COB ADDER, Iraq — Hard rock thumped through the speakers and nonalcoholic beer flowed as more than 1,000 amped-up American soldiers crowded around a makeshift boxing ring one evening earlier this month at a U.S. base in southern Iraq.
"Let's get ready to ruuuumble!" the emcee bellowed, kicking off Contingency Operating Base Adder's first Friday Night Fights, where American servicemen, special forces and private contractors beat each other bloody in mixed martial arts bouts that are spreading fast on U.S. installations throughout Iraq.
The mixed martial arts clubs are modeled after the immensely popular Ultimate Fighting Championship organization's blend of sports and showmanship. Bouts on U.S. military bases aren't quite as nasty as the televised matches from Las Vegas: Military fight clubs must follow Modern Army Combatives rules, which ban some street-fighting moves.
Still, the fights aren't for the squeamish. One by one, shirtless, barefoot and heavily tattooed fighters entered the ring at COB Adder to face flying kicks and the dreaded "rear naked choke." Soldiers in the audience egged them on with calls of "Beat up that rib cage!" and "Take him to the ground!"
Once a winner was announced, the fighters stumbled over to a team of waiting medics who iced down golfball-size knots, purplish bruises and bloody noses.
"They're going to look real pretty tomorrow," the emcee quipped after a particularly brutal round.
The testosterone-fueled fight nights may be the closest that many U.S. soldiers get now to combat in Iraq. The effort to halt the country's vicious sectarian warfare has given way to rocky nation-building efforts, and December was the first month in which no American troops were killed in action since the U.S. and a coalition of allies invaded Iraq almost seven years ago.
COB Adder is home to one of the first Advise and Assist Brigades, the American military's term for its evolution in Iraq from a mainly combat force to one that's focused on shoring up Iraqi security units before the full U.S. troop withdrawal that's scheduled for the end of 2011.
American commanders might've raised an eyebrow at the two leggy blond female soldiers serving as ring girls, but they support mixed martial arts events as a release for the pent-up frustration of combat veterans, who this time find themselves stuck on post or taking a back seat to the Iraqis they train.
Regulated fights are good for keeping up "that warrior spirit," said Col. Peter Newell, who leads the 4th Brigade of the Army's 1st Armored Division, based at Fort Bliss, Texas, and a pioneer of the Advise and Assist model.
"I know it's near-beer, but it doesn't get much better than this!" Newell told the raucous crowd, promising to make fight nights a monthly event. "Eight bouts tonight, 16 the next time."
In September, a base in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul held "Fight Night for Heroes," a mixed martial arts event that began with a reading of the names of fallen soldiers before fighters from all over Iraq and professionals flown in from the United States competed in 17 matches, including an all-female bout.
Troops on a base in the southern port city of Basra celebrated last month when a soldier who trains the amateur fight club there turned pro as a cage fighter. Soldiers waited in long lines on Christmas Eve for autographs from Ultimate Fighting Championship superstar Tito Ortiz, who was on his third USO tour to visit American troops in Iraq.
"You just didn't have this before. There wasn't time for it," said Sgt. Angela Horsley, 32, who's on her fourth deployment to Iraq and managed to score a ringside seat for fight night at COB Adder.
On her previous deployments, Horsley, of Virginia Beach, Va., had the grim job of dealing with arrangements for dead soldiers in casualty and mortuary affairs. There was little opportunity for social distractions such as mixed martial arts exhibitions.
"It seems they're trying to make the deployment a little more comfortable for us this time," she said. "I just hope we get it done right, this all ends soon and no one else has to come out here four times."
Staff Sgt. Aaron Martinez, 32, of Des Moines, Iowa, trains about 30 fighters at a time, six nights a week, in COB Adder's fight club. He and other volunteers worked nonstop in the days before the debut fight night, constructing a professional-looking ring from materials they found on the base.
Sweaty and exhilarated, Martinez surveyed the standing-room-only crowd in COB Adder's Memorial Hall during an intermission on the big night.
"USO puts on a lot of shows, but this is something for soldiers, by soldiers, and it really makes everything worth it," Martinez said. "It gives soldiers the chance to show their warrior spirit."
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