In this Octagon, you will fi nd no bigname sponsors, no high-paying advertisers, and no sexy ring girls holding signs to announce the next round. What you will fi nd are raw materials, raw talent, and raw ambition. This particular Octagon is covered with the battle blood and sweat from American troops serving their country in Iraq.
Sgt. John Blomquist, 23, from Bristol, Virginia, says the concept and construction of the Octagon in Iraq began when troops decided to turn a plywood platform used for sit-ups and pushups into a place to practice Modern Army Combatives and mixed martial arts.
After Sgt. First Class Michael Ascott designed it, four troops began construction. Soon after, others began lending a hand to the project. With so much manpower, it took just one month to complete. “The rest of the company just came in and started helping in every way they could,” explained Blomquist. “Sometimes you think there is no teamwork in your unit, then something like this happens and you realize…these are your brothers, whether it’s building an Octagon or putting your life on the line to save others…this is a huge family…this is the zone!”
This Octagon is 24 feet in diameter, with 6½ feet high sides made of welded metal from Hesco Bastions (collapsible wire mesh). The fl ooring is made from large rolls of half-inch foam, covered in sections of tarp. Plywood, 2x4s, and 4x6s make up the base.
Although the dimensions are not regulation and there is no door (just an eight-foot opening on one side that combatants need to be hyper-aware of), it is functional. According to Blomquist, “We couldn’t fi nd a way to make the doorway and make it sturdy…it’s not bad, you just gotta keep aware when you shoot, or you’re fl ying right out of the thing.” He adds, “You also have to go barefoot all the time as the tarps are delicate and rip easily…we have to keep duct taping the thing back together.”
Octagon matches are held every other weekend in Army Combatives, but some of the troops, including Blomquist who is trained in boxing, and Staff Sgt. Terry Lemaster who is trained in kickboxing and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu put in as much MMA training as they can, with hopes of continuing their offi cial training once they get home.
MMA is big – even in Iraq. “Other sports have their time over here…but any time the UFC comes on, everyone watches. Even guys that don’t normally watch it or follow it can’t look away,” says Blomquist. “Even the third country nationals that work on our bases get into it, and they have never seen it in their own countries.” The Armed Forces Network broadcasts the big UFC events a day or two after they are broadcast in the United States, and the troops are currently following season eight of The Ultimate Fighter on Spike TV.
While training and holding tournaments might seem like a sensible release from active duty, it’s never just fun and games. There are missions to complete, backs to watch, and futures to look forward to. And even though the eight-sided cage in Iraq doesn’t have a name just yet, Blomquist is considering honoring two of their own. “I’ve thought of naming it the Widner/Gaunky Pit, in honor of our two Zone Sapper brothers that gave their lives for our country last tour. This Octagon puts a smile on all our boys’ faces, and that was something the two of them did all the time.”
It seems if you build an Octagon in Iraq, they will come…but not without defending your freedom fi rst.