout says, “and these men and women serving our country deserve every ounce of our support.”
Atypical day on Kris Perkins’ squad involves an hourand-a-half of CrossFit, followed by 25, five-minute rounds of jiu-jitsu, lunch, and four hours of wrestling and Muay Thai. Most of this work—five days a week and a short day on Saturday—takes place in an 8,000-square-foot facility with three matted rooms and a 24-foot cage. A jiu-jitsu black belt is on staff. Trainer Mike Constantino and UFC lightweight Jim Miller might show up. Strikeforce contender Tim Kennedy is down the road. Medics are always on call.
“For three months, all they do is learn to fight,” Perkins says.
And near the end, they’ll fight each other for the right to compete on his Army Combatives Team. For the past two years, Perkins’ quad has not only won the All-Army Combatives Tournament, but also the right to host this year’s festivities at Fort Hood, Texas. Approximately 400 soldiers from bases around the world are expected to attend the three-day competition, which is set for July 26-28. Perkins is going for three wins in a row, and he admits that he’s stacking the deck as much as possible. He has to—the level of competition is sky-high.
“Every year, it gets better and better,” he says. “The Army is full of D-1 wrestlers. Some of them were All-American, and these guys start coming out of the woodwork when this tournament happens.”
Combatives, which integrates modern fighting techniques into the soldier’s arsenal, was founded in 2001 by a sergeant in the Army Rangers and was adopted Army-wide in 2004. Soon after, the tournament was born.
The first day of competition is submission grappling with fatigues. The second day is a fight under Pancrase rules (no closed-fist strikes to the head), and the third day is an MMA fight, minus elbows and knees to the head of a grounded opponent. It’s a double-elimination tournament, so entrants who lose still have a shot at placing third or fourth in their weight class (of which there are eight,
from 110 pounds to heavyweight). Women compete alongside the men, and they are given a 15 percent weight allowance.
Perkins recruits three to five people and chooses two to represent each weight class. His team often visits three-time tournament winner Tim Kennedy for some extra work. Jim Miller’s comment after a day working with the team was, “Holy shit, this is a tough room,” says Perkins. For all the sweat and sacrifi ce, the Combatives director estimates only 10 percent of competitors go on to become professional fighters, though many moonlight on the regional circuit. Most will go back to their units, where they’ll be the resident experts in hand-to-hand combat. Those who win will have some serious bragging rights, too.
“To a soldier, if you win the All-Army Tournament, you can say, ‘I’m the toughest soldier in the United States Army at 155 pounds,’” Perkins says. “That’s really why most of them do it.”