MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. – Marines fight to win wars. Sometimes they fight for belts, titles and the love of a sport.
Mixed martial arts is growing tremendously worldwide. In the past six years it has captivated mainstream America, service members included. Marines have been training at gyms on and off-base on their own, but a new team has formed within the Corps to give these competitors a place to train full-time.
There are 16 Marines on the Camp Pendleton Submission Grappling team whose work day consists of nothing but training and competing in mixed martial arts, pankration, judo and wrestling.
“The finished project that the team gives back to the Marine Corps is a solid, well-trained, and intelligent individual,” said Corey S. Bennin, head coach of the team and retired Marine gunnery sergeant. “There’s a lot more to becoming a fighter than just going out there, putting on the gloves and swinging.”
The Marines are challenged with training, sparring, perfecting of moves and combative arts competitions. Mixed martial arts is their day job.
“I have these guys for five hours a day, five days a week, sometimes even six to seven days a week,” said Bennin.
Seven-mile runs and circuit courses with kettle bells, heavy ropes and water-filled barrels are a few of the many ways Bennin trains his fighters.
Although mixed martial arts is not used to replace the Marine Corps’ fighting techniques, the training received to excel in this sport also betters the fighters as Marines.
“We build a solid individual who is able to tackle mental and physical obstacles that he probably never would have been able to achieve before or in his lifetime,” Bennin said.
Bennin is no stranger to tackling obstacles.
Bennin engaged in many intense firefights while deployed to Iraq twice from 2003 to 2005 with 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, serving as a platoon sergeant for an 81mm mortar platoon.
While in Iraq, Bennin and his fellow Marines fought deep into the world’s largest cemetery, facing thousands of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi militia men and their hailstorm of mortars, rocket propelled grenades, machine gun and sniper fire in the battle of Najaf.
Bennin is as proven on the mat as he is on the battlefield.
He holds a black belt in Brazilian jujitsu and the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program. He is a world champion in pankration, one of the earliest forms of mixed martial arts dating back to the Olympics of ancient Greece.
Bennin started the team officially through the Marine Corps Community Services Varsity sports program in 2006. Since its inception, the team has captured six state titles, five national titles, six Armed Forces titles and many other prestigious achievements.
To try out for the team, Marines must first make it through the grappler’s training practices.
“I’ve had guys with zero experience to professional level fighters and most everyone that I’ve trained has loved it,” said Bennin. “Most of the fighters train for at least six months before going into a fight. I can see, through training, whether or not they are ready for an amateur MMA fight.”
“I never thought I’d be fighting mixed martial arts for the Marine Corps when I joined,” said Lance Cpl. Jered Lowe, a mechanic with 9th Communications Battalion. “The fact my unit is letting me do this is amazing.”
Lowe wrestled in high school before joining the Marine Corps in June 2009. He became involved in the sport while aboard Camp Pendleton.
“I was in the gym during lunch and after work,” Lowe said. “A Marine suggested I try out for the submission grappling team on base.”
Lowe started grappling training and earned a spot with the team in September 2010. His Marine Corps training helped immensely as he tackled the daily challenges of the team’s regimen.
“The discipline instilled in me through boot camp has made me a better fighter,” said Lowe. “When coach tells me to adjust my technique, I do it.”
Lowe’s training helped him earn a 3-0 record in amateur mixed martial arts competition.
“People really notice when we compete,” said Lowe. “You’ll hear them say, ‘wow, he’s a Marine! I didn’t know they could do this in the Marine Corps.’”
Lowe has done well but believes he has even more potential.
Sgt. Nathan Murphy, a radio repair technician and MCMAP black belt instructor with 9th Communications Battalion earned a spot on the team in January.
“Like a lot of the guys here, I was training before work, during lunch and after work,” said Murphy. “I would get home at 10:30 p.m. and sit with ice packs all over me, watching martial arts movies until I fell asleep.”
Allowing Murphy to train with the Marine Corps has enabled him to focus more of his time and energy to combative arts in a way he wasn’t able to before.
“There’s no better job than this,” said Murphy.
Murphy became a MCMAP instructor in 2004 and since has trained and awarded belts to more than 2,100 Marines.
“I love to teach,” said Murphy. “I want to have my own dojo someday.”
Since joining the Corps in 1998, Murphy deployed multiple times to Iraq and with Marine Expeditionary Units. He has been able to put his involvement in sports aside when needed. Between his jobs in garrison and deployments, Murphy was able to earn a purple belt in pankration as well.
Coach Bennin’s overall goal is to have mixed martial arts become an All-Marine sport. Murphy knows the benefit of this firsthand. He was a part of the All-Marine wrestling team during his first enlistment.
“If mixed martial arts became an All-Marine sport, the possibilities are endless,” said Murphy. “We’d have teams at all the bases and funding to compete all over the world.”
“I’ve used this type of training as a therapy for guys who have post traumatic stress disorder,” said Bennin. “This helps Marines coming back from the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. They find when they train, they’re at peace. It helps them cope with society and calms their nerves.”
Marines who haven’t deployed benefit in a similar way.
“I’m a lot more relaxed and calm since joining the team,” said Lowe. “The team promotes discipline and structure.”
Camp Pendleton Submission Grappling Marines are the first to train full time and represent the Marine Corps in the sport of combative arts. In the eyes of Coach Bennin, this is only a small step to having an All-Marine team.
Bennin has one message to those Marines interested:
“If you have the slightest inkling to compete in this sport, come try it out for a week. Once you learn the burn, you’ll come back for more.”