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Denied combat roles, Army women battle men in cage fighting

Army Staff Sgt. Jackelyn Walker, right, is the aggressor as she fights Pfc. Gregory Langarica in the first round of the bantamweight championship of the finals of the Fort Hood Combative Championships in Killeen, Texas, February 16, 2012. Langarica wins the fight as the fight was called off in the second round.

JOSE M. OSORIO/CHICAGO TRIBUNE

By DAVID S. CLOUD | Tribune Washington Bureau | Published: March 16, 2012

FORT HOOD, Texas — Whap. Whap.

Army Staff Sgt. Jackelyn Walker is snapping left jabs at Pfc. Greg Langarica’s head. She doesn’t like his smirk.

Whap. Whap.

She lunges for his midsection, slams him down and locks him in a chokehold. Langarica’s face goes crimson. His smirk is gone.

The 1,000 or so spectators in the Army gym howl with glee.

The Army still bars women from fighting in combat units. But some women are trying to break that barrier far from the front lines — by battling male soldiers in chain-link cages against a backdrop of strobe lights, thumping music and swirling smoke.

The slugfests resemble ultimate fighting, a staple of pay-per-view television, right down to the black wire cages and throat-constricting holds with names like “the guillotine” and “the rear naked choke.”

The Army says the eight-sided enclosure simulates fighting in a small room and helps develop skills that soldiers sometimes need to subdue foes rather than kill them.

The brawls are an outgrowth of mixed martial arts training that began in all-male Ranger units in the mid-1990s and soon spread to the rest of the Army. Tournaments were started on mats and in boxing rings at bases around the country.

Elaborately staged cage fights — including some pitting women against men — started in 2008, in part because commanders realized they helped with recruiting.

In the most recent cage-fighting competition, more than 300 men and 25 women — up from five last year — competed over four days in February at Fort Hood in Texas.

One woman made it to the finals. But at least three female fighters were carried out on stretchers. Others limped to a green canvas tent that served as a first-aid station. One fighter burst into tears, upset that a referee had halted her fight before she felt beaten.

Unlike participants in Army boxing matches, cage fighters wear open-fingered gloves with thin padding and no headgear. They mostly fight barefoot, wearing camouflage fatigues or T-shirts.

Most of the women fight in the lightest weight classes: bantamweight and flyweight. To help balance the odds, they are allowed to outweigh men in the same class by 10 pounds.

The early rounds of the Fort Hood tournament were fought on padded mats, not in cages, and no punches or slaps were allowed until the final two days of the competition. The thinking is that less-skilled fighters would be eliminated by then.

Pfc. Yennyfer Usuga, a 26-year-old immigrant from Colombia, joined the Army a year ago and started serious fight training only in January. Quiet and seemingly frail at 116 pounds, she seemed out of place among male fighters with bulging biceps. But she won her first few fights, which by luck of the draw were all against other women.

Between bouts, Usuga changed from camouflage fatigues into capri pants and shook her shoulder-length reddish brown hair out of an Army-regulation bun.

“She’s very feminine,” said her coach, Sgt. Dwan West.

Her opponent in the semifinal round was the wiry, heavily tattooed Langarica. Standing 5-foot-5 and weighing less than 115 pounds, he had boxed and trained in jujitsu for years and had no qualms about fighting a woman.

Usuga came out swinging wildly and tried kneeing Langarica in the groin. She missed. The artilleryman pummeled her with body shots, threw her to the mat and staggered her with a bare-handed slap to the cheek.

She stumbled off in defeat, her eyes dull.

Langarica celebrated with a grin and a victory dance, scissoring his feet back and forth like the young Muhammad Ali, prompting a finger-pointing lecture from the referee.

The Army remains hyper-macho, but the wars of the last decade showed that women faced considerable danger even in the support jobs to which they were limited. In Iraq, 109 female service members have died, mostly in ambushes and firefights, and 29 have died in Afghanistan, even though they were truck drivers, civil affairs advisers or in other ostensibly noncombat jobs.

As a result, many male soldiers — as well as women — now consider the ban on women in combat roles to be outdated.

Fighting a woman in a cage is not necessarily a picnic for male soldiers. They face ridicule if they lose and little glory if they win.

The women’s motivations vary. “I just like to fight,” said Spc. Amber Sellers.

The bouts “teach us to react in the moment without a weapon” and not to back down, said Pfc. Vanessa Edwards. When her mother found out she was fighting men, “she told me to kick their ass,” Edwards said.

Spc. Dariana Chesser, 24, decided to join the cage fights last year after serving on a security squad for a senior officer in Afghanistan. “I want to transfer to a combat job,” she said. “I think this helps us prove we are worthy of fighting in combat with men.”

Chesser was considered an early favorite among the female fighters. In the month before the tournament, she dropped 38 pounds, down from nearly 170, thanks to twice-a-day training sessions and long sessions in the sauna. She figured she stood a better chance as a flyweight, which has a 135-pound limit for women.

But a day before her first fight, dehydrated and weak, she was rushed to a hospital and hooked to an intravenous drip. The next morning, she charged out of her corner and flipped Spc. Alex Seaton. But he quickly snared her in a chokehold.

She tapped him, ending the match. “I knew I had her good,” Seaton said. “She felt weak.”

A few hours later, Chesser was in the stands, glowering. “We don’t have instant adrenaline like males do,” she said.

Although she had lost her shot at the title, she fought again that afternoon in a consolation bout. This time, she was unstoppable.

Chesser tossed Spc. Gary Boyd on his back, grabbed his legs and spun him like a top. The mostly male crowd erupted in shouts of delight. When Boyd scrambled to his feet, Chesser leaped on him, twisting his collar to cut off his circulation in a move called a “blood choke.”

Two taps on the mat signaled he was done. Chesser thrust her fists in the air.

Only Walker, a 33-year-old Oklahoma native who served three tours in Iraq as a forklift driver and supervisor, was the only woman to make the final round. She is 5-foot-2, lithe and strong.

Her semifinal opponent, a male sergeant, was disqualified for a vicious elbow jab to her ribs. After nearly five minutes face-down on the mat, she got up slowly.

“I tried not to show anything, but it freaking hurt,” she said.

The next day, she was back for the bantamweight championship match against Langarica. The fighters made their way to the cage, both punching the air. Pounding music and billowing smoke lent a touch of Las Vegas glitz.

Cheering soldiers, families and civilians packed metal chairs and fold-out bleachers around the cage. As the fighters pranced and paraded before the first round, Walker noticed Langarica’s smirk.

“I was mad because he was smiling, like, ‘Oh, she’s going to be easy,’ ” she said later.

When the horn blared, she charged out of her corner and unleashed a flurry of jabs that sent him backpedaling. She slammed him to the mat and straddled him, clamping on a chokehold.

Langarica thrashed and kicked, finally escaping.

The crowd roared for more. “Come on, Sgt. Walker!” yelled an Army colonel dressed in fatigues. “You can do it!”

In the second round, Langarica regained the momentum. He started landing blows that made Walker wince. Her energy flagged. She leaned against the cage and finally dropped to the mat.

She was carried out on a stretcher, her eyes rolled back in her head.

“I wanted to be the first female champion on the base,” she said after she was released from the base hospital. “We can be just as tough as the guys. We can do it.”

Langarica was magnanimous in victory. He hadn’t beaten a woman, he said.

“It was a warrior.”
 

The audience watches a cage fight at the Fort Hood Combative Championships in Killeen, Texas, February 16, 2012.
JOSE M. OSORIO/CHICAGO TRIBUNE

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