MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. --
From the hot, desolate sands of the Middle East to the cold unforgiving steel of a six-sided cage, Gunnery Sgt. Paul Wright, academics chief for the School of Infantry – East aboard Camp Geiger, N.C., knows a thing or two about hard fighting. Since his birth as a Marine, he has always held two things in high regard – fighting as an infantryman and fighting as a mixed martial artist.
“When I first started to fight, the Marine Corps was using line training, which was no help at all (to my MMA training),” said Wright. “Throughout the last 15 years, however, the senior leaders in our Marine Corps realized that MMA, if conducted and implemented correctly, could benefit the Marines greatly; not only on the battlefield, but with establishing more discipline and confidence in our younger Marines.”
The Marietta, Ohio, native believes that, outside of the weapons and tactics aspects, the utilization of MMA in the Marine Corps through the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program has been one the best decisions in a long time. He said that Marines are fighters, and there is no better way than MMA/MCMAP to bring out a Marine’s full fighting potential.
For the past 15 years, Wright has been building his Marine Corps career as well as that of his MMA career, training with his fellow Marines down in the well decks of ships. It wasn’t until he came up through the ranks that he met many senior Marines who legitimately trained in MMA and were recognized mixed martial artists.
“I trained with them and absorbed as much knowledge as I could before our time ended,” said Wright. “With this knowledge and my own experiences, I wanted to train my fellow Marines to be better fighters in combat. So during most of my deployments, I would help train Marines in grappling, ground-and-pound and jiu-jitsu.”
Initially joining the Marine Corps in 1996 as a rifleman, Wright’s deployments have taken him to every corner of the world, supporting Operations Allied Force, Desert Thunder, Desert Fox, Southern Watch, Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom.
After receiving orders to SOI-East, Wright felt that he could do even more with MMA when he saw the opportunity to take combat instructors to the next level of fighting.
From this, Team Corps, an MMA team, was born, growing from four fighters in its infancy to more than 20 MMA practitioners. During this time, all of the Marines participated in MMA events in North Carolina, South Carolina and Ohio, where Team Corps quickly started making a name for itself and grew into a reputable MMA organization.
Wright’s years of training and conditioning came to a head when, within the walls of Goettge Memorial Field House July 31, an MMA event named Sacred Ground came to Camp Lejeune to the excitement of many service members and their families.
“I knew the popularity of MMA within the Marine Corps, so I proposed the idea to the owner of Carolina Fight Promotions (premier MMA event organizer in the Carolinas), Doug Muhle, to come aboard Camp Lejeune and put on a fight,” said Wright. “He loved the idea, so I wrote the proposal and once Col. Flatau (previous commanding officer of Camp Lejeune) approved it, Doug handled the rest and thus we had Sacred Ground.”
Wright initially wanted a fight to come aboard Camp Lejeune, but once he found out he was scheduled to fight against Jake Whitfield, current CFP welterweight champion, Wright took his training to a new level. Wright trained three times a day and cut his weight from 205 pounds to 170 pounds to be able to fight.
“I practiced 10 five-minute rounds with 30-second breaks, consisting of multiple martial arts disciplines with boxing and wrestling,” said Wright.
The Sacred Ground event pitted Wright and other Marine mixed martial artists from the Camp Lejeune area against the best MMA fighters in the Carolinas inside the six-sided steel cage. After 11 bouts of blood and sweat, it was Wright’s turn to step into the cell and prove his worth. The roar from the crowd was deafening as his name was announced.
“I felt great the day of the fight; that was my night to be the champ,” said Wright. “During the fight, when we locked up, I knew right away I was much stronger than he was, and when we started throwing punches at one another, he had no power behind them. The problem came once he took me to the ground; even though I was stronger than Jake, his technique was so damn good that it was extremely difficult for me to counter him on the ground or avoid his take downs.”
Though the fight could have ended with either fighter coming out on top during the first two rounds, Whitfield’s technique in groundwork eventually caught Wright in a submission choke, to which he had to eventually tap out.
“After the fight, I was upset that I could not pull off the win, mostly for my family and all the Marines who were there in support of me,” said Wright. “I gave Jake the respect he deserved, but it’s a very hard pill to swallow after three months of training and not being able to come away with the win. Your pride hurts as well.”
Although Wright may have lost his MMA professional debut match, he learned from the defeat and grew even more as a fighter. Wright said his time in the spotlight is on hold until the results for the chief warrant officer selection board are announced. If selected, Wright said his MMA career will be over to ensure all his energy is focused on excelling as a gunner, but if he doesn’t make it, he hints that he may again step inside the cage.
“I have been all over the world conducting operations and training, and each time I was in a different country, I sought out that country’s martial arts and tried to learn and train in it,” said Wright. “I was in Israel training the Israeli Special Forces sergeants’ course and was able to learn and train in Kava Maga. In Turkey, I trained in Yagli Gures, and when I deployed to Cameroon, Africa, to train their army in weapons and tactics, I was able to learn their Nuba fighting style, in turn teaching them some submission grappling, MCMAP and jiu-jitsu.”
In the end, Wright said pursuing a path in MMA has benefitted him in many ways. Through the Marine Corps and MMA, Wright said he has been in the best physical shape of his life, learned a different level of discipline and developed a new sense of confidence and self-respect he has never felt before.
“There are two things in the world I love to do,” said Wright. “To train Marines in weapons and tactics and train Marines to be better hand-to hand-fighters with MMA techniques.”