Fort Bragg Army Combatives Championship Invitational to be among largest in Army history

It's lunchtime on Fort Bragg, but instead of a dining hall or restaurant, dozens of vehicles are pulling into lots surrounding a small former chapel on Gruber Road.

Inside, the air is thicker, hotter, more humid as dozens of fighters grapple on a matted floor.

This is the home of the 82nd Airborne Division's Combatives and Advanced Tactics School. Soldiers come to the building daily to train, pitting their close combat skills against one another.

But this week, the training is different. The fighters are preparing for a tournament that will be a Fort Bragg first - and one of the largest of its kind in Army history.

The 2013 Fort Bragg Army Combatives Championship Invitational is the post's answer to the cancellation of the Army Combatives Championship earlier this year for budgetary reasons.

But officials aren't trying to replicate the missing championship - which has never been held on Fort Bragg. They want to make it better than it's ever been.

Professional mixed martial arts fighter and Special Forces Staff Sgt. Tim Kennedy, who competes in the Ultimate Fighting Championship's middleweight division, will be a special guest. Exhibitions will pit senior Army leaders - colonels and command sergeants major - against one another. The event will include a "Fort Bragg vs. Fort Campbell, Ky." bout as well as several bouts that will pit the 82nd Airborne Division against other Fort Bragg commands. There also are rumblings of national sports media attending.

The event is expected to draw nearly 500 competitors from Fort Bragg and other military installations, officials said.

Some competitors already registered for the event include those from a Marine Special Operations unit at Camp Lejeune, National Guardsmen from Illinois, North Carolina and Minnesota, and soldiers from Fort Stewart, Ga., Fort Campbell, Ky., and Fort Benning, Ga., among others.

Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Yurk, who serves as noncommissioned officer in charge of the 82nd Airborne combatives school, said the three-day event will easily be one of the largest in Army history.

"It's very exciting," Yurk said from a small office tucked into a corner of the combatives school.

Yurk is a member of Fort Bragg's 2007 Army championship team and trained under mixed martial arts legend Royce Gracie.

In this competition, he sees a real opportunity for Fort Bragg to set itself apart in the world of Army combatives and earn bragging rights.

The post has been at the forefront of a shift to more tactics-based training, Yurk said. It certifies about 200 fighters a month and currently hosts the only advanced tactical combatives course in the Army.

"Here at Fort Bragg, there is an absolute drive," Yurk said. "Are we the best? Absolutely. There's no question. There is nowhere in the Army that can do what we do right now."

Strong words. But words that Yurk and the Fort Bragg fighters hope will be backed up during hundreds of bouts this week.

"It's a big deal," said Pfc. Tyler Curtis, an instructor in the combatives school. "I'm looking forward to it."

Curtis said the Fort Bragg fighters are pushing each other. At stake is more than a championship. It's pride.

"Without a doubt, we plan on wiping out the brackets for sure," he said.

Spc. Ronald White of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, said the competition was a chance to test himself against the best of the best.

White has been training at the school for two years and spent six years as an amateur mixed martial arts fighter before joining the Army.

"It'll be interesting to see how Fort Bragg stacks up to other units," he said.

On Fort Bragg and in Fayetteville, combatives or mixed martial arts have long been a big draw.

Restaurants with televisions can be overcrowded the nights of big fights, and Fort Bragg has had several Army champions over the years.

Yurk said the combatives culture is still growing, evidenced by the midday sparring in his school house.

"These guys just show up," Yurk said. "From new privates to two-star generals."

That interest is what helped spur Fort Bragg leaders in the 82nd Airborne Division and 18th Airborne Corps to fill the void created by the cancelled Army championship, which had been slated for Fort Carson, Colo.

"We said, 'We have the expertise here, we have the equipment. Let's go ahead and see if we can host this thing,' " Yurk said. "We wanted to give soldiers the ability to compete in a championship event."

If You Go

What: The invitational is expected to draw as many as 500 fighters from Fort Bragg and other military installations.

When: Thursday, Dec. 12 through Saturday, Dec. 14

Where: Weigh-in and registration will be Thursday, Dec. 12 at the 82nd Airborne Division Combatives and Advanced Tactics School. Friday, Dec. 13 fights will take place at Ritz-Epps Physical Fitness Center starting at 9 a.m. and the final bouts and exhibition matches are set for 6 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 14 at Sports USA.

Admission: All events are free and open to the public.

Staff writer Drew Brooks can be reached at brooksd@fayobserver.com.


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