By Vince Little, The BayonetOctober 2, 2009
FORT BENNING, Ga. (Sept. 30, 2009) -- It's been settled. The Army has found its most elite fighters for 2009.
More than 300 Soldiers from around the world slugged it out over three straight days at Fort Benning's Smith Fitness Center during the fifth annual U.S. Army Combatives Tournament, and individual champions emerged Sunday in seven weight classifications bruised, battered and bloodied in some cases.
Fort Campbell, Ky., home to the 101st Airborne Division, claimed the team title with 271 points, ahead of the 3rd Infantry Division (262) and Fort Riley, Kan. (248). Fort Benning (197) finished sixth, while the 75th Ranger Regiment (159) ended up 10th overall.
"It was the best tournament yet," said U.S. Army Combatives School director Matt Larsen. "The number of fighters and level of expertise has grown exponentially -- The fights are getting harder. We had some past champs that got beat in the prelims this time."
Staff Sgt. Brandon Sayles of the 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, wasn't among them, however. He landed a big left hook against Sgt. Nathan Freeman of the 3rd Infantry Division early in the first round of their bout to score a technical knockout and capture his third heavyweight championship.
Sayles also won titles in 2006 and 2008. He missed the event two years ago because of an Iraq deployment.
"It just shows my hard work paid off again," he said. "But it was a lot more competitive this year. Seeing the teams, you can tell everybody came prepared. The level of competition is going up every year. I'm excited to see what's going to happen next year."
In the light heavyweight division, Staff Sgt. John Gendron of the 75th Ranger Regiment won by forfeit over Sgt. 1st Class Jared Roy of Fort Detrick, Md.
Sgt. 1st Class Rich Miranda of the 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne) took third in light heavyweight with a second-round submission triumph over Spc. Guillermo Villa of the Tripler Army Medical Center in Hawaii.
"In previous tournaments, there might be a few good fighters but most were so-so," Miranda said. "Every single person that showed up for this one had some skills. There were no easy fights."
Lt. Col. Larry McCord of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment overwhelmed Staff Sgt. Colton Smith of 4th Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) for the cruiser-weight title, forcing a submission just 22 seconds into the match.
"I felt really good," said McCord, who was runner-up a year ago after reaching the semifinals in his first two appearances. "My coach directed me through the tournament. I just followed his instructions, and things worked out."
McCord, who works as chief of the cadet health clinic for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., compared the Army Combatives Tournament to a marathon and said he was able to conserve strength through the preliminary rounds Friday and Saturday by staying focused but loose.
"If you don't save your energy, you'll gas out in the finals," he said.
In an intense matchup at the middleweight level, Staff Sgt. Jacob South of the 95th Division stopped Sgt. Walter Bubenzer of Fort Knox, Ky., via submission in Round 2. South was the 2007 cruiserweight champion but was unable to make last year's tournament, he said.
"My cardio felt great and my technique was good today," South said. "I waited for the right moment -- I was able to grind him down, and he tapped out."
Staff Sgt. Pedro Lacerda of the 75th Ranger Regiment picked up the welterweight title with a second-round submission victory over Staff Sgt. Michael Robinson of Fort Jackson, S.C.
The lightweight division belt went to Capt. Ken Laird of Fort Carson, Colo., who earned a unanimous decision over Capt. Neil Chitwood of the SROTC Battalion at Capital University in Bexley, Ohio.
In a grueling, bloody battle for the flyweight championship, Sgt. Joe Clark of Fort Lewis, Wash., defeated Staff Sgt. Nate Ford of Fort Benning when the referee stopped the fight in the second round.
A total of 318 Soldiers, representing more than 40 installations, began the tournament Friday. The field included seven women.
"In my eyes, it's one Army, one team, no matter if you're male or female. If you're going to come out here, you're coming out here as a Soldier," said Sgt. Jamie Johnson of the 205th Infantry Brigade at Camp Atterbury, Ind., who competed in the lightweight division. "It's a huge rush, and builds confidence really.
"Being a female, you can't back down. I'm going to look you straight in the eye and say, 'give it what you got.' It gives you confidence and makes you stand a little taller."
The Modern Army Combatives Program, launched in 1995, teaches hand-to-hand combat. It's a mixed martial arts form that combines Brazilian jiu-jitsu, boxing, striking, takedowns and ground-fighting techniques. Combatives also employs practices used in judo, kick boxing and Greco-Roman wrestling.
Maj. Gen. Michael Ferriter, the U.S. Army Infantry Center and Fort Benning commanding general, said combatives allows Soldiers to close with the enemy in any environment.
"It lets them engage in full-spectrum operations," he said. "They can confidently move in the streets of Iraq, the hills of Afghanistan, and clear houses if they have confrontation ... When they go in the room, they know they can handle themselves."
Command Sgt. Maj. Earl Rice, the command sergeant major of USAIC and Fort Benning, praised the discipline as a great tool within the warrior ethos.
"I will never quit," he said. "Even if faced with huge odds, an overwhelming enemy presence, being short on ammo, I still got the lethal weapon, which is the Soldier."
Larsen said skills have gotten sharper over time because Combatives is now a permanent part of the Army's fabric. It's taught in basic training and is fundamental to Soldier development.
"It takes a long time to get to the level you see them doing here, but that is what's happening in the tournament," he said. "After 10 or 12 years as a Soldier, they should be an expert in this."
South, this year's middleweight champ, said he loves the sport.
"There's nothing better than something fun that gets you fit, and it can save your life at the same time," he said.