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As the Corps examines women's role, these female Marines show they can brawl

Feb. 15, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Ronda Rousey, Liz Carmouche
Former helicopter mechanic Liz Carmouche, right, narrowly lost to Ronda Rousey in the Ultimate Fighting Championship's first female fight in 2013. Carmouche says MMA is good for the mind and body, and good for Marine war fighters. (Jae C. Hong/AP)
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In less time than it takes most Marines to tie a boot, Sgt. Misha Nassiri won her first professional mixed martial arts fight.

In less time than it takes most Marines to tie a boot, Sgt. Misha Nassiri won her first professional mixed martial arts fight.

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In less time than it takes most Marines to tie a boot, Sgt. Misha Nassiri won her first professional mixed martial arts fight. It was a swift, if not brutal, victory — a 20-second flurry of punches and knees before the referee stepped in to shield her opponent from obliteration.

Female Marines like Nassiri are breaking barriers in the service and in the Octagon, and a small but growing number of women who serve their country are also pursuing a fighting career in the cage.

Among them are Liz Carmouche, a former helicopter mechanic who in February 2013 fought in the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s first female fight; UFC-hopeful Kelsey De Santis who turned heads as an elite instructor at the Marine Corps Martial Arts Center of Excellence in Quantico, Va., until leaving the service in 2011; and now Nassiri, an active-duty ammunition technician with Headquarters Battalion, 1st Marine Division, at Camp Pendleton, Calif., who trains out of The Compound, an Oceanside MMA gym.

These women agree that mixed martial arts is good for the body, good for the mind, and above all good for Marines — male and female alike. The advantages for military women are twofold, according to De Santis. It gives them an opportunity to prove their grit. And, at a time when the service is investing a tremendous amount to understand the physiology of women and whether it would be prudent to open the infantry to female Marines, the Octagon may offer lessons about whether they are capable in battle.

Leveling the playing field

In MMA, women can prove their mettle, defy stereotypes and earn respect among their peers, said De Santis, who has three amateur wins and narrowly lost her first pro fight by split decision.

“Through martial arts, people see that women are a force to be reckoned with and pull their weight in the Marine Corps and military at large,” she said.

De Santis got her start in muay thai as a teenager but was exposed to ground grappling through the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program after enlisting in 2007. She said her martial arts abilities earned her unwavering respect during her time at the MACE in Quantico.

While there, she taught MCMAP’s most advanced class, the Martial Arts Instructor Trainer Course. When a new crop of students came in, some men would be dismissive. But after showing her tenacity on the mat by beating one or two, their attitudes made a 180-degree turn.

“I wouldn’t say anything until I was able to fight our students on Friday of the first week,” she said. “That next Monday there was a new level of respect. I could see more interest in what I had to say.”

MMA levels the playing field, said Master Sgt. Ed Raimo, a motor transport maintenance chief and mixed martial artist who runs the on-base Brazilian jiu-jitsu club at Camp Lejeune, N.C. In combat sports like boxing, smaller women are unlikely to be able to defeat a larger male opponent who relies on force, even if she is more skilled. That is not so in MMA and jiu-jitsu, he said.

Brazilian jiu-jitsu, which is the foundation for MMA’s ground fighting, was created around 1917 by Carlos Gracie in Rio de Janeiro. It allows smaller, weaker opponents to dominate larger, stronger enemies.

“Jiu jitsu and MMA give women the opportunity to use intelligence and technique to defeat their opponents,” Raimo said. “It let’s them know we are on equal terms.”

Women are able to think, “You may have a better PFT, but I just tapped you out. If this was the real world you would not have had the opportunity to tap. You wouldn’t be able to do pullups because both your arms would be broken,” he said.

For Nassiri, however, fighting has nothing to do with proving herself to her male counterparts. She simply loves it and pursues it with gusto. Still, some people struggle with the paradox of a feminine young woman who likes to fight, she said.

“I’m a really girly girl. I show up at training in heels and a dress, change, beat people up, and then go back on my way.... I don’t feel the need to act all manly and pretend I’m something I’m not.”

There is the rare man — usually a newcomer to the sport — who exhibits a negative attitude toward her at the gym. Her coach, retired UFC middleweight fighter Sean Loeffler, has an easy solution. “He says, ‘Hey, you’re next,’ ” she said.

“Then, I beat them up,” Nassiri said. “I think the whole attitude that some guys have with female Marines — when you show them what you are made of — that goes away.”

The Marines in her command, men and women, are supportive of her fighting ambitions. Like De Santis, she hopes for a shot in the UFC, she said.

Octagon vs. the battlefield

While women now make regular showings at organized MMA fights, they are still excluded from the infantry. The service has taken a cautious approach as it tries to determine which ground combat jobs should open to women.

But fighting in the Octagon and fighting in the infantry are two different things, De Santis said. In fact, most of the serious injuries she has sustained have come not from MMA but from the rigors of non-infantry training.

“MMA might look bad, I might have two black eyes and a busted lip, but I’ve broken bones from ridiculously long pack runs,” she said.

De Santis says she doesn’t have a problem with women in the infantry, provided the standards for earning an 03 military occupational specialty are not lowered and they meet the same rules and regulations. She has only met about five female Marines that she thought would be capable of that, she added.

But the potential social problems also should be acknowledged, she said. She was comfortable with the men she worked with at the MACE because they knew each other so well. When she left, one gunny told her that if he had to take a female into combat, she would be the one. It was a high compliment, she said, but she might feel differently about the idea if she was around men she didn’t know as well. That might create problems in an austere environment.

Whether women will eventually be able to report to infantry units remains unclear. But for now, those wanting to engage in combat can step into the cage.

'It's not a blood sport'

Despite the testimony of male and female Marines about the ways MMA makes them better, more resilient, more confident, more fit, more battle-ready service members, the sport remains widely misunderstood and is derided by some military commanders.

De Santis struggled with her command leading up to her first fight. When she was a military police dog handler with Marine Helicopter Squadron 1 at Quantico, her SNCOIC nearly yanked her approval a week before her fight because another Marine broke his hand in the cage. Her commanders thought the risks were too high and it was a threat to readiness.

She fought back with statistics showing that Marines are also likely to be injured playing basketball or flag football, but are still allowed to do so.

Part of the problem, Nassiri said, is that not everybody understands how many layers of safety there are at a sanctioned MMA bout.

“It is such a professional sport. There is a lot of medical stuff behind it. The referee can stop the fight, your coach can stop the fight, you can stop the fight by tapping. There are so many safeties in place,” she said.

She has been fortunate, she said. Her command has given her wholehearted backing. .

“My command is not endorsing it in any way, but they are definitely very supportive,” she said. “A lot of my fellow Marines come out to watch me. I expected more push-back, but a lot of people are more supportive than I thought. So far it has been awesome.”

Following her recent victory, one of her officers lauded her efforts, saying he thought it helped make her a better Marine.

“It teaches you hardness, it teaches you discipline and I think it builds on those traits,” said 1st Lt. David Foran, a logistics officer with Headquarters Battalion, 1st Marine Division, in a DVIDS video. “Obviously, she already has those traits resident within her person, being a Marine, but I think that being an MMA fighter on the side also adds to those and helps her develop those traits independently of the Marine Corps.”

Sgt. Allen Bose, an accomplished amateur fighter out of Marine Corps Air Station New River, N.C., works as a muay thai instructor at Combat Club in Jacksonville.He has seen a significant change in attitude toward MMA among commanders in the Marine Corps.

Before his first amateur fight, five years ago, he had to lobby commanders in San Diego by making the same arguments as De Santis. Now, as he gears up for his first professional fight April 12 in Atlanta, he has a supportive SNCOIC.

That may reflect

the wider shifting perception of the sport and the athletes who participate. Once widely seen as thugs and barroom brawlers, they are gaining recognition as disciplined, finely tuned athletes. And there is the example of fighters like Carmouche, who has a record of national service that includes deployments to Iraq that took her outside the wire as part of the Lioness Program, in which female Marines patrolled on the ground to interact with local women. There is also Silver Star recipient and former Marine Capt. Brian Stann, who recently retired from the UFC and was known not only for his fast knockouts, but also his squeaky-clean image and sportsmanship.

Nassiri similarly touts the values of sportsmanship, respect and discipline and hopes to use her fighting career as a tool to positively influence the lives of others, she said.

“I win a fight and it feels amazing. But what always feels better are kids coming up after to ask for a picture, saying they want to be like me when they grow up,” Nassiri said. “Rather than thinking about being somewhere on a corner selling drugs, they are thinking about having a future in sports.”

Raimo said others are beginning to note the positive influence the sport has on young Marines who train in MMA.

“There is a lot of false bravado in some young Marines,” he said. “When you train jiu jitsu or MMA it makes it empirical. Am I as tough as I think I am? Yes or no. Can I handle dealing with the pressure of being on the mat? It cultivates them as Marines because, let’s face it, most Marines who join the Corps have never dealt with the adversity of being punched in the face.”

That adversity forges Marines with a stronger sense of camaraderie, the dedication necessary to persevere through the roughest of situations and a stronger warrior spirit, he said.

“I don’t care how many pullups you can do. Pullups don’t build moral fiber and develop mental and intestinal fortitude,” he said.

Combative sports complement what Marines are trained to do — fight wars, said Staff Sgt. Chris Connor, a former member of the All-Marine Wrestling Team who is an instructor at the Combat Club with Bose.

A precision weapons repairer with 2nd Amphibian Assault Battalion, Connor said the best way to get commanders onboard is to try to educate them about the level of risk involved. Because he helps a Jacksonville promoter pair fighters for events, he regularly visits commanders of Marines who want their shot in the cage. He invites them to watch training, where they see that their Marines are not just brawling, but being taught technique.

Taking a responsible approach goes a long way, he added. He ensures that the Marines who enter the Octagon have enough training and experience to protect themselves.

“No commander lets his Marines go into combat without proper training. It is the same thing,” he said.

They put their fighters through months of training, followed by intense, back-to-back, six-week fight camps before they will clear them to go into the ring.

Despite the measured approach and the safety precautions taken in organized MMA venues, it still has its naysayers.

In 2011, then Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Carlton Kent was a champion of Marines who wanted to get involved in MMA. He even pointed to the club Raimo now runs as a model of what MMA in the Marine Corps should look like. But the effort stalled after Kent retired and plans for a Corps-wide competition never materialized. In fact, the MMA club at Lejeune, once held up as a model, began focusing only on jiu jitsu, partly due to manning shortages, but also because support from commanders faltered.

Raimo said he understands why some commanders are hesitant. They grew up mostly watching football and boxing, not realizing that boxers are more at risk for brain trauma.

Tips from the pros

The keys to success as an MMA fighter — male or female — are discipline, dedication and sacrifice, Nassiri said.

“There is sometimes going to be this little voice that tells you, ‘Sleep in, I’ll do it tomorrow.’ That is crunch time, when you have to push,” she said. “That will turn into two days, then three.”

Confidence is also critical, but paired with a positive attitude.

“Be prepared for the worst, but always have an outlook on something bright,” she said.

And push yourself in physical training. Don’t ignore cardio or strength training, because you will need both, especially in a fight that goes several rounds.

Nassiri wakes up at about 4 a.m. many mornings and goes for a run. Then she participates in unit PT. During chow time she gets in more PT, lifting while focusing on something different every day — arms, legs, abs. In the evening she puts in a few hours at The Compound and does sprints afterward. It sounds extreme, but what you do in those little bits of free time makes the difference between victory and defeat, she said.

“Everybody goes to the gym. Your opponent goes to the gym. That is not enough,” she said. “The more you train, the more you’ll master specific techniques.”■

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