For a Soldier who had grown up wrestling in Pennsylvania and had been introduced to boxing after joining the Army, combining the two in the form of mixed martial arts and combatives seemed like a natural fit.
Staff Sgt. Shane Lees, who now serves as a combatives instructor in First Army Division West, said he discovered boxing while being deployed in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“When I got back, I was like, ‘well, I wrestle, boxing was fun, so let’s try MMA,’” Lees said.
After returning from his deployment to Iraq in 2004, he took up Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and started training for combatives. Even with having wrestled since his formative years, Lees said he favors Jiu-Jitsu, while still maintaining he considers wrestling the best basis to mixed martial arts.
Lees went on to use his training to become a three-time winner of the Fort Hood Combatives Tournament, and as the defending champion, he knows people are out for his title.
See Fort Hood Combatives in Action
“I look at it as mine,” Lees said, “while other people see it and want to take it from me.”
During this year’s post tournament, Lees opted not to compete but serve as the head referee instead.
“I had a spot on the team, (and) by then I was already one of the instructors at the fight house,” Lees said of his decision. “We were short-manned on the knowledge of running tournaments.”
Lees added that he had a fight just before the tournament and initially was looking forward to a break.
“But after I was watching the tournament, I got that competitive edge,” Lees said. “I missed it (the fighting). That was the last time (I refereed).”
On the III Corps Combatives team, Sgt. 1st Class Jesse Thorton, the noncommissioned officer-in-charge of the team, said Lees’ veteran presence is an asset.
“He’s been there, he’s done that, and he’s a quiet leader,” Thorton said. “He leads through example and hard work. So for the new Soldiers that are coming in and the new instructors that are coming in, it’s easy for them to take a look at Lees and say, ‘you know what, he’s working hard, he’s doing what he’s supposed to do, he steps up when he’s supposed to step up.’”
In addition to his leadership qualities, Thorton said Lees’ wrestling background also benefits the whole team.
“That’s something that you can’t even teach nowadays,” he said. “But since he’s been wrestling for so long, it’s easy for him to teach that to other Soldiers. That actually helps our wrestling program here.”
Throughout his nearly 10 years in the Army, Lees has embodied the Warrior Ethos, demonstrating his refusal to quit even after receiving a Purple Heart in 2003 during his deployment in OIF I.
For Lees, he said he doesn’t like to talk about the decoration and doesn’t see himself as a war hero any more than any of his other fellow Soldiers.
“I look at it as wrong place, wrong time,” Lees said, adding that he has many friends who have lost limbs, legs, and even their lives.
“He totally believes that his Purple Heart doesn’t make him a hero,” Kristopher Perkins, the III Corps Combatives director, said. “Everybody who goes over there he believes is a hero, so why should he get special preference just because the sniper chose to shoot him. Everybody that goes over there takes that risk. He just won the bad lottery.”
Perkins said Lees provides others in the Army an example of a Soldier’s resolve to never give up.
“To be resilient enough to come back from that, it shows Soldiers that possibly one of the worst things that can happen to you can happen, and it’s not the end; it’s not the end at all,” he said.
Perkins continued, “He’s been a fighter his whole life, and I believe that helped him in the mental resiliency part that the Army is trying to solve now, because we’ve learned that as fighters, some of the fringe benefits of being a wrestler or a fighter, you’ve already been put into a tough situation and you’ve figured out that you can make it through it. Quitting is not an option.”
Since joining the team three years ago, Lees said the combatives program has a come a long way.
“We have all of these guys, so if I’ve got a fight coming up, this is my training camp,” Lees said of the team. “There are pro fighters who don’t have facilities like this.”
He added that with wrestling and Jiu-Jitsu — he credits Jarrod Clontz, a black belt and civilian coach of the team for his Jiu-Jitsu development — he thinks he’s sitting pretty good heading into this year’s All-Army Tournament.
The high level of training at Fort Hood has also helped him keep better control of his weight. Before this year, Lees fought in the middleweight, 170-pound weight class. Now, with improved training, Lees fights in the welterweight, 155-pound weight class.
In addition to fighting for the III Corps team, Lees also competes in the civilian world. He recently improved to 2–0 after a win at an event in Bossier City, La.
“The reason I took that fight was just to get my weight back down and to keep it fresh in my mind,” said Lees, explaining that while he fights in the 155-pound weight class, he weighs in the 180s in the weeks leading up to a fight.
His win came against a hometown hero of the event who had yet to be beat.
“I like fighting undefeated guys,” Lees said. “Because when I lose, I’m always going to remember that first dude who beat me. So I like being that guy for other guys.”
With the All-Army Combatives Tournament just a few weeks away, Lees will look to improve on a fifth-place finish at last year’s tournament. Lees made it through the first day undefeated, including a win over the tournament-favorite from Fort Benning, Ga. Going forward, Lees went on to lose two close decisions by points.
This year, Lees said his goal is to win it all, adding, “The only thing I want to improve from last year is that instead of letting it go to the judge’s scorecard, I want to finish everybody.”