Hand-to-Hand Combat Still Matters
Rise of mixed martial arts influences the U.S. Army
Pvt. 1st Class Marcus Jones threw a flurry of punches at his opponent. The two fighters dodged and kicked with speed and precision.
Jones is a soldier assigned to a combat support hospital and his opponent is a member of the U.S. Army’s elite 1st Special Forces Group. The two competed for the lightweight championship title on the last day of Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s Modern Combatives tournament, which took place on Sept. 11, 2015.
Jones ultimately prevailed. The young soldier has been in the Army for just two years and had no formal martial arts training before joining. “It gives you experience doing things you haven’t done before, which is good because in the Army you do a lot of things you haven’t done before,” Jones says.
In the age of drones and precision missiles, the military kills people from greater distances than ever. But when soldiers step onto the battlefield it still comes down to close-quarters combat with the enemy.
In some cases, that still means going hand-to-hand.
Army Ranger and martial artist Matt Larsens established the U.S. Army Combatives School at Fort Benning in 2001. His program drew on fighting styles ranging from boxing, muay Thai, judo, Brazilian jiu-jitsu and eskrima. The ground fighting branch officially adopted the Modern Army Combatives program a year later.
Partly, the program is for morale. Soldiers train for competitions together and cheer on their comrades. But it’s also about more than just watching their buddies beat the Hell out each other.
“Ultimately this is about resilience in the soldiers,” says Staff Sgt. James Hanson, a combatives instructor with Lewis-McChord’s Bayonet Academy. “Soldiers who are trained to fight, and be athletes and warriors have to showcase their warrior skills here.”
Yes, American troops do engage in hand-to-hand combat. Army veteran David Bellavia recounted physical combat in his memoir of the Second Battle of Fallujah. During an exhausting fight inside a house, Bellavia stabbed an insurgent to death with a pocket knife.
In 2005, blogger Michael Yon recounted a bloody brawl after an insurgent shot Lt. Col. Erik Kurilla in Mosul, Iraq. Sgt. Maj. Rob Prosser returned fire and ran out of ammunition, so he charged the insurgent and brought him to the ground.
The two became locked in a brutal brawl as they exchanged punches and tried to choke each other. The fight ended when other soldiers stormed the building. They took the bloodied enemy fighter alive.
In today’s wars, captured enemies can be more valuable than dead ones as intelligence sources. “That’s very important now because not everything the military does now is ‘hey go in this building and destroy everyone,” Hanson explained. “Sometimes we have to get high value targets.”
Modern warfare is incredibly unpredictable. Whether it’s dealing with detainees or chatting with locals on the street, it’s hard to know when a seemingly simple encounter can turn violent. When soldiers are caught off guard, they need to be able regain the upper hand fast.
“Being able to handle that person and that engagement when they’re in your personal bubble is the most important thing,” Hanson said.
This coincides with a meteoric rise in the popularity of mixed martial arts, which has likewise changed the way many soldiers train for hand-to-hand combat. Active-duty soldiers have even competed in the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
At the combatives tournament, the soldiers fight in an MMA-style cage. But Hanson thinks of the cage itself as part of the training — it teaches soldiers to be aware of their surroundings as well as their opponent.
“When people see it, all they think of is MMA … but that tactical enclosure can be any room, any hallway, any scenario that has walls,” he said. “It could be the side of a car.”
“Using that MMA background allows soldiers the most realistic avenue to train those skills that we use without actually being out there in a physical confrontation.”