FORT HOOD — Thursday was an easy day for Staff Sgt. Matthew McKeon.
As the 2013 III Corps and Fort Hood Combatives tournament rolled through its second day, McKeon, 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry, sat in corner after corner, coaching his teammates through their consolation bracket fights.
He won his two fights Wednesday in less than three minutes. Fighters still alive in the championship bracket were given Thursday off, but McKeon wanted back on the mats at Abrams Gym.
“It helps me a lot because I get to focus on my gameplan, mentally,” McKeon said, “but physically, I want to get out there, right now, get it over with.”
Others weren’t so lucky. But they were no less hungry to keep fighting.
“(Because of) our conditioning with the Army, we train for this, this is what we do,” said Pfc. Eddie Webber, 15th Brigade Support Battalion, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry. “(Today) I’m going in, I’m going to put some ice on it and re-focus. It’s all mental.”
The tournament continues today at Abrams with championship and consolation bracket quarterfinal and semifinal matches. While Wednesday and Thursday fights were conducted under beginner’s rules (mostly grappling), today’s fights will use intermediate rules, which allow for some open-hand hits and kicks. Third-place and championship fights are Saturday night beginning at 4 p.m. Those fights will use advanced rules and will resemble UFC and professional mixed martial arts bouts.
“I feel a little pain in my left arm, but even that, it’s pretty much formidable with what we do in the Army,” said Webber, who lost his first-round fight Wednesday and won twice Thursday. “We do this to prepare ourselves for down range, it’s more of a friendly competition to see where we’re at.”
But, there’s also a team trophy given to the unit that scores the most points — the 41st Fires Brigade won last year’s title — as well as spots on Fort Hood’s All-Army combatives team, which has won an unprecedented three straight All-Army tournament titles. First- and second-place finishers in each weight class are automatically drafted to be a part of the team. For the All-Army tournament, teams are allowed to field up to four competitors in each weight class.
“I tell them when we start (working out for All-Army), ‘I don’t care what you placed at the tournament, all four of you, equally, have a chance to be on this team,’” said Kris Perkins, the director of Fort Hood’s combatives program. “‘It’s up to you how hard you work up to the tournament who I choose. As a matter of fact, you will choose against each other because you will fight each other at the end of this to go to the (All-Army) tournament.’”
The post-level tournament went from three days to four days in length last year when about 400 participants entered the competition. The numbers are down this year, 229 according to Perkins, but it’s no less competitive.
“The lower number is because the brigades are having their own tournaments,” Perkins said. “There’s not just a mass flood of soldiers from across the post, it’s the most elite from each brigade competing.”
While the fighters competing Thursday in the consolation bracket aren’t going to win the big trophy, they’ve moved on from their first-day set-backs. Third-place is still an option, so is making the Fort Hood All-Army team. But, mostly, they just don’t know how to quit.
“Competition, it’s in my nature. I think it’s good for me, I think it’s good for all the soldiers,” said Lt. Matthew Feiden, III Corps long-range surveillance company, who’s won three of his four matches by submission. “We need to have more competitors out there, people who do what it takes to win and, if they lose, people that are willing to pick themselves up and keep going.”
Regardless of whether combatants are like Feiden and have fought every day of the tournament thus far or like McKeon and had a day of rest in between, they’re still competing and the game’s not getting any easier.
“This game’s not all about physical; it’s all about mental focus,” McKeon said. “The edge is to whoever has the most heart and will.”