Army Combatives turns soldiers into fighters on the battlefield and in the cage.
When Tim Kennedy found out he’d be making his Octagon debut against jiu-jitsu ace Roger Gracie, he asked himself who was best suited to help him get ready. Without question, his longtime coaches Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn would train and corner him at UFC 162, giving him advice for which they’re so renowned. His friend Nick Palmisciano from Ranger Up and his wife would be providing moral support. But who would guide him when he wasn’t in Albuquerque, NM, getting in rounds? Who should help him at home in Austin, TX, when he began the slog toward peak fight condition?
Should he choose a striking guru so that he could KO the Brazilian before they hit the mat? Should he fly in a Division-I wrestler so his sprawl might be invincible? Should he just call Steven Seagal? Many of his eventual picks were what you’d expect, but he also chose one you might not—Army combatives instructor Kristopher Perkins, who’d never before been a part of a UFC fight camp.
Just about everyone knows Kennedy is a soldier first and foremost—an Army Ranger, Green Beret, and sniper. As an MMA fighter, he’s aligned himself closely with Jackson and Winkeljohn’s squad. Perhaps that’s why Perkins was surprised to get an invitation from Kennedy, although it made sense once his friend and colleague explained the decision.
“In Army combatives, our soldiers’ hand-to-hand incidents were happening inside small rooms,” says Perkins. “This requires the soldier to know how to take someone down where a wall is involved in the scenario. This is why our wall takedowns have advanced. We have been evaluating and training this portion of the fight for a long time. It naturally crosses into MMA takedowns against the cage, and Tim wanted to utilize that idea.”
Perkins is an expert in the hand-to-hand combat taught in modern combatives, which was founded in 2001 by Army sergeant Matt Larsen. The combatives school Larsen founded at Fort Benning, Ga., swapped old-school Judo and karate techniques for modern arts that include jiu-jitsu, wrestling, Muay Thai and boxing. It provided a blueprint for stripping away ineffective fighting tools for ones who work in the field.
Perkins teaches takedowns, but they’re not the variety done by guys sporting mohawks and Hayabusa shorts. When his soldiers put an opponent on the ground, they’re often in fatigues, a Kevlar vest, and a helmet. They might have an M-4 assault rifle slung over their shoulder. And they’re fighting for their lives.
When not drilling in close-quarters combat, Perkins’ students are training in the cage at a huge facility in Fort Hood, TX. For the past three years, his combatives team has won the All-Army Combatives Tournament, which combines submission wrestling, Pancrase-style fighting, and MMA.
“If you teach a guy how to be an MMA fighter, even if he’s just mediocre, he’s going to destroy people in combat,” says Perkins. “He’s mentally tougher, he’s physically fit, and if it goes to a hand-to-hand fight, he’s just so advanced.”
Graduates of the combatives school carry accolades far from mediocre. Kennedy won the Combatives Tournament three times and is a Silver Star recipient. Army Ranger Colton Smith won The Ultimate Fighter 16. Watching opponents try in vain to escape Smith’s takedowns on the reality show, it’s easy to see why Kennedy requested Perkins to acclimate himself to the type of pressure that Gracie could bring.
“I attribute quite a bit of my success in MMA to the Army combatives program,” Smith says.
If you watched UFC 162, you know Kennedy didn’t exactly dominate the grappling savant in his native territory. But he certainly wasn’t chaff in the tank, and he defended takedowns while landing his own and scoring points on the mat. It was far from a barnburner, but it did get him his first UFC win.
Kennedy and Smith, of course, are finished products. Years before the soldiers ever got their hands raised in the Octagon, however, they had to triumph over their own nervous systems. As soldiers, they trained for the field by turning fear into action, so that when a threat came around the corner, they would never be unprepared.
While Perkins might be a good guy to know when you’re looking to stay upright or ground someone, his main job is to bridge the gap between those responses.
Back in the day, the Army’s idea of hand-to-hand combat instruction was a two-hour block where you tossed a buddy over your back with a judo throw. As Perkins remembers, “That was it. God go with you.”
While serving as a drill sergeant at Oklahoma’s Fort Sill, Perkins found combatives. A former wrestler who once tried to walk on to Oklahoma State University’s team, he understood the necessity of practical ground fighting. By 2006, he was working out in a cage that the program called “The Laboratory.”
Then, he went to Iraq, where he ran into “a lot of bad situations.”
“I found that I started reacting just like I did in the cage,” Perkins says. “When you get blown up by an IED, it feels like when you almost get knocked out. You know if this guy hits you one more time, the next thing you’re going to see is the fight doc. So you start reacting. I have to achieve the clinch, I have to fight back, I have to continue.”
He tried to take that mindset home when he was enlisted in 2007 to run a combatives training program at Fort Hood. The Army invested $3 million in converting an old basketball court into a modern facility with MMA equipment and a “kill room” for scenario training. The program was divided into four levels that started with basic fighting techniques and expanded to tactical applications, which address how to subdue opponents or get back to a gun.
“If we became an MMA gym, the Army was only going to keep us around about 18 months,” says Perkins, who became a government services employee when he retired from active duty in 2010. “We still have to keep pushing the tactical training, and that’s how the place stays in business.”
Soldiers in levels three and four train to become certified instructors, but they get an added twist: a fight every Friday. They also fight in full gear and practice clearing the kill room.
“When they get into the cage for their first sparring, the guys are tagging them up,” Perkins says. “They keep backing up, they keep getting tagged. But if they close the gap or counterpunch, they start learning that the way to make this stop is to fight back. Then we notice that they become very mentally resilient, and also physically resistant.”
Perkins might take students on a five-mile run and interrupt them midway to fight. He says his goal is not only to physically prepare soldiers for the rigors of combat, but hone their instincts so they make the right choices under duress.
“Let’s say you’re driving down the street, and someone starts shooting at you from the stores on the side of the street,” he says. “The only way to survive that is to turn and fight into it. You don’t have a lot of time to think, ‘I have option A, run and get shot at.’ You’re going to do what’s instinctual. That’s why we train and train.”
There’s apparently another side effect of that preparation. It turns soldiers into great MMA fighters.
“I used to take guys to pro/am fights in a casino,” says Perkins. “We’d end up taking six guys in a night and just crush everybody. It got to the point where we’d have to travel out of state because people were like, ‘It’s not fair to fight you guys. You train all the time.’”
With soldiers still deploying to Afghanistan and hot spots around the world, combatives remain an essential part of the military’s training. Domestically, however, the program is fighting a more insidious battle. Budget cutbacks, which came earlier this year as the result of the government’s sequester, have eliminated much of the funding for competitions such as the All-Army Combatives Tournament. That’s prompted Perkins to take his team on the civilian circuit.
“We still have to convince the Army that fighting is something that soldiers should be doing,” says the coach, who’s contract with the government expires this month.
Command Sergeant Major Dan O’Brien, the senior enlisted advisor for combatives at Fort Hood, says the program isn’t being pulled any time soon. But with fewer resources to go around, soldiers won’t be able to test their skills against the best of the best when it requires the military to ship them to competitions.
“When money is tight in the military, then it’s up to an installation to conduct tournaments,” he says. “There are other priorities in the military right now, which makes it hard to send everybody to one central location. I personally feel that the program is only as good as the people who support it, and as a senior leader, I support the program. Combatives runs very strong in my unit. But I can’t speak for all the other units across the Army.”
Like Kennedy, Smith considers himself a soldier first and fighter second. It still irks him to hear other fighters talk about going to war in the cage. Having seen what war actually looks like, he makes a point to pay his respects to the people he considers to be the purest warriors, because no MMA camp will ever truly compare to preparing for battle.
“The intestinal fortitude you get in the combatives program—it’s for possible life-or-death situations,” he says. “I’m sorry, but the cage, it’s not life or death. Obviously, people can pass away, but chances are, worst-case scenario is that you’re going to be single-legging Herb Dean in the cage. What we do in the cage is easy. What soldiers do overseas, that’s hard.”