The sounds of fists striking against padding and of backs slamming onto floor mats ricocheted off the walls in Gaffney Fitness Center’s combative room as six modern-day gladiators prepared their minds and bodies to fight in the confines of a steel cage.
Team Warfighter, a mixed martial arts team formed by service members based at Fort Meade, trains twice a day, five days a week with David Perez at the helm.
Mixed martial arts combines many different fighting styles and disciplines into one full-contact combative sport. Fighters compete in a steel cage with the goal of victory by submission or knockout.
“It’s probably the most difficult sport out there,” Perez said.
All members of Team Warfighter compete in amateur fights throughout the area. Perez, however, is a professional competitor sponsored by the Air Force. Saturday night, he will compete in the Sun City Battle in El Paso, Texas.
To prepare for their MMA competitions, the fighters train hard during the days prior to a match.
“We’re here as soon as the gym opens up at five in the morning and we don’t go home until six or seven at night,” said Perez, a technical sergeant at Cyber Command.
Every training session takes between 90 minutes and two hours, and consists of cardio and technique training. Each day the group works on different combative fighting disciplines such as boxing, wrestling, Jui-Jitsu, kick boxing and Muoy Thai.
“It’s a complete, total body workout,” he said. “We go from stand-up fighting all the way to on-the-ground fighting.”
Perez, a veteran of boxing, kick boxing, wrestling and Brazilian Jui-Jitsu, said knowledge in all of the different combat disciplines is crucial to a fighter’s success in the ring.
“You have to incorporate all the different disciplines,” he said. “When you go into a fight, you don’t know whether or not this guy is straight boxing, straight kick boxing or if he’s on the ground. You have to be so well-rounded in all the different aspects of all the different disciplines.”
Team members call the training sessions “intense.” Kenny Wilson, a former specialist in the Maryland National Guard, said training with Perez has increased his cardio and toughness.
Like many of the others on the team, Wilson began fighting in another combat discipline before moving to MMA. He started training in Jui-Jitsu to stay in shape but quickly began MMA fighting.
“I just got hungrier and hungrier and, finally, I started fighting,” he said.
Michael Travis, an Air Force staff sergeant with the 707th Communications Squadron, started his combative career in 2004 as a boxer. Since joining Team Warfighter three months ago, Travis has already racked up two amateur wins with victories by submission.
The sport of MMA is not for everyone, Perez said. While training and technique help prepare a competitor, the fighter’s passion is important to withstand the receiving end of the combative sport.
“Not everybody fights, not everybody likes to fight.” he said. “It’s something you have to have a passion for. We really can’t teach that.”
Despite the intense training, team members said entering the cage for a fight is still nerve-racking. Once the cage door closes, the lengthy hype and match preparation feels like it was only two seconds, Wilson said.
“As soon as the cage door shuts, it’s kind of like, ‘Oh man. What am I doing?’ That’s what you think,” he said.
When the door closes, the first thing that goes through Travis’ mind is fear — a common feeling for many of the fighters.
“We’re always scared going into the ring,” Travis said. “Anybody who tells you otherwise is lying.”
Perez doesn’t want the fighters to be comfortable taking hits during a match; he does teach them how to deal with a hit and not be stunned. It’s not until Wilson takes the first hit that he realizes he’s in a fight. He said getting hit hurts, but the pain lets him know that he’s not knocked out.
In addition to the physical aspect of the fights, competitors must also build a mental toughness.
“It takes a lot from you — not just physically but mentally as well — to focus and be disciplined enough to adapt to your opponent,” Perez said.
Fighters train in their free time, but the physical and mental strength they gain through MMA helps them in the military, Perez said.
“It helps us specifically with the discipline aspect, the whole mentality — the warrior ethos mentality,” he said. “I think it’s a wonderful thing for all of us to accept and embrace the fact that all of us need to be ready — not just mentally but physically — all the time and go in there. Regardless of how hard it’s going to be, how tough the situation is, we’re going to always persevere.”