From 'unruly child' to Army combatives champ
August 17, 2012
FORT STEWART, Ga. - The crowd is on their feet, roaring encouragement as spotlights illuminate the octagon while two fighters circle each other, waiting for an opening. In an instant, they are tangled on the ground, fists flying with nothing but bad intentions. This is the final match, winner takes all. The challenger pins his opponent's arm between his legs and starts punching him in his face for all he is worth. The crowd screams for blood.
Years earlier, a young boy is brought to a dojo and introduced to an old man. After one lesson, the boy is hooked and Brazilian Jujitsu becomes his way of life. The boy is there constantly, and earns the nickname "unruly child" for his smart-mouthed attitude.
"One day, unruly child, you will be in my place trying to teach young kids the mind and how to do the moves perfectly," the old man warned.
The boy kept with it, and now he lies in the middle of a padded octagon, sweat-drenched and still punching the opponent pinned beneath him. He comes out of his fighting mindset as he feels the referee grab his arm, telling him the fight is over. Only then can he hear the roar of the crowd.
He has won.
He falls to his knees instantly, taking a silent moment to thank the man who started it all.
"Before and after every match I pay homage to my Judo Sensei, who passed away in February," explained Spc. Nathaniel Freeman. "Without him I wouldn't be doing this sport." Specialist Freeman had just won the Heavyweight Division of the All-Army Combatives Tournament.
As the announcer raises his arm above his head, Spc. Freeman, a combat engineer with Co. C, 3rd Brigade Special Troops Battalion, 1st Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 3rd ID, smiles for the cameras and the fans, but says he was only really thinking about one thing.
"Believe it or not, after I won the first thing I wanted to do was have a moment of quiet to myself," he admits. "After all the interviews and everything else, I just wanted to take a shower and grab a bite to eat."
The peace and quiet was a hard-earned reward for years of training.
"I got into combatives because I like to fight, honestly," the Houston, Texas, native explained. "Sergeant First Class Keith Bach really got me into it when he was stationed here. He said, 'You're strong, you're agile, try this,' and I've been doing it on and off for almost eight years now."
Specialist Freeman has been to multiple All-Army Combatives Tournaments in the past, but this was the first time any Fort Stewart Soldier has won first in their weight class.
"I didn't know what I was doing when I started training for combatives so many years ago, but I learned," he described. "Last year, we worked a lot on visualization, so before every match I will visualize myself being totally destroyed."
Visualizing losing would seem almost like a step in reverse before a big match, but Spc. Freeman explains why it works.
"I visualize what I would do to get out of those moves, so if I did find myself in that predicament in real life I already knew how to get out of it," he said.
This training helps not only during a combatives match, Spc. Freeman explains, but in combat as well.
"When you go into combat with this training you can step back and see the big picture," he said. "You are still moving at that fast combat speed, but in your head you can almost slow it down and make a good decision."
But during Spc. Freeman's winning match this time, he was not focusing on combat, but his Family running down to congratulate him.
"My uncle, whom I haven't seen in almost 19 years, was there," he said. "So all I could think was, 'I can't lose in front of my Family.'"
After the final bell, Spc. Freeman's uncle came running down from the stands.
"It's hard to miss him," Spc. Freeman said with a smile. "He is 6'8" and looks just like me. He flew down with my aunt and I got bombarded. It is always good to be loved."
Although that was the final fight for Spc. Freeman's military career, it is never truly over, he said.
"It is not combatives anymore for me, now it is back to Brazilian ju-jitsu," he concluded. "I will continue to train in this martial art until my body tells me that we can't do it anymore, because there is always something new to reach for."