By Josh Gross
June 30, 2008

A corridor of late-afternoon sun painted a golden landscape on the walls of 52 Area Fitness Center, located on the north side of this U.S. Marine Corps base. The floor of the open gymnasium was covered in wrestling mats and quarantined with orange cones and yellow tape. In the center stood Jeff Perez and Jarrod Levine, hunched over with clinched fists at their chests as they capped off the day with the last bout.

Just a handful of spectators, who were mostly fellow fighters and family members, had stuck around until the end.

After five hours and six fights, Perez finally caved. The taller and less-beat-up Levine served his opponent a classic Thai kick, sending the 22-year-old to the canvas to end the fight.

Levine excitedly made his way to the back of the gym with a third-place medal around his neck. His father, having caught the perfectly legal stoppage on camera, took a deep breath.

But Perez's fight, and day at the Invitational, was over.

"I knew this could happen, but I was curious," Perez said, after dragging himself to a far corner of the gym where his mom, sister and a handful of teammates attended to the fallen fighter. Sergeant Major Mark Geletko, a 23-year veteran of the Corps who shouted instructions to Perez and his Varsity Sports 29 Palms squad, was also there to console the fighter.

As a former Muay Thai practitioner and Golden Gloves boxer, Geletko first met Perez on the grunt's second tour of Iraq as part of Lima Company in the Al Anbar province along the Syrian border.

"It was real busy out there," Geletko said. "So there were a lot of bad guys running around up there, a lot of patrolling. We rolled up a bunch of al- Qaida types."

Perez's trip through Fallujah in 2005, after some of the heaviest fighting of the war, paint a horrific picture.

"It was destroyed," he said. "You could walk around and there were body parts everywhere. I'd see dogs walking around with a hand in their mouth."


Perez and Levine were two of the 86 active-duty and reserve military personnel to enter the U.S. Armed Forces Pankration Invitation that Saturday in May. Though technically strangers, they all shared a common bond as they gathered for, what seemed to be, more of a celebration that a competition. For those at Camp Pendleton and other military bases around the country, simply engaging in a highly energized sport is a blessing after the trials they've faced in the Armed Forces and the war in Iraq.

Inspired by the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Perez, of Wellesley, Mass., was consumed with the need to give back to his country. With the blessing of his parents and tales of a World War II-era grandfather roaming in his mind, the former high-school wrestler enlisted when at 17.

Levine, too, wanted to do his part. Failing to make the Navy Seals, the kid from Hollywood, Calif., became a naval corpsman. The two had never met before the Pankration Championships. But they represented the growing number of personnel who have found a way to compete in mixed martial arts while serving for the Corps. The sport is often encouraged on the bases to not only enhance the fitness of militants and midshipmen, but also to boost comradery. Just as MMA has experienced tremendous mainstream growth in recent years, the sport has taken off throughout the Armed Forces and Marine Corps, as well.

As the New York Times reported in May, bases conduct annual MMA tournaments, sending the winners to a branch-wide championship tournament at Fort Benning in Georgia.

In 1995, in fact, the Air Force adopted the Modern Combatives program, which has been updated through the years to incorporate the various martial arts, including tae-kwon do, judo, Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. The Navy, too, has trained units and the Marine Corps has been teaching recruits the martial arts since 2000.

Jon Franks, a nine-year veteran of the Corps and one of the organizers for the Pankration Championships, said similiar events are a necessary luxury. But it would have been a no-go if not for a $1,500 sponsorship by Frank and Claudia Ortega, owners of the fight gym The Compound in Oceanside, Calif.

In essence, the label of "Pankration" -- a mixed-style of combat dating back to ancient Greece -- is amateur MMA, the bare bones of the sport with fighters that lacked, or are tying to obtain, the top-notch skill of professionals. Such was evident judging from the light résumés of participants who buzzed around Pendleton.

Though professional fighters such as World Extreme Cagefighting light heavyweight champion Brian Stann, a Silver Star recipient for his heroics in Iraq, couldn't compete even if they wanted, the event relied on passion to overcome the overall lack of skills among the contestants.

"They love to compete," Franks said. "Some of them only have two weeks of training. Some of them train a lot. Some of them just want to fight it out."

For Perez, who trained at Twentynine Palms, California's Marine Corps Air Ground Center in the early mornings and during lunch breaks, Pendleton provided his first taste of the action. His mother, Barbara Edelstein, cheered from one of the four short risers set up for spectators. She had never seen her son fight, though there were plenty of wrestling matches to attend during his high-school days. Still, the competition brought back many unwelcomed memories.

"During the whole two tours I would come down my street slowly in the anticipation that there would be Marines at my door," she said. "So this is way different. This is a happy time."

Having fulfilled his four-year commitment to the Corps, Perez will start at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth in the fall. He wants to study business, but will make time for advancing his MMA career.

Edelstein said her son rarely talks about his experiences for he doesn't like to speak about the loss of his closest friend. However, she hopes, that his leaving the Marines for college will allow him to "revisit that period of his life" that he missed by heading off to war.

Like the Perez clan, the Levines couldn't be more excited about his future.

After marrying in Okinawa, Japan, Jarrod and his wife hoped to start a family, but a fertility test revealed that he was stricken with testicular cancer. Following surgery and radiation treatment in January, Levine recovered remarkably fast. He was back in the gym by March.

"I wasn't going to forget about my dream," said the lanky Muay Thai practitioner. "I love this sport."

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