The former 0331 machine gunner served three deployments to Afghanistan and was part of one of the first Marine battalions to take on the Taliban in Helmand province — an experience he says helped shape him into a fierce and tenacious MMA fighter.
Without the Corps, he says, “I wouldn’t have the intestinal fortitude to get into the cage today.”
The tatted-up redhead from Tempe, Arizona, is now the No. 1 ranked American non-UFC fighter in the 170-pound class and boasts an impressive undefeated pro record and an amateur welter weight championship.
He is adorned with Marine tattoos in remembrance of a Corps that took him to war, and his demeanor and success stands as a beacon of hope for veterans and former Marines struggling to make their way after serving.
Stewart, like many young Marines, entered the Corps straight out of high school, and soon after found his way to war in Helmand with 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment in 2008. He was also a brown belt instructor in the Corps and started doing karate when he was a child.
The Corps’ deployment to Helmand that year was the of the first of what would eventually become a much longer commitment by the Marines to one of the most unstable provinces in the region.
“When we went there in 2008, we weren’t really sure what we were getting into,” Stewart said.
During that deployment, Stewart’s unit regularly would go two days without sleeping and carried out combat operations running on very little. They were constantly “trying not to hit IEDs, and getting ambushed,” Stewart said, describing his first deployment.
The Marines with 2/7 would return home that year without 20 of their fellow comrades.
“The belief I have in myself, knowing what I’ve been through, I know I can make it in the UFC,” he said.
In 2010, Stewart deployed with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, or MEU, where he started his MMA training grappling a ground fighting with fellow Marines.
When he returned from the 31st MEU, Stewart joined the Twentynine Palms, California, base fight team, known as “Fight Club 29.”
“When I wasn’t in the field, we would train every single day at 5:30 pm.”
Stewart took to MMA very quickly and started competing in grappling tournaments with the base team.
“I was doing really well, and I kept winning and I thought to myself I might be really good at mixed martial arts,” Stewart said.
In 2012, Stewart would go on to win the 2012 U.S. Armed Services Pankration Championship held at Camp Pendleton, California.
At this point in his career Stewart decided to make the leap to go amateur and fight outside of the military bubble.
The problem, Stewart said jokingly, “you don’t get paid, but you still get punched in the face.”
But, Stewart would have to wait until after his second deployment to Afghanistan in 2011 with 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, to get his first amateur bout.
In between combat operations and filing sand bags in Afghanistan, Stewart continued to hone his MMA skills.
“I remember being on deployment and a lot of people would see me after patrol, filling sandbags and I’d be shadowboxing,” he said. “They kind of looked at me weird. What is this weird dude doing.”
Stewart got some assistance with his training from a fellow Marine teammate, Julio Castellanos, who served with the MMA fighter on two deployments to Afghanistan as a section leader and squad leader.
Still in the Corps after nearly 14 years, Castellanos, now a staff sergeant, used to hold striking pads to aid in Stewart’s training. Castellanos says he still shows up to some of Stewart’s fights.
“Whenever we had time off, we’d spend time in the gym,” Castellanos told Marine Corps Times. “It’s something he’s been chasing since he came to 2/7.”
But the training routine paid off, Stewart won his first amateur bout on August 18, 2012, against
Scott Godsil in round 1.
Stewart would go on to hold an impressive 9-1 amateur record and was the King of the Cage amateur welterweight champion with his only loss coming against Justin “Lazy Bones” Jones.
“I won a world title as an amateur,” Stewart said.
Stewart deployed a third time to Afghanistan in 2013 again with 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines.
After returning from a third combat tour “I realized I was either going to re-enlist or I was going to get out and turn professional MMA.”
But to go professional required a full-time training commitment.
“I love the Marine Corps, if it wasn’t for MMA I would have stayed in the Marine Corps,” he said.
“You can’t be half into MMA,” he explained. “I’ve knocked a lot of guys out and I see that devastation.”
To fight professionally, Stewart maintains an intense training routine, working out nearly six hours a day.
At 10 a.m. he works with his boxing coach, at noon it is grappling, and at night he switches to kickboxing.
“I do this full-time,” he said.
“I am always banged up, my knuckle is busted right now, and sparing last night I got a cut on my face from getting punched.”
But the gut-wrenching regimen has paid off for the 29-year-old former Marine. Stewart boasts an undefeated 10-0 professional record and says he’s the No. 1 ranked 170-pound fighter in the country that is not in the UFC.
Despite his success in the cage, Stewart hasn’t landed a fight in the UFC.
“My goal is to get into the UFC by the end of this year,” Stewart quipped. He claims that it’s just hard to get guys to step into the cage with him. “I’ve knocked a lot of guys out.”
Stewart even appeared in a fight on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series, a show that looks for future UFC talent by pitting gifted fighters against each other.
On July 25, 2017, Stewart knocked out Jason Jackson on the Contender Series.
“I won the fight, I knocked the guy out, but they didn’t end up picking me,” Stewart said.
But Stewart isn’t discouraged.
“I could get in right now,” he says: It’s just a simple call from the UFC to Stewart and his manager to schedule in a fight.
After leaving the Corps at the rank of sergeant, Stewart returned home to Tempe, Arizona, to train professionally for MMA. Unmarried and with no kids, most of his time is dedicated to training for his next big fight at Arizona Combat Sports gym in Tempe.
Stewart’s success in MMA has also become a bright light of inspiration for struggling veterans, former Marines and current active-duty service members.
And despite the fame and busy schedule, Stewart stays close to the Marines he deployed with, and many of them fly in from all over the country to watch his fights.
“They go f**king bananas when I walk out to the cage, I always wear the Marine Corps flag on my back,” he said. “I am representing an elite class of warriors.”
The moments just before a big fight, Stewart says it reminds him of combat: “When you walk across that field, you know you’re about to get into a gun fight, but you know your boys are with you, that’s the same feeling I get when I walk into the cage.”
Castellanos isn’t surprised about his friend’s success.
“He’s got the heart for it,” he said. “He’d do a shit ton of hours on post, and instead of taking a break, he’d go out and start training hitting bags, pads or gloves.”
Stewart’s success in the cage has been wearing off on other veterans struggling since separating from the military.
“I’ve seen the positive effects it has had on veteran’s I served with, guys I went into combat with,” Stewart said. “A lot of people get out and struggle to find something to work for.”
“You’re isolated, you’re alone, a lot of guys get out and you don’t have that comradery anymore,” he said. “The Marine Corps gave us all a huge sense of purpose.”
Stewarts advice to struggling service members is to not be a statistic and to work to become the guy that inspires other veterans, and that doesn’t require being an MMA fighter, it just requires setting higher goals.
“I have standards to uphold,” Stewart said about being a Marine in the cage. “I didn’t come home to be average.”