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The Army’s top fighters: More than 450 Soldiers clash in sixth annual U.S. Army Combatives Tournament

FORT BENNING, Ga. — The field expanded by 30 percent to a record high at the sixth annual U.S. Army Combatives Tournament. Officials said the talent pool grew right along with it.

More than 450 Soldiers from installations around the world clashed over three straight days at Fort Benning’s Smith Fitness Center. The Army’s top individual fighters surfaced Sunday in eight weight classifications, while III Corps amassed 414 points to claim the Lacerda Cup. The Fort Hood, Texas-based unit fended off Fort Riley, Kan. (398) and Fort Bragg, N.C. (340) to secure the team championship.

“Personally, I’ve been chasing this thing since 2004,” said SFC Kristopher Perkins, a coach for the III Corps squad. “It’s awesome — it’s a great feeling. It proves hard work pays off.”

SFC Perkins has competed and coached at the Army Combatives Championship, starting at Fort Sill, Okla. He’s retiring in a few months and said the team title is an early gift.

“This is a world-class tournament. More and more people are starting to realize that some really high-end guys are winning this,” he said. “Being the All-Army champion is becoming more prestigious of an award. People know it’s not just a little post tournament they’re winning. There are some serious contenders in this tournament.”

He praised Fort Hood’s chain of command for its widespread support of the III Corps combatives program. Training and teamwork were pivotal in securing the Lacerda Cup, he said.

“It progressed over to, ‘I gotta score points for my team.’ It wasn’t even for themselves,” he said. “It gives you a little extra oomph to get out of that choke or that arm bar because you’re not doing it just for yourself.”

Individually, SPC Aaron Jackson of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., captured the heavyweight championship over CPT Ngozi Collins of 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment, when the referee stopped their fight in the second round. SSG Jason Eggelston of Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., forced a submission from SGT Brandon Wallace, Military District of Washington, near the end of Round 1 to pick up the light heavyweight title.

In a hardfought battle for the cruiserweight crown, CPT Jason Norwood of Fort Sill took down 1SG Jacob South of the 95th Division. 1SG South was the 2007 cruiserweight champion and won the middleweight belt in 2009.

This year’s middleweight championship went to CPT Jon Anderson of D Company, 2nd Battalion, 19th Infantry Regiment, who led the host Maneuver Center of Excellence to ninth in the team standings by defeating SGT Andrew Chappelle of Fort Sam Houston, Texas.

About midway through the second round, CPT Anderson executed a takedown, gained a rear mount and pounded away on the back of SGT Chappelle’s head until the referee stopped the fight.

“I knew he was a great striker (and) really good on the ground,” the Fort Benning captain said. “My game plan was to get position and wear him out — I got in some good blows early and hung in there, worked my technique. It ended up paying off.

“I knew it was gonna be super tough, but that’s why you’re out here — you want to mix it up and take those guys down.”

CPT Anderson, who finished 7-0 in the tournament, won the cruiserweight title at the MCoE showdown in July. Two years ago, he wound up in the final eight of the Army Combatives Tournament here while stationed at Fort Lewis, Wash.

He said the 2010 version was a grind, adding it takes staunch preparation, energy management and sharp mental focus to survive three days of intense fighting.

“It seemed like this year every match was against the toughest guy here,” he said. “You definitely had to perform at the highest level and always be on top of your game. I had six super-tough matches getting to the finals, and the final was a scrap. I knew it would be, but I knew if I pushed the pace and fought my fight, then I would win.”

Elsewhere, SFC Marquis Daniels of Fort Drum, N.Y., downed SFC Trey Robbins of Fort Bragg for the welterweight title, forcing a submission about 2 minutes into the match.

Meanwhile, with less than 10 seconds to go in the lightweight final, SFC Donnie Bowen of Fort Campbell, Ky., was declared the champ after CPT Neil Chitwood of the 413th Regiment got disqualified for kicking him in the head while he was on the mat. CPT Chitwood also finished runner-up a year ago.

At flyweight, SGT Francisco “Frankie” Mercado of Fort Bragg earned the trophy with a split-decision triumph over SPC Erik Cabral-Garibay of the Minnesota National Guard. The bantamweight championship went to 2LT David Mason of III Corps, who won a split decision against PFC Sean Stebbins, Minnesota National Guard.

U.S. Army Combatives School director Matt Larsen said the All-Army event stacks up favorably against MMA fight shows across the United States in terms of stature and quality.

“The level of fighting ability is going up exponentially. Every year, it gets better and better,” he said. “Some of the guys in there are world-class fighters in that arena, so it’s really, really getting good.”

A total of 462 Soldiers, representing more than 50 teams, began the tournament Friday, an increase of 157 fighters from last year.

“That shows you it’s spreading throughout the Army,” Mr. Larsen said. “We have to be giving commanders and Soldiers what they need in their training for the battlefield in order for it to be a success. And the growth of this tournament every year is testament to the fact that we are giving them what they need.”

Organizers limit teams to two Soldiers per weight class from each post, division or independent brigade — meaning they can bring up to 16 fighters. They determine who’s represented, often through installation tournaments.

As an example, Mr. Larsen cited this year’s III Corps championships at Fort Hood, which featured 400 competitors.

“That’s why you see the level so high here,” he said. “We have 1.2 million Soldiers and these are the toughest 460 people that are in the Army, Guard or Reserves.”

The 2010 U.S. Army Combatives Tournament field included 12 women, up from seven a year ago.

“It’s something everybody can do and it’s fun to get out there and do what the guys do,” said SGT Valerie Arenas, an Arizona National Guard member and mother of a 1-year-old boy, who competed in the flyweight division. “Sometimes, they’re hesitant about having to fight a girl. But if you get aggressive, they know this girl means business and it’s a fair fight.

“I did wrestling in high school and martial arts as a kid. The Army has a really good blend of both (with) striking and ground work. I just want to keep working at it and get better.”

MG Michael Ferriter, the MCoE and Fort Benning commanding general, said Army combatives remains highly relevant in training the average Soldier for operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“There’s no question about it,” he said. “When they enter a building or they’re running a traffic control point, and they just have to control the situation, they’ve got the skills. If they get in a tight spot, and they’re concerned about whether or not they can handle themselves, they exude the confidence to be able to do that.”