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FAIRBANKS, ALASKA — Rock standards blared from the speakers as the fighters drew on their gloves, paused to get Vaseline on their faces and strutted into a cage on the floor of the Fort Wainwright fitness center.
“You are about to see the 14 most vicious Arctic Wolves shed blood in the name of God and country,” yelled event emcee Capt. Joshua Withington. “Let’s get ready to rumble.”
It was like a Friday night mixed martial arts fight, with a few differences. The contestants were all Arctic Wolves, a nickname for members of the base’s Stryker brigade, and they were competing in “modern Army combatives.”
Like mixed martial arts, the fighting style is similar to Brazilian jiu-jitsu. During three five-minute rounds at the Oct. 25 event, contestants bloodied themselves boxing, kicking and grappling in an octagon cage rented from the Carlson Center. Victories were awarded by points, knockouts or submission.
The tournament was the first brigade-wide combatives tournament since 2003 and the first ever to use the octagon cage, Withington said. He described the rules as “almost full MMA,” with some safety rules such as a restriction on kicking people while they are down. There was no beer on the floor of the fitness center, and soldiers wore stripped-down versions of their uniforms instead of going shirtless like MMA fighters.
Fourteen soldiers, all men and all enlisted, fought in seven weight classes. In addition to individual bouts, they competed for the commander’s cup, presented to the battalion that won the most bouts. The 1st Battalion 5th Infantry Regiment took home the trophy by winning three bouts, although the most vocal crowd was probably the contingent from the 1st Battalion 24th Infantry Regiment in the back-left of the gymnasium.
Along the outside of the ring, supporters of the combatants called out words of advice or encouragement.
Brigade leadership sat in front of the ring and was generally quieter, although Command Sgt. Major Tramell Finch, the highest ranking enlisted soldier in Brigade Support Battalion got up to yell advice to PV2 Cody Torrez, a medic from his battalion fighting for the welterweight title.
“Don’t let him grab you,” Finch yelled, suddenly getting up from his seat.
As Finch explained, Torrez was tied up by his opponent when he should have kept him at a distance. Torrez ended up winning the bout.
Hand-to-hand combat is part of the training every soldier gets in boot camp, but the soldiers who signed up in the tournament have skills well beyond most soldiers. Torrez, for example, has wrestled since he was in the fifth grade and took up jiu-jitsu in 2008. Other soldiers competing in Friday’s tournament had only been practicing army combatives competitively for a few months.
The tournament showcased what Withington, the event emcee, called “intestinal fortitude” — guts. Hand-to-hand fighting is a powerful demonstration of a soldier’s ability to “close with and destroy an enemy on the battlefield,” he said.
Contemporary war can come down to hand-to-hand combat, he said.
It recently played a role in the awarding of at least one Silver Star, the military’s third highest award for valor, he said.
“With as much emphasis as we put on air power, the soldier on the ground is truly the element that maintains the fight,” Withington said.
Deployments from recent wars have gotten in the way of the Stryker brigade’s hand-to-hand combat training.
It’s a goal of the brigade commander to have more soldiers qualified to the first level of modern army combatives, said brigade spokesman Maj. Dave Mattox.