IN THE BELLY OF THE WHALE
The city of Mosul is in the Northern part of Iraq on the banks of the Tigris River. A sprawling city of nearly two million inhabitants, it has been here in one form or another for thousands of years. It is built on the ruins of the ancient city of Nineveh where the prophet Jonah was traveling when swallowed alive by a “great fish” in the famous story from the Bible. It’s said he is buried in the city, beneath a shrine located in the Nabi Yunus Mosque.
I am ruminating on the Biblical prophet’s peculiar mode of transportation as I travel towards the city myself, in the belly of a different kind of giant beast. Thousands of feet above the Iraqi desert inside a C-130 military transport plane, I am traveling together with a large group: three fighters, two promoters, three judges, two referees, a corporate sponsor, a matchmaker, sanctioning official, two ring girls, a documentary film crew, FIGHT! Magazine’s own intrepid staff photographer Paul Thatcher and about a dozen soldiers who are going on deployment. We are all being ferried to forward operating base Marez on the outskirts of Mosul, which in a few days will be the site of a historic mixed martial arts event. The fight card has been a labor of love for many, including Monica Sanford, the owner of Devil Dog Productions. Monica is the wife of a Marine Lieutenant Colonel and a tireless advocate for greater acceptance of MMA by the military. She owns a Jiu-Jitsu academy off Camp Lejeune, NC, and has already promoted a couple of hugely successful events on U.S. military bases, but she’s never pulled off anything with the scope and complexity of what they’re planning at Marez. No one has. With her are fellow promoter Brett Moses and Andy Foster, head of the Georgia State Boxing Commission, who are here to help with the organization and production of the big night.
Traveling on the C-130 is a singularly unpleasant experience. There are no windows to speak of, the smell of fuel is overwhelming and the roar of the engines is so deafening that we are given tiny orange earplugs before takeoff in order to prevent permanent hearing damage. We are packed in like sardines alongside huge pallets of equipment and luggage and we’re required to wear 35-pound flak jackets and ill-fitting Kevlar helmets just in case anybody takes a pot shot at us. The scene is one of discomfort and claustrophobia.
Irrational thoughts begin to race through my mind, “Am I supposed to smell this much oil? Maybe there’s a leak! What if this thing catches fire mid-air? What if they land us in the 140-degree Iraqi heat and forget about us on the plane? Great God, we’ll bake alive in here!”
I have never liked confined spaces and even though I realize everything will probably be alright, I begin to sweat profusely in the beginning stages of animal panic. If I withstand this initial wave, I know it will go away for good, so I close my eyes and do my best to place my thoughts elsewhere.
When I open them after a few minutes, I notice that the expressions on the faces of my fellow travelers run the gamut from mild consternation to full-on psychological breakdown. There are anti freak-out kits behind us on the walls—green pouches containing vomit bags and hyperventilation units just in case somebody does lose it. I wonder how often this happens. Somehow, knowing the others are having a rough time too makes it easier on me and I even begin to laugh at myself a little.
The plane suddenly begins to lurch and weave erratically, sending me swerving from side to side in my seat. My ears pop as the plane dives and loses altitude quickly. My friend Nick Palmisciano, owner of Ranger Up and a sponsor of the event, is across from me sleeping like a baby. A graduate of West Point and a former Army Ranger, he warned me earlier about our landing, saying the C-130 pilots would put the plane through a series of acrobatic, downwardspiraling, pirouettes in order to make us a more difficult target to shoot down.
“Mosul’s hot right now,” he had said, using the military slang for an area with a large amount of enemy activity.
“Sweet,” I had commented, meaning just the opposite.
Mosul is in the most dangerous part of Iraq. After a brutal seven- year war, U.S. forces have driven the enemy out of the rest of the country and now the terrorists are fighting desperately not to be completely dislodged. It is here in Nineveh province and in and around the city of Mosul, that Al Qaeda is making its last stand in Iraq.
Once we arrive on the base we are escorted to the billeting area. We are staying in the same hooches as a squad of soldiers from the Alpha Company 1-12th Cavalry, who are nice enough to show us around and explain that the strange looking structures in the central area between our hooches are fortifications designed to provide cover if the base comes under mortar or rocket attack. “Good information,” I think.
The entire group of six Alpha Company soldiers trains MMA and four of them will be fighting in the big event. The two others, SSgt. Stephen Laxamana and a stocky Kansan, SSgt. Patrick Miller, will be working their comrades’ corners. A lifelong wrestler and professional fighter with a record of 11-4, it was Miller who first introduced his men to the sport while training at Fort Hood, Texas.
“I was beating everybody when we’d roll as a part of our PT (physical training),” explains Miller. “So people started asking me to show them moves when we weren’t busy and those guys started beating up people and it just started a chain reaction.”
The soldiers are all huge fans of watching MMA, especially the UFC. They quiz me about some of the famous athletes I’ve met while covering the sport. There’s a lot of interest in anything having to do with Randy Couture, with Eddie Bravo coming in a close second.
They’ve seen a lot of combat and most of them are on their second or even third tour of duty. I ask them about their experiences in the war and how they think it’s going. No Oliver Stone bullshit here— they’re all glad they came to Iraq, and say proudly that they’ve been a part of something historic in a way most people will never know.
“Our job is to kill bad guys,” says Sgt. Coury Stevens. The other members of the team say Stevens is one bad MF, a deadly shot with tons of confirmed kills and cool as ice water under fire. The babyfaced Stevens also looks like he’s about 15 years old. “You train and train but you never get to do it unless you come over here,” he tells me matter-of-factly. A robust opinion, if not a politically correct one.
They all speak well of the mission in Iraq, but their opinion of some of the Iraqi nationals who they’re risking their lives to protect isn’t the best. They even joke about the well-known expertise of some of the Iraqi police in disassembling the complex booby traps which litter the country.
SSgt. Thomas Blair, an All-American looking Bostonian with a good sense of humor, mimics a policeman effortlessly plucking three or four wires out of a grenade in the correct sequence then holding it up to show it’s disarmed. “That’s ‘cause you used to make ‘em motherfucker!” he blurts out as the rest of the squad chuckles grimly. He’s referring to the fact that some of the Iraqi defense forces that now work with the U.S. were once fighting against them in the Sunni “resistance”. That’s before they were persuaded by the brutality of Al Qaeda against civilians to join forces with the Americans and kick the terrorists out of the country once and for all. The soldiers’ opinion of the Al Qaeda fighters is even lower and I get the sense that it does them good to blow off steam talking about them.
“Cowards,” spits Stevens. “They use women and children as shields.”
Reading reports of Al Qaeda fighters lining up children and marching behind them while firing over their heads at U.S. forces is bad enough, but having Stevens, someone who has seen it firsthand, tell me about it face-to-face makes it seem much worse.
“Worthless,” he continues, in the fine military tradition of talking down the enemy. “They know if they stand and fight, they’ll be killed.” He imitates the haul-ass-while-shooting-aimlessly-fromthe- hip technique the terrorists favor.
They all put on a hard face, but the more I get to know them the younger they seem. The young, male, working class demo that has always been the core of MMA’s fan base, is also the base of the armed forces. It’s natural that there should be a big crossover between the two. I have no frame of reference for most of what they’re telling me about the war, other than to be amazed that they go through so much so often, but we do have one thing in common. They’re just as interested in MMA as me so we bond by talking about training and the different matches we’ve seen. Stevens ex- plains to me that he is currently trying to learn the Rubber Guard that Eddie Bravo invented. “I read his books,” he says, producing one from his hooch to show me.
At night they all go up to one of the gyms on base and train together. Training and competing in MMA helps them deal with the drudgery and anxiety of their daily lives in the war zone. Blair points out that it also builds esprit de corps. He says there is a natural camaraderie between soldiers from being in combat, but that training together in an activity like mixed martial arts “increases it ten-fold.”
A HUGE ENDEAVOR
The base is buzzing about the upcoming event. Soldiers ask us about it when they see us in the chow hall and many thank us in advance for putting it on. It has been a colossal effort and Monica and many of the rest of the team have been busting their humps for almost a year to make this event happen. They’ve got to feel good because in the days leading up to the event, the energy is very positive and the soldiers are all supportive and appreciative.
“Thank you for coming over here and doing this for us,” a soldier says to me one day in the chow line. I want to answer “No—Thank You, for helping save the world from evil thugs.”
The day before the fight, we are escorted down to the outdoor ring and amphitheater, where the event will take place, for a runthrough. Monica and Nick chatter excitedly that “The Boss” is coming in to inspect the grounds. “The Boss” is the base commander, Colonel Gary Volesky.
“Volesky is the real deal.” Nick tells me. “They’ve written books about his battles.” Volesky, it turns out, was the commander of the main U.S. force in Sadr City, Iraq during one of the most hard-fought campaigns of the war back in 2004. That battle went a long way in pacifying the sprawling Baghdad slum and Colonel Volesky’s star has been very much on the rise ever since.
Soon he appears with his staff of soldiers in tow. He is a tall, thin man who always looks straight ahead and moves with quick, precise movements. He reminds me of an old grizzled hawk, always alert and aware of what’s happening out on the horizon. He looks intense but he seems nice enough, frequently peppering his speech with “awesome,” and “that’s great.” Although he’s obviously the man in charge, he makes everyone on our team feel comfortable, but I get the sense that he could change out of nice mode in a microsecond if anyone around him screwed up.
As base commander, Volesky is taking a risk by having an event of this magnitude and complexity on FOB Marez. It’s a big card with 14 amateur fights and three professional ones. So, besides the normal logistical challenges of hosting an event with that many matches and thousands of spectators, there are also the special security concerns of doing it in a war zone. Back in 2004, long before Volesky was commander of the base, a suicide bomber made his way past security and into the mess hall on Marez and blew himself up, killing 22 people, 18 of which were U.S. personnel. You don’t have to be a counter-terrorism expert to realize that what’s left of Al Qaeda in the country would love to pull something like that off at tomorrow night’s event with thousands of troops and half of the command structure of Northern Iraq in attendance.
To make sure everything runs smoothly, the Colonel goes through something he calls the Rock Drill, which is a rapid-fire series of very pointed questions concerning the specifics of the event. By the end of the tenminute process, he has broken the three-hour event into fifteen-minute increments and knows precisely what should be occurring during those increments and whose job it is to make sure those things happen. “What happens then,” he asks. “Whose job is that? What if this happens? What if that happens?” over and over again, while soldiers jump in with concise, accurate answers so as not to waste his time.
Once he is satisfied that every possible contingency that can be planned for has been, Volesky is off again in a cloud of dust with his staff trailing behind him. If he has anything to do with it, tomorrow night’s event will run with the precision of a Swiss watch. But as with everything in a war zone, there is always the unspoken potential for disaster.
A TREMENDOUS SUCCESS
The fight night has been built up for months and everyone involved is expecting a large crowd, but they end up getting almost three times as many as they expected. A massive crowd of soldiers is spread out across the hills behind the ring. Many have come in from other bases and some are standing on the hoods and roofs of their Humvees and on the ceilings of the surrounding concrete fortifications to get a better view.
Before the event officially begins, a list of the fallen soldiers from the base is read and then the national anthem is sung A cappella by everyone in attendance. The crescendo is timed right at the moment of a helicopter flyover to kick things off. The moment, with its thousands-strong military chorus, is another of Volesky’s innovations. Out of that huge sea of soldiers, I don’t think there are a dozen who can carry a tune, but we all pitch in and sing as loudly as we can, and in its own way, it’s a beautiful thing to experience.
The crowd is wildly enthusiastic and the different units all cheer and wave their flags whenever their members are competing. The two ring girls who came over with us, Starr and Lauren, are, of course, a huge hit with all the soldiers, as they strut around between rounds and go out into the crowd to pose for pictures.
The first fight of the night is won by Alpha Company’s SSgt. Blair— the kid from Boston—who grounds and pounds his way to a decision over his opponent. The squad’s ballsy Sgt. Miguel Lozonaris steps into the ring for the first time as a pro or amateur in an exhibition against a seasoned professional fighter named Andy Roberts, who has 19 wins. As you would expect, Roberts overwhelms Lozonaris, who fights like hell, but is eventually caught by a rear naked choke late in the first. Both fighter’s hands are raised at the end and the crowd applauds Lozonaris’s bravery.
Coury Stevens, the soldier who looks so young, loses a close decision but nearly pulls it off. The fight stays close, but Stevens’s opponent scores a few flashy takedowns that I think won him the fight.
When it’s mild-mannered medic Joshua Beecher’s turn, I grit my teeth, expecting him to get wasted, but he surprises me. He turns out to be a two-fisted terror and wins in the bes
t slugfest of the night. The fight whips the crowd into frenzy and as the night progresses everyone gets more and more into it. They begin to shout advice to the fighters in the ring, some of it more technically helpful than the other. “Come on, Beecher. Beat that fool!” someone behind me shouts. “Get in there, Clark. Don’t give up!” another soldier exhorts in a later fight. My favorite is a man with a piercing screech of a shout who keeps screaming the same advice in every fight over and over—“HAMMERFIST! HAMMERFIST!”
Colonel Volesky and the rest of the brass, who are all sitting in a special ringside section, are really enjoying the matches, as well. They’re rooting the soldiers on, clapping, shouting and cheering. It’s cool to see so many bigwig officers letting loose. Anytime something dramatic happens in the action they all leap to their feet at the same time, their black Calvary hats bobbing up and down in unison.
Two of the fighters in the co-main event are active duty military who came over with us from the states. Navy Corpsman Mike Brown has kept to himself and has been keyed up since he got on the plane in Atlanta. A ball of nervous energy, he reminds me of the way Mike Tyson used to look in his pre-fight ceremonies, except Brown has been chomping at the bit for four days and not fifteen minutes. So, I’m worried he might burn himself out mentally before the fight even starts. Six seconds after the bell rings, his opponent is an unconscious lump in a corner of the ring. I guess Brown knew what he was doing. After his win he becomes the life of the party for the rest of the trip.
SSgt. John Walsh is a gritty Marine with ten years of service and the submission grappling coach at Camp Pendleton. He engages in a barnburner in the final fight against Capt. Jason Norwood. Walsh nearly catches Norwood in several submissions but the more explosive Army Officer, who has a professional record of 6-1, eventually gets it to the feet. Once up, they exchange punches and Walsh gets caught with one right on the button that he never sees coming. When the officer, Captain Norwood, is announced the victor over SSgt. Walsh, there is a loud chorus of boos from the enlisted men in the crowd. Norwood takes it with grain of salt.
By the end of the night, the whole place is buzzed. It has been a very special night. Before the crowd disperses, there’s a surprise ceremony to thank Monica and Brett and the rest of the group for coming over and helping out with the event.
Afterwards, I am approached by Colonel Volesky himself. “Well, what did you think?” he asks. “A tremendous success, Sir.” I reply. I’m as pumped up as everyone else about how well the show went. “A tremendous success. Congratulations!”
He is smiling ear-to-ear and he should be. The event couldn’t have gone over any better. The Colonel gambled on the sport of mixed martial arts and it paid off in a big way.
“A man like that,” I tell myself, as I watch Col. Volesky make his rounds congratulating the fighters and crew, “doesn’t rise to the position he’s in and not be able to see a freight train when it’s coming down the tracks.”
THE HEART OF THE MATTER
When we get back to our hooches, Alpha Company is in the process of gearing up. Miller, Laxamana, Lozonaris, Stevens, Blair and Beecher have beaten us back and are all collecting their equipment; helmets, radio packs and the oddly tall night vision sights that are attached awkwardly to their helmets. Their weapons are slung over their shoulders or across their chests, as they get ready to enter the MRAP troop transport vehicle, which is waiting to drive them to whatever trouble spot they’ve been dispatched. The squad’s senior leader, First Sergeant Daniels, a gnarly old badass with a trick eye, is sitting out on one of the benches talking about how his boys have done tonight. “These boys are the real shit,” he growls, glowing with pride.
The squad is psyched, even the ones who lost their matches seem energized by the experience. Incredibly, they’ve gotten a call to head back out on a mission within a few hours of competing. It brings home what these guys do and the reality of the danger they’re in every day. We all promise to keep in touch and I feel like I know them much better than I should after such a short time. It’s a surreal scene with them gearing up in the middle of the night. Lauren, Starr and even Monica cry and make a big fuss, but the soldiers take it in stride. I wonder whether or not they will all come back alright and the danger of the war suddenly seems very real and palpable. We all tell them goodbye and to come back safely.
As they pull out of the base, I try to process everything I’ve seen over the last few days and it’s sort of overwhelming. Soldiers, like the men I met in Alpha Company, are sent over here to do an insanely difficult thing. They risk their lives practically every day and, now that I’ve seen just a harmless little piece of it, when I try to wrap my head around this large, complex war, mixed martial arts doesn’t seem like such a big deal to me any more. But then I think about how relaxed the men were when we would talk about the sport, or about their favorite fighters. They seemed to forget about Iraq for a while when they’d tell me their ambitions for the sport, or about how they’re driven to train so hard just for the sake of getting good at something they love to do. It makes me reconsider. If by watching, training and competing in MMA the lives of the soldiers in Alpha Company are made better, if it makes it easier to do their jobs, or it gives them more hope about the future, or a better way to cope with the stresses of war, then mixed martial arts is extremely important— because they are extremely important. I’m sure that after seeing the reaction of all the soldiers attending and competing in this historic event at FOB Marez, Col. Volesky and the other leaders that were present will realize the same thing. For that reason, I hope that our experiences in Iraq and at the show, whose name, “A Fight Night For Heroes,” now seems so much more apt to me, might be the start of something really significant.