Army Embraces MMA for Inaugural Combatives Tournament

Nov 3, 2005
Situated on the outskirts of Anchorage, Alaska is Fort Richardson. This U.S. Army base is home to America’s only Artic Airborne unit: the 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Battalion (1/501 PIR), also known as the Geronimo Battalion.

The unit has a history of paving the way through America’s conflicts, such as executing a combat jump behind German lines in Normandy five hours before the D-Day invasion. This heritage is continued today from the battlefields of Afghanistan to the cutting edge of the Army’s hand-to-hand system, called “Modern Army Combatives” (MAC).

While visiting Alaska to promote his upcoming fight in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, Diego Sanchez (Pictures) was invited to observe a Combatives tournament being held on Fort Richardson.

I joined my teammate due in no small part to the fact that in the late 1990s I belonged to the 1/501st PIR. We arrived in the afternoon to discover that we were to observe the final day of a three-day tournament.

Pairs of soldiers grappled on the mats under the watchful eyes of referees. This tournament was essentially the same as any Brazilian jiu-jitsu tournament, although the soldiers wore camouflage Battle Dress Uniforms (BDUs) as opposed to gis.

The finals, however, took the competition to a whole new level. The last two soldiers in each weight class wore headgear, shin pads and Vale Tudo gloves, and under rules that allow for open-hand-only strikes to the head they fought for the right to represent the Geronimo Battalion at the first-ever Army-wide combatives tournament in Fort Benning, Georgia, November 4-6.

Modern Army Combatives began in the mid-1990s when the elite battalions of the 75th Ranger Regiment, specifically the 2nd Ranger Battalion, hired Gracie family instructors Royce and Rorion to instruct troops in Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

The Rangers absorbed the teachings and became fanatic in their ground fighting, holding Battalion tournaments in which the victors were sent to study at the Gracie Academy in Torrance. The Rangers then began to modify the jiu-jitsu techniques for combat use.

Sergeant First Class Matt Larsen also incorporated several other martial arts into the system such as Muay Thai, wrestling, and Kali. Shortly thereafter, SFC Larsen, literally, wrote the book on Modern Army Combatives: “FM3-25.150,” which was to become official Army hand-to-hand doctrine.

The Geronimo Combatives Academy — outfitted with six regulation-sized wrestling mats, a boxing ring, full gym and a bag area replete with Fairtex equipment — is located off the beaten path in Fort Richardson’s warehouse district. Most of the equipment was secured while overseas in the deserts of Afghanistan, and with the support of the commanders the Academy was born.

The Army relies on the concept of "chain teaching," described by Geronimo Combatives Director Sergeant First Class Scott Self as "teaching one to teach others."

Each instructor is sent through several levels of schools Army-wide, with the central schools being located at Fort Benning. Local experts, such as Ted Stikel, a Gracie Barra black belt, are contracted by the Army to provide advanced instruction and maintain the techniques. In addition, several companies, such as program sponsor Fairtex — the Muay Thai-equipment-company contributed thousands of dollars worth of bags and equipment to the battalion — have lent their expertise.

The Army is a gargantuan bureaucracy in many ways, and has been historically slow to accept change. It is a testament to the changing commands that a program based on mixed martial arts would flourish.

The combatives program is "successful in Alaska because of the command," said SFC Self, pointing out that it was the Battalion Commander and Sergeant Major who tasked him with establishing the program after returning from duty in Afghanistan, where he was wounded.

"There are many naysayers out there," said SFC Self, referencing those who question the combat validity of a mixed martial arts-based combatives program. "But the numbers coming back from combat far outweigh the naysayers.”

SFC Self credits the new program with saving lives of countless soldiers. "They are using their skills everyday," he said, "If not in hand-to-hand combat, but in the way they approach someone, stand while communicating with locals or take a prisoner into custody."

While other services have also adopted combatives programs that focus more on mixed martial arts, such as the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program, the Army is the only service that has fully embraced it. It also says a lot for the mainstream acceptability of a sport that only a few years ago was blacklisted from cable television and regularly compared to "human cockfighting.”

And once again the 501st has led the way.

Further information about the Army Combatives Program and the 2005 All Army Combatives Tournament can be found at https://www.infantry.army.mil/combatives/.
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