FIGHT! Magazine interviewed retired Marine Gunnery Sergeant Cardo Urso as part of Fightmagazine.com’s special coverage of the Fight Night for Heroes card in Mosul, Iraq. A life-long martial artist and career Marine, Urso served as a judge at the event. To read more about Fight Night for Heroes, pick up the Nov. issue of FIGHT! Magazine at one of our many retailers across the U.S. and Canada.
FIGHT!: Tell me a little about your military background.
Cardo Urso: I went in the Marine Corps in 1979 and I was an artilleryman…got to serve all over. Okinawa was one of the places where we did traditional Okinawan karate over there and at the end of my career I ended up retiring as a master gunny as an E-9 and I was in charge of the Marine Corps Close Combat program from 1997 to 1999 and then I transitioned that program into the Marine Corps Martial Arts from 1999 to 2002 and retired and went to work training law enforcement.
FIGHT!: So how did you become involved in the Fight Night for Heroes event in Mosul?
Urso: That was pretty interesting. My daughter is a ring card girl and she’s worked for the IFL, which is gone now, and some other shows here in Atlantic City and she saw on the Internet that Monica was looking for ring card girls to go to Iraq so what happened is me being a former Marine and she’s married to a Lt. Colonel in the Marine Corps, we called up and I made my services available to go to Iraq to judge. I judge here in New Jersey and also in Pennsylvania, so that’s how we got hooked up with the judging for Iraq.
FIGHT! So what are you doing now that you’re retired from the Marines?
Urso: Yes, I train law enforcement officers and we’ve run a [Miletich Fighting Systems training center in Atlantic City, NJ] and we’ve been affiliated with Pat [Miletich] for about four years. I did traditional martial arts. I started in 1971 in an Okinawa system of karate and wrestled competitively in high school, college, and inter-service with the Marine Corps and the same with boxing and basically I guess we were doing mixed martial arts but we really didn’t know it. We just did different disciplines. I ran a traditional karate school in Quantico, Va., moved to New Jersey for the new job and ended up trying to teach traditional martial arts and couldn’t get anybody to do it so my son got interested in the MMA and we started doing an MMA-style club and the club grew. About four years ago, I met Pat Miletich, Renzo Gracie, Bas Rutten and Maurice Smith at the first IFL event and we got along real well with Pat and his style and the Miletich Fighting System works well with us because of my traditional wrestling and Greco background and the boxing is really kind of what Pat does. He does a submission style of grappling and Muay Thai so if fit better for us than other systems.
FIGHT!: You said you’ve been involved in martial arts in some form since 1971 and you have several different black belts in several different disciplines, which is the hallmark of a true mixed martial artist. Tell me about that.
Urso: I’ve got, I don’t know, last count 18 or 19 black belts in different martial arts, and again, not because I wanted to be a Buddha butterfly so much, [but] because of the moving and the Marine Corps, every couple of years you move. If you want to continue to train, you’re going to have to find another place to train and unfortunately a lot of the time they don’t have the same system that you’re doing.
FIGHT!: I read in an article that you were one of a few men who helped to develop the martial arts training system for the Marines.
Urso: Right. That’s the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program. In 1997 I took over the program, which was the Marine Corps Close Combat Program and we did that until 1999. We developed the curriculum for that system, myself and with the help of like 10 other subject matter experts. In 1999, our General Commandant, General Jones, wanted to teach martial arts and he gave us the opportunity of transitioning the Close Combat Program in the Marine Corps Martial Arts and I was the Chief Trainer for Instructor Trainers in that program.
FIGHT!: What’s the core philosophy of that program?
Urso: The core philosophy, to be very honest with you, is really about the character development of young Marines and the character development and the core values—honor, courage and commitment—are achieved through the physical discipline of martial arts. The Marine Corps program is truly mixed martial arts because it goes from armed techniques to unarmed techniques, which include striking, grappling, wrestling, stick fighting. It truly has all the aspects of a mixed martial art.
FIGHT!: What is the difference between the Army Combatives Program and the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program (MCMAP)?
Urso: One of the differences between the [MCMAP] and the Army Combatives Program is that the Army’s program is based heavily on Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu where the Marine Corps’ program, in my opinion, again, it’s more of a mixed type of martial arts because they do everything, like I said, from rifle and bayonet weapons, knives, sticks to empty-hands, which includes striking, grappling and joint manipulation for non-lethal means.
FIGHT!: What are your impressions on changing attitudes of the value of mixed martial arts in the military today?
Urso: Well, I was in Quantico in 1997 standing up the Marine Corps’ program. We did not embrace mixed martial arts because of the persona that UFC and these other cage fights had with the kind of crude, obnoxious, beer-swilling kind of thing and that was not the direction the Marine Corps was taking. We were looking at core values—honor, courage and commitment. Well, in the late ‘90s, early 2000, the UFC and MMA started to clean up its act and it started to become more mainstream. I was actually at the Marine Corps Law Enforcement’s gala event in Atlantic City in June and I was sitting with the Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps…and we were talking and he was asking me what I was doing and I told him about the MMA and how I got involved here—I was actually lucky enough to judge UFC 101 in Philadelphia—and he said, “this MMA stuff, Master Gunny, we have to get into this in the Marine Corps.” The young Marines are wanting to do it and we need to be able to structure it and organize it and control it.
FIGHT!: Where do you predict MMA will be in the Marine Corps be in five to ten years?
Urso: I think you’ll see the Marine Corps, in the near future, actually starting to put out definitely amateur competitions because right now we have the Marine Corps Boxing Team and the Marine Corps Wrestling Team. I would even say that you’ll see a Marine Corps Mixed Martial Arts Team also. It’s unbelievable. Every day I deal with this and I’m fortunate that I’ve been able to get my feet on the ground and one of those reasons is because of Nick Lembo who’s here in New Jersey. I thought we might have seen it peak about five years ago, but it just keeps getting bigger and bigger. I think we’ve got a long way to go before it actually peaks. The athletes are unbelievable. If you go back and look at the early mixed martial arts tournaments, the guys who train who gave us our blueprint, they’re not the same type of athletes we have today…but I don’t see it slowing down at all.
FIGHT!: Getting back to the event in Mosul, had you been to Iraq before or was this your first time over there?
Urso: No, I’d never been actually. During Desert Storm I was in Joliet, Illinois on inspector instructor duty and during the war I actually had a fractured neck…I never made it to Iraq. This was my first time going.
FIGHT!: What was that like for you?
Urso: It was awesome. I’ve been retired for almost eight years now and to be able to get the opportunity to go back and serve the guys who are serving us was a big honor and getting back and seeing the kind of hardship the endure and what they’re doing—it grounded me again.
FIGHT!: In terms of the event, how do you rank the success of the event, having been there?
Urso: Oh, it was incredible. I mean I think we had 3,000 troops there for an amateur show. Here in the states you might be lucky to get 1,000 or 1,800. The fights themselves were just as good as any other amateur events. I’ve seen the amateur fights with the understanding that the guys who are here training for amateur competitions are training after hours on their own time but these kids over in Iraq are doing their job as, truly, warriors and that term is, I think, falsely used for martial artist and mixed martial artists and boxers that they’re warriors but these guys were truly warriors. They were doing their jobs seven days a week in Iraq and 24-7 and then they were also training for this mixed martial arts event.
FIGHT!: What was the most poignant memory that you took away from that event?
Urso: Well, the best memory was this…the event went on and everybody was exhausted. We’d got it done; there were 17 fights and they were awesome. The pro fights were great. We went back to our compound…we had got done about 10:30 at night, we were exhausted, we had missed dinner…we had made our way back to the compound and I was standing at the far end of the compound where my trailer was and I looked down at the far end and I saw some movement. Some of the soldiers were moving around and stuff so I walked down and I see these soldiers and they had just fought three or four hours earlier. They were putting on their helmets and their flak jackets and they’re getting their weapons together and I asked them, ‘what’s going on fellas?’ and they said, ‘well, we’re going out on patrol tonight,’ and I was like, ‘wow!’ They just got done fighting in an MMA fight and three or four hours later they’re getting their war gear on…to go out on patrol and that was the thing. My daughter, who is a ring card girl and had done all this, she started crying a little bit and she said, ‘you know, dad, they’d be going to the after-party if they were in the states,’ and I said, ‘yeah, their after-party is going out and making sure that we sleep well in the states.’ They’re going out to protect us. That’s their after-party.
FIGHT!: So you’d do this again?
Urso: Oh, absolutely! We’d do it again in a heartbeat whether they go to Iraq or Afghanistan or any military base any time, anywhere. For me it’s a way to give back to the guys. For us to be able to do this was great.