A few years ago, when American troops were still fighting the Iraq War, Georgia combat sports pioneers Brett Moses and Andy Foster helped put together one of most historic fight cards in the history of mixed martial arts. Brett and Andy, together with a team of officials, corporate partners, athletes and other support personnel traveled to a forward operating base outside of Mosul Iraq to produce a free night of fights for the troops. I was the only journalist covering the event and below is the story I filed for FIGHT! magazine. To my knowledge A Fight Night For Heroes is, to this day, the only sanctioned MMA event ever to take place in an active war zone.
IN THE BELLY OF THE WHALE
The city of Mosul is in the Northern part of Iraq on the banks of the Tigris River. A sprawling city of nearly two million inhabitants, it has been here in one form or another for thousands of years. It is built on the ruins of the ancient city of Nineveh where the prophet Jonah was traveling when swallowed alive by a “great fish” in the famous story from the Bible. It’s said he is buried in the city, beneath a shrine located in the Nabi Yunus Mosque.
I am ruminating on the Biblical prophet’s peculiar mode of transportation as I travel towards the city myself, in the belly of a different kind of giant beast. Thousands of feet above the Iraqi desert inside a C-130 military transport plane, I am traveling together with a large group: three fighters, two promoters, three judges, two referees, a corporate sponsor, a matchmaker, sanctioning official, two ring girls, a documentary film crew, FIGHT! Magazine’s own intrepid staff photographer Paul Thatcher and about a dozen soldiers who are going on deployment. We are all being ferried to forward operating base Marez on the outskirts of Mosul, which in a few days will be the site of a historic mixed martial arts event. The fight card has been a labor of love for many, including Monica Sanford, the owner of Devil Dog Productions. Monica is the wife of a Marine Lieutenant Colonel and a tireless advocate for greater acceptance of MMA by the military. She owns a Jiu-Jitsu academy off Camp Lejeune, NC, and has already promoted a couple of hugely successful events on U.S. military bases, but she’s never pulled off anything with the scope and complexity of what they’re planning at Marez. No one has. With her are fellow promoter Brett Moses and Andy Foster, head of the Georgia State Boxing Commission, who are here to help with the organization and production of the big night.
Traveling on the C-130 is a singularly unpleasant experience. There are no windows to speak of, the smell of fuel is overwhelming and the roar of the engines is so deafening that we are given tiny orange earplugs before takeoff in order to prevent permanent hearing damage. We are packed in like sardines alongside huge pallets of equipment and luggage and we’re required to wear 35-pound flak jackets and ill-fitting Kevlar helmets just in case anybody takes a pot shot at us. The scene is one of discomfort and claustrophobia.
Irrational thoughts begin to race through my mind, “Am I supposed to smell this much oil? Maybe there’s a leak! What if this thing catches fire mid-air? What if they land us in the 140-degree Iraqi heat and forget about us on the plane? Great God, we’ll bake alive in here!”
I have never liked confined spaces and even though I realize everything will probably be alright, I begin to sweat profusely in the beginning stages of animal panic. If I withstand this initial wave, I know it will go away for good, so I close my eyes and do my best to place my thoughts elsewhere.
When I open them after a few minutes, I notice that the expressions on the faces of my fellow travelers run the gamut from mild consternation to full-on psychological breakdown. There are anti freak-out kits behind us on the walls—green pouches containing vomit bags and hyperventilation units just in case somebody does lose it. I wonder how often this happens. Somehow, knowing the others are having a rough time too makes it easier on me and I even begin to laugh at myself a little.
The plane suddenly begins to lurch and weave erratically, sending me swerving from side to side in my seat. My ears pop as the plane dives and loses altitude quickly. My friend Nick Palmisciano, owner of Ranger Up and a sponsor of the event, is across from me sleeping like a baby. A graduate of West Point and a former Army Ranger, he warned me earlier about our landing, saying the C-130 pilots would put the plane through a series of acrobatic, downward spiraling, pirouettes in order to make us a more difficult target to shoot down.
“Mosul’s hot right now,” he had said, using the military slang for an area with a large amount of enemy activity.
“Sweet,” I had commented, meaning just the opposite. Read more ›