MARINE CORPS AIR GROUND COMBAT CENTER TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. --
The Combat Center’s mixed martial arts team took a second-place team award at a California Pankration tournament Sunday, making this their second silver this year.
Fight Club 29, which also claimed a gold team award this year in a Grapplers X tournament, fought its way to the finals through many other southern California MMA teams with eight fighters at the U.S. National Pankration Championships at the Santa Ana High School in Santa Ana, Calif.
“This is the toughest Pankration tournament this year,” said Mark M. Geletko, the Fight Club 29 head coach.
Pankration tournaments are those which involve ground fighting, take-downs, and body strikes.
Geletko explained that in other Pankration tournaments, fighters are designated into novice, beginner and intermediate brackets to keep the competition consistent across the board. But for national tournaments like the one Oct. 25, no brackets were used to divide well-seasoned fighters from the ones stepping onto the mats for their first tournament.
Kris Nekvinda, the team’s 190-pound fighter, was one of those fighters going his first round that night. During his lengthy first bout, Nekvinda suffered a broken nose and only ceased fighting by the call of the referee. He continued on through the tournament and earned a score of 2-1 before getting disqualified for his perpetually bloody nose.
Welterweight Fight Club 29 member James Clark has bled and sweat for the team since 2007 and took advantage of his last fight before his deployment to Afghanistan with 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, early next year.
Clark, who has a 20-0 record, has taken competitions at state Pankration tournaments, armed forces Pankration nationals and now U.S. National Pankration Championships.
Like the rest of his teammates, Clark gives credit of his victories to tireless training.
“I trained very hard for this one,” said the native of Spokane, Wash. “I focused on all aspects but paid a lot of attention to my stand-up. I also cut a lot of weight for this tournament, and that required great physical conditioning as well as discipline.”
Clark made his claim to the gold belt a no-brainer for judges by controlling each of his opponents’ movement both on the ground and standing up.
Middle heavyweight Omar Askew, who has spent more than two years with the team, wore the silver medal for his weight class on his way out of the stadium that night.
“Every time before a fight, you have a strategy or a plan of execution,” said Askew, a native of Atlanta. “Sometimes, it does not go as planned. My performance was on the right track, but when you have a competitor with the same amount of drive and ambition as you, it comes down to heart.”
With the exception of Clark, Askew and light heavyweight Klaus Springer, each fighter on the team had joined less than four months prior to the big tournament.
Despite being beginner-heavy, the team held its own, typically taking on teams ten to 20 strong. Geletko attributes the team’s tenacious endurance to its challenging and consistent training.
The team members push each other through their two-hour sessions during lunch, as well as evening and weekend sessions added onto their load in lieu of tournaments, Geletko said.
“We stepped up our conditioning with cross fit and strength training using free weights,” said the Pittsburgh native about preparing for the tournament. “We also have a new ground coach who works with the guys to increase their endurance on the ground.”
Marcos Estrada, the ground coach, joined the team roughly three months ago and brought his experience in freestyle wrestling and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu to the table.
Estrada, who competed in grappling and Pankration tournaments while on recruiting duty in Chicago, said he feels excited to beef up the team’s ground work.
“I want them to learn the art of the sport,” said Estrada, a native of Chicago. “I want to create a hunger in them so they want to go find places to continue their training after they leave here. I think most of them have that already.”
Estrada said he plans on prepping his team for the Nov. 7 grappling tournament by using what he calls “situations goes” or putting the fighters in bad situations and teaching techniques to “transition from being in a bad spot, to being in a neutral spot, then moving to an advantageous position.”
Estrada has studied the traditional gi Jiu Jitsu style and said he hopes to train the fighters in a similar fashion in the near future. A gi is an outfit worn by martial artists in styles such as Judo and Jiu Jitsu and consists of pants, a jacket, and a cloth belt that reflects the martial art skill level of the one wearing it.
“The Brazilian Jiu Jitsu philosophy is that if you can do it with a gi on, you can do it without the gi,” he said. “I want to do everything we can to improve their techniques. If that is one of the ways, so be it.”
Estrada and Geletko said they feel optimistic about the November competitions, especially considering all the team’s fighters already qualify for the national U.S. team slated to compete in Europe next year.
The Nov. 7 grappling competition will be held at the Del Mar Fairgrounds in Del Mar, Calif.