How Georgia Pioneers helped bring MMA to Iraq.

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.


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.

C-130 Hercules cargo (6)

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.

Mosul is in the most dan­ger­ous part of Iraq. After a bru­tal seven– year war, U.S. forces have dri­ven the enemy out of the rest of the coun­try and now the ter­ror­ists are fight­ing des­per­ately not to be com­pletely dis­lodged. It is here in Nin­eveh province and in and around the city of Mosul, that Al Qaeda is mak­ing its last stand in Iraq.


Once we arrive on the base we are escorted to the bil­let­ing area. We are stay­ing in the same hooches as a squad of sol­diers from the Alpha Com­pany 1-12th Cav­alry, who are nice enough to show us around and explain that the strange look­ing struc­tures in the cen­tral area between our hooches are for­ti­fi­ca­tions designed to pro­vide cover if the base comes under mor­tar or rocket attack. “Good infor­ma­tion,” I think.

The entire group of six Alpha Com­pany sol­diers trains MMA and four of them will be fight­ing in the big event. The two oth­ers, SSgt. Stephen Laxa­m­ana and a stocky Kansan, SSgt. Patrick Miller, will be work­ing their com­rades’ cor­ners. A life­long wrestler and pro­fes­sional fighter with a record of 11–4, it was Miller who first intro­duced his men to the sport while train­ing at Fort Hood, Texas.

I was beat­ing every­body when we’d roll as a part of our PT (phys­i­cal train­ing),” explains Miller. “So peo­ple started ask­ing me to show them moves when we weren’t busy and those guys started beat­ing up peo­ple and it just started a chain reaction.”

The sol­diers are all huge fans of watch­ing MMA, espe­cially the UFC. They quiz me about some of the famous ath­letes I’ve met while cov­er­ing the sport. There’s a lot of inter­est in any­thing hav­ing to do with Randy Cou­ture, with Eddie Bravo com­ing in a close second.

They’ve seen a lot of com­bat and most of them are on their sec­ond or even third tour of duty. I ask them about their expe­ri­ences in the war and how they think it’s going. No Oliver Stone bull­shit here— they’re all glad they came to Iraq, and say proudly that they’ve been a part of some­thing his­toric in a way most peo­ple will never know.

Our job is to kill bad guys,” says Sgt. Coury Stevens. The other mem­bers of the team say Stevens is one bad MF, a deadly shot with tons of con­firmed kills and cool as ice water under fire. The baby­faced Stevens also looks like he’s about 15 years old. “You train and train but you never get to do it unless you come over here,” he tells me matter-of-factly. A robust opin­ion, if not a polit­i­cally cor­rect one.

They all speak well of the mis­sion in Iraq, but their opin­ion of some of the Iraqi nation­als who they’re risk­ing their lives to pro­tect isn’t the best. They even joke about the well-known exper­tise of some of the Iraqi police in dis­as­sem­bling the com­plex booby traps which lit­ter the country.

SSgt. Thomas Blair, an All-American look­ing Boston­ian with a good sense of humor, mim­ics a police­man effort­lessly pluck­ing three or four wires out of a grenade in the cor­rect sequence then hold­ing it up to show it’s dis­armed. “That’s ‘cause you used to make ‘em moth­er­fucker!” he blurts out as the rest of the squad chuck­les grimly. He’s refer­ring to the fact that some of the Iraqi defense forces that now work with the U.S. were once fight­ing against them in the Sunni “resis­tance”. That’s before they were per­suaded by the bru­tal­ity of Al Qaeda against civil­ians to join forces with the Amer­i­cans and kick the ter­ror­ists out of the coun­try once and for all. The sol­diers’ opin­ion of the Al Qaeda fight­ers is even lower and I get the sense that it does them good to blow off steam talk­ing about them.

MosulMMA Stephens headshot-82

Cow­ards,” spits Stevens. “They use women and chil­dren as shields.”

Read­ing reports of Al Qaeda fight­ers lin­ing up chil­dren and march­ing behind them while fir­ing over their heads at U.S. forces is bad enough, but hav­ing Stevens, some­one who has seen it first­hand, tell me about it face-to-face makes it seem much worse.

Worth­less,” he con­tin­ues, in the fine mil­i­tary tra­di­tion of talk­ing down the enemy. “They know if they stand and fight, they’ll be killed.” He imi­tates the haul-ass-while-shooting-aimlessly-fromthe– hip tech­nique the ter­ror­ists favor.

They all put on a hard face, but the more I get to know them the younger they seem. The young, male, work­ing class demo that has always been the core of MMA’s fan base, is also the base of the armed forces. It’s nat­ural that there should be a big crossover between the two. I have no frame of ref­er­ence for most of what they’re telling me about the war, other than to be amazed that they go through so much so often, but we do have one thing in com­mon. They’re just as inter­ested in MMA as me so we bond by talk­ing about train­ing and the dif­fer­ent matches we’ve seen. Stevens ex– plains to me that he is cur­rently try­ing to learn the Rub­ber Guard that Eddie Bravo invented. “I read his books,” he says, pro­duc­ing one from his hooch to show me.

At night they all go up to one of the gyms on base and train together. Train­ing and com­pet­ing in MMA helps them deal with the drudgery and anx­i­ety of their daily lives in the war zone. Blair points out that it also builds esprit de corps. He says there is a nat­ural cama­raderie between sol­diers from being in com­bat, but that train­ing together in an activ­ity like mixed mar­tial arts “increases it ten-fold.”



The base is buzzing about the upcom­ing event. Sol­diers ask us about it when they see us in the chow hall and many thank us in advance for putting it on. It has been a colos­sal effort and Mon­ica and many of the rest of the team have been bust­ing their humps for almost a year to make this event hap­pen. They’ve got to feel good because in the days lead­ing up to the event, the energy is very pos­i­tive and the sol­diers are all sup­port­ive and appreciative.

Thank you for com­ing over here and doing this for us,” a sol­dier says to me one day in the chow line. I want to answer “No—Thank You, for help­ing save the world from evil thugs.”

The day before the fight, we are escorted down to the out­door ring and amphithe­ater, where the event will take place, for a run­through. Mon­ica and Nick chat­ter excit­edly that “The Boss” is com­ing in to inspect the grounds. “The Boss” is the base com­man­der, Colonel Gary Volesky.

Volesky is the real deal.” Nick tells me. “They’ve writ­ten books about his bat­tles.” Volesky, it turns out, was the com­man­der of the main U.S. force in Sadr City, Iraq dur­ing one of the most hard-fought cam­paigns of the war back in 2004. That bat­tle went a long way in paci­fy­ing the sprawl­ing Bagh­dad slum and Colonel Volesky’s star has been very much on the rise ever since.

Soon he appears with his staff of sol­diers in tow. He is a tall, thin man who always looks straight ahead and moves with quick, pre­cise move­ments. He reminds me of an old griz­zled hawk, always alert and aware of what’s hap­pen­ing out on the hori­zon. He looks intense but he seems nice enough, fre­quently pep­per­ing his speech with “awe­some,” and “that’s great.” Although he’s obvi­ously the man in charge, he makes every­one on our team feel com­fort­able, but I get the sense that he could change out of nice mode in a microsec­ond if any­one around him screwed up.

As base com­man­der, Volesky is tak­ing a risk by hav­ing an event of this mag­ni­tude and com­plex­ity on FOB Marez. It’s a big card with 14 ama­teur fights and three pro­fes­sional ones. So, besides the nor­mal logis­ti­cal chal­lenges of host­ing an event with that many matches and thou­sands of spec­ta­tors, there are also the spe­cial secu­rity con­cerns of doing it in a war zone. Back in 2004, long before Volesky was com­man­der of the base, a sui­cide bomber made his way past secu­rity and into the mess hall on Marez and blew him­self up, killing 22 peo­ple, 18 of which were U.S. per­son­nel. You don’t have to be a counter-terrorism expert to real­ize that what’s left of Al Qaeda in the coun­try would love to pull some­thing like that off at tomor­row night’s event with thou­sands of troops and half of the com­mand struc­ture of North­ern Iraq in attendance.

To make sure every­thing runs smoothly, the Colonel goes through some­thing he calls the Rock Drill, which is a rapid-fire series of very pointed ques­tions con­cern­ing the specifics of the event. By the end of the ten­ minute process, he has bro­ken the three-hour event into fifteen-minute incre­ments and knows pre­cisely what should be occur­ring dur­ing those incre­ments and whose job it is to make sure those things hap­pen. “What hap­pens then,” he asks. “Whose job is that? What if this hap­pens? What if that hap­pens?” over and over again, while sol­diers jump in with con­cise, accu­rate answers so as not to waste his time.

Once he is sat­is­fied that every pos­si­ble con­tin­gency that can be planned for has been, Volesky is off again in a cloud of dust with his staff trail­ing behind him. If he has any­thing to do with it, tomor­row night’s event will run with the pre­ci­sion of a Swiss watch. But as with every­thing in a war zone, there is always the unspo­ken poten­tial for disaster.


The fight night has been built up for months and every­one involved is expect­ing a large crowd, but they end up get­ting almost three times as many as they expected. A mas­sive crowd of sol­diers is spread out across the hills behind the ring. Many have come in from other bases and some are stand­ing on the hoods and roofs of their Humvees and on the ceil­ings of the sur­round­ing con­crete for­ti­fi­ca­tions to get a bet­ter view.

Before the event offi­cially begins, a list of the fallen sol­diers from the base is read and then the national anthem is sung A cap­pella by every­one in atten­dance. The crescendo is timed right at the moment of a heli­copter fly­over to kick things off. The moment, with its thousands-strong mil­i­tary cho­rus, is another of Volesky’s inno­va­tions. Out of that huge sea of sol­diers, I don’t think there are a dozen who can carry a tune, but we all pitch in and sing as loudly as we can, and in its own way, it’s a beau­ti­ful thing to experience.

The crowd is wildly enthu­si­as­tic and the dif­fer­ent units all cheer and wave their flags when­ever their mem­bers are com­pet­ing. The two ring girls who came over with us, Starr and Lau­ren, are, of course, a huge hit with all the sol­diers, as they strut around between rounds and go out into the crowd to pose for pictures.

The first fight of the night is won by Alpha Company’s SSgt. Blair— the kid from Boston—who grounds and pounds his way to a deci­sion over his oppo­nent. The squad’s ballsy Sgt. Miguel Lozonaris steps into the ring for the first time as a pro or ama­teur in an exhi­bi­tion against a sea­soned pro­fes­sional fighter named Andy Roberts, who has 19 wins. As you would expect, Roberts over­whelms Lozonaris, who fights like hell, but is even­tu­ally caught by a rear naked choke late in the first. Both fighter’s hands are raised at the end and the crowd applauds Lozonaris’s bravery.

Coury Stevens, the sol­dier who looks so young, loses a close deci­sion but nearly pulls it off. The fight stays close, but Stevens’s oppo­nent scores a few flashy take­downs that I think won him the fight.

MosulMMA Coury

When it’s mild-mannered medic Joshua Beecher’s turn, I grit my teeth, expect­ing him to get wasted, but he sur­prises me. He turns out to be a two-fisted ter­ror and wins in the best slugfest of the night. The fight whips the crowd into frenzy and as the night pro­gresses every­one gets more and more into it. They begin to shout advice to the fight­ers in the ring, some of it more tech­ni­cally help­ful than the other. “Come on, Beecher. Beat that fool!” some­one behind me shouts. “Get in there, Clark. Don’t give up!” another sol­dier exhorts in a later fight. My favorite is a man with a pierc­ing screech of a shout who keeps scream­ing the same advice in every fight over and over—“HAMMERFIST! HAMMERFIST!”

Colonel Volesky and the rest of the brass, who are all sit­ting in a spe­cial ring­side sec­tion, are really enjoy­ing the matches, as well. They’re root­ing the sol­diers on, clap­ping, shout­ing and cheer­ing. It’s cool to see so many big­wig offi­cers let­ting loose. Any­time some­thing dra­matic hap­pens in the action they all leap to their feet at the same time, their black Cal­vary hats bob­bing up and down in unison.

MosulMMA Brass-115

Two of the fight­ers in the co-main event are active duty mil­i­tary who came over with us from the states. Navy Corps­man Mike Brown has kept to him­self and has been keyed up since he got on the plane in Atlanta. A ball of ner­vous energy, he reminds me of the way Mike Tyson used to look in his pre-fight cer­e­monies, except Brown has been chomp­ing at the bit for four days and not fif­teen min­utes. So, I’m wor­ried he might burn him­self out men­tally before the fight even starts. Six sec­onds after the bell rings, his oppo­nent is an uncon­scious lump in a cor­ner of the ring. I guess Brown knew what he was doing. After his win he becomes the life of the party for the rest of the trip.

SSgt. John Walsh is a gritty Marine with ten years of ser­vice and the sub­mis­sion grap­pling coach at Camp Pendle­ton. He engages in a barn­burner in the final fight against Capt. Jason Nor­wood. Walsh nearly catches Nor­wood in sev­eral sub­mis­sions but the more explo­sive Army Offi­cer, who has a pro­fes­sional record of 6–1, even­tu­ally gets it to the feet. Once up, they exchange punches and Walsh gets caught with one right on the but­ton that he never sees com­ing. When the offi­cer, Cap­tain Nor­wood, is announced the vic­tor over SSgt. Walsh, there is a loud cho­rus of boos from the enlisted men in the crowd. Nor­wood takes it with grain of salt.

By the end of the night, the whole place is buzzed. It has been a very spe­cial night. Before the crowd dis­perses, there’s a sur­prise cer­e­mony to thank Mon­ica and Brett and the rest of the group for com­ing over and help­ing out with the event.

After­wards, I am approached by Colonel Volesky him­self. “Well, what did you think?” he asks. “A tremen­dous suc­cess, Sir.” I reply. I’m as pumped up as every­one else about how well the show went. “A tremen­dous suc­cess. Congratulations!”

He is smil­ing ear-to-ear and he should be. The event couldn’t have gone over any bet­ter. The Colonel gam­bled on the sport of mixed mar­tial arts and it paid off in a big way.

A man like that,” I tell myself, as I watch Col. Volesky make his rounds con­grat­u­lat­ing the fight­ers and crew, “doesn’t rise to the posi­tion he’s in and not be able to see a freight train when it’s com­ing down the tracks.”

MosulMMA Vol and FIghter-156


When we get back to our hooches, Alpha Com­pany is in the process of gear­ing up. Miller, Laxa­m­ana, Lozonaris, Stevens, Blair and Beecher have beaten us back and are all col­lect­ing their equip­ment; hel­mets, radio packs and the oddly tall night vision sights that are attached awk­wardly to their hel­mets. Their weapons are slung over their shoul­ders or across their chests, as they get ready to enter the MRAP troop trans­port vehi­cle, which is wait­ing to drive them to what­ever trou­ble spot they’ve been dis­patched. The squad’s senior leader, First Sergeant Daniels, a gnarly old badass with a trick eye, is sit­ting out on one of the benches talk­ing about how his boys have done tonight. “These boys are the real shit,” he growls, glow­ing with pride.

The squad is psy­ched, even the ones who lost their matches seem ener­gized by the expe­ri­ence. Incred­i­bly, they’ve got­ten a call to head back out on a mis­sion within a few hours of com­pet­ing. It brings home what these guys do and the real­ity of the dan­ger they’re in every day. We all promise to keep in touch and I feel like I know them much bet­ter than I should after such a short time. It’s a sur­real scene with them gear­ing up in the mid­dle of the night. Lau­ren, Starr and even Mon­ica cry and make a big fuss, but the sol­diers take it in stride. I won­der whether or not they will all come back alright and the dan­ger of the war sud­denly seems very real and pal­pa­ble. We all tell them good­bye and to come back safely.

As they pull out of the base, I try to process every­thing I’ve seen over the last few days and it’s sort of over­whelm­ing. Sol­diers, like the men I met in Alpha Com­pany, are sent over here to do an insanely dif­fi­cult thing. They risk their lives prac­ti­cally every day and, now that I’ve seen just a harm­less lit­tle piece of it, when I try to wrap my head around this large, com­plex war, mixed mar­tial arts doesn’t seem like such a big deal to me any more. But then I think about how relaxed the men were when we would talk about the sport, or about their favorite fight­ers. They seemed to for­get about Iraq for a while when they’d tell me their ambi­tions for the sport, or about how they’re dri­ven to train so hard just for the sake of get­ting good at some­thing they love to do. It makes me recon­sider. If by watch­ing, train­ing and com­pet­ing in MMA the lives of the sol­diers in Alpha Com­pany are made bet­ter, if it makes it eas­ier to do their jobs, or it gives them more hope about the future, or a bet­ter way to cope with the stresses of war, then mixed mar­tial arts is extremely impor­tant— because they are extremely impor­tant. I’m sure that after see­ing the reac­tion of all the sol­diers attend­ing and com­pet­ing in this his­toric event at FOB Marez, Col. Volesky and the other lead­ers that were present will real­ize the same thing. For that rea­son, I hope that our expe­ri­ences in Iraq and at the show, whose name, “A Fight Night For Heroes,” now seems so much more apt to me, might be the start of some­thing really significant.

MosulMMA Flag

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