FORT BENNING, Ga. (Army News Service, April 5, 2010) -- A record number of entries showed up for the third annual Army National Guard Combatives Tournament - and a female Soldier from Idaho nearly stole the show.
Organizers from the Warrior Training Center said 132 Soldiers registered this year, but two states were unable to send their teams, leaving a field of 97 at Briant Wells Fieldhouse, home of the U.S. Army Combatives School. About 35 competitors turned out a year ago, while nearly 50 took part at the inaugural event in 2008.
The top four fighters in seven weight classifications moved on from Saturday's preliminary rounds, when limited striking was allowed under standard and intermediate rules. The cage was brought out for Sunday's third-place and finals bouts, where the Soldiers battled in three 5-minute rounds using advanced techniques.
This marked the first time a cage was used in a combatives tournament at the Army level, said Capt. Brian Deaton, officer in charge for the event and commander of the Warrior Training Center's A Company. The All-Army Combatives Championship has put its finalists in a ring but might start employing the structure this fall.
The talk of the tournament, however, was Spc. Elisha Helsper of the Idaho National Guard, who took on the men at flyweight and made history as the first woman to reach the finals of an Army combatives tournament.
"I came here expecting to take first," she said. "I felt like I should win it."
And why not' Helsper said she grew up on the mat and is known in Mixed Martial Arts circles. The 27-year-old wrestled for her high school varsity team and has a 6-2 mark in women's MMA, including two pro fights. Last November, she lost a unanimous decision to Zoila Frausto at the Strikeforce Challengers MMA event in Fresno, Calif., which aired on Showtime.
She dominated both of her matches Saturday but ran into Sgt. 1st Class Ryan Taniguchi of the Hawaii National Guard, a Level 4 combatives instructor, in the finals. He forced Helsper into defensive positions throughout the fight and kept up the pressure, landing a torrent of punches. But she didn't fold.
Theirs was the only title match Sunday to go the distance. After receiving the championship trophy, Taniguchi raised Helsper's hand in triumph.
"I feel honored to accomplish what I did," she said. "I don't think it's sunk in yet, but I got the bruises to prove it. I'm sure it'll hurt tomorrow."
Her face swollen as well, Helsper had a message for female Soldiers hesitant about combatives.
"You can do it. You've just gotta have heart and motivation," she said. "It's the Army values - never quit. That's what pushed me through it today."
"I love winning. I love competing ... The only thing different about this is I was competing against the males."
In the lightweight division, Staff Sgt. Matthew Stemmler of the Virginia National Guard captured the championship after stopping Staff Sgt. Justin Gottke of the Ohio National Guard in the first round. Stemmler, who also has MMA aspirations - with four amateur fights in his career, won all four of his tournament matches by submission.
"I've learned from past mistakes when I wasn't aggressive enough," he said. "Experience is the best thing to have in this ... It feels good to be the best. Nobody comes down here 12 hours to lose."
Stemmler has deployed three times to Iraq, but that pales to the thrill he gets from combatives, he said.
"I had so much adrenaline my first fight," he said. "I've done three combat tours, and nothing compares to the rush you get when that cage door closes and there's a guy across the ring who wants to hurt you."
Staff Sgt. Robert Early of the Idaho National Guard connected with a big left roundhouse against Sgt. Adam Therriault of the Illinois National Guard early in round one to claim the welterweight title. The middleweight crown went to Capt. Joachim Eitenmiller of the Minnesota National Guard, as he was declared the winner when Maj. Curtiss Robinson of the South Carolina National Guard could not compete due to injury.
At cruiserweight, Staff Sgt. Steven Elliot of California forced a first-round submission from Sgt. 1st Class Ryan Chroninger of the Idaho National Guard to pick up the championship. In an intense scrap for the heavyweight title, Staff Sgt. Jeremy Christenson of the Alaska National Guard scored a technical knockout in Round two against Sgt. Gregory Main of the Arizona National Guard.
2nd Lt. Brandon Hern of the Oregon National Guard earned the light heavyweight championship over Sgt. Phillip Wagoner of the Rhode Island National Guard via submission in the second round. Hern, who's attending the Infantry Officer Basic Course at Fort Benning, said the sum of his combatives experience can be traced over the past four weeks. A former collegiate wrestler at Oregon State University, he went 5-0 in the tournament and credited the training he got with 2nd Battalion, 11th Infantry Regiment.
"They prepared me for this," he said. "I owe it all to my brothers who trained with me the last few weeks. The adrenaline rush is like nothing I had before. I love it... can't wait to get back in there."
The Illinois National Guard amassed 171 points to claim its second team championship. It also won in 2008. Arizona and Idaho tied for runner-up.
"We take combatives super serious," said Staff Sgt. Nicholas Grant, who finished third at middleweight to help power Illinois. "Last year, almost the entire team was deployed to Afghanistan. We got a lot of our guys back and had a really good showing here, and it's awesome."
Illinois has run combatives Level 1 and 2 classes for several years, he said, and the state is about to become the first National Guard unit to host a Level 3 course on site. A mobile training team from Fort Benning will travel there within the next year to conduct the certification.
"The competition factor is important, but we've always got to concentrate on what we're training for - that's to save lives in combat," Grant said.
Deaton, the tournament's OIC, said a larger venue might be sought if the field grows beyond 100 competitors next year.
Top National Guard Fighters
A look at the top teams (with point totals) and individual finishers by weight classification in the third annual Army National Guard Combatives Tournament, held Saturday and Sunday at Briant Wells Fieldhouse on Fort Benning, Ga.:
1. Illinois - 171
tie-2. Arizona - 117
tie-2. Idaho - 117
4. Minnesota - 110
1. Sgt. 1st Class Ryan Taniguchi, Hawaii
2. Spc. Elisha Helsper, Idaho
3. Spc. Jacob Schommer, Minnesota
1. Staff Sgt.Matthew Stemmler, Virginia
2. Staff Sgt. Justin Gottke, Ohio
3. Spc. Erik Cabral-Garibay
1. Staff Sgt. Robert Early, Idaho
2. Sgt. Adam Therriault, Illinois
3. Sgt. Joshua Fridgen, Minnesota
1. Capt. Joachim Eitenmiller, Minnesota
2. Maj. Curtiss Robinson, South Carolina
3. Staff Sgt. Nicholas Grant, Illinois
1. Staff Sgt Steven Elliot, California
2. Sgt. 1st Class Ryan Chroninger, Idaho
3. Sgt.Neil Magny, Illinois
1. 2nd Lt. Lt. Brandon Hern, Oregon
2. Staff Sgt. Phillip Wagoner, Rhode Island
3. Staff Sgt. Jacob Torrez, Washington
1. Staff Sgt. Jeremy Christenson, Alaska
2. Sgt. Gregory Main, Arizona
3. Sgt Andres Behrens, Arizona
(Vince Little writes for the Fort Benning Bayonet.)