Air Force special warfare, UFC fighters share bonds, sweat, stories of the grind

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Chance Babin
  • Air Force Recruiting Service Public Affairs

A group of Air Force special warfare Airmen met up at the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s Performance Institute in Las Vegas with some of the UFC’s finest athletes to film a promotional video to be shared by the UFC.

Air Force Recruiting Service is sponsoring UFC and helping promote special warfare to a target audience of young fight fans. Nine Air Force special warfare and combat support airmen teamed up with four top UFC fighters to conduct various special warfare training drills and, more importantly, share stories of the grit and grind each discipline requires.

“In my previous position as chief of advertising with the Air Force Reserve, we had probably one of the best buys ever in the Department of Defense with the UFC 229-Connor McGregor fight where we had roughly 22 billion impressions,” said Chief Master Sgt. Michael Johnson, Air Force Recruiting Service chief of strategic marketing.

“The UFC is a really great tie for the military in general and, more specifically, the special warfare side of the house. So, it was a no-brainer as we moved forward,” Johnson said. “The UFC draws a young demographic. The UFC also has great equal pay and offers great opportunities for men and women. They also skew well with athletes and the disciplines of athletics.”

While the special warfare Airmen were excited to work out with the UFC fighters, the fighters were equally thrilled to share stories and a workout with the Airmen.

“I expected the Airmen to be in shape and push the pace but they exceeded what I thought was going to happen,” said Dustin Poirier, former interim UFC lightweight champion. “I was trying to keep up with them. It was fun and I have a lot of respect for these guys.”

“It was amazing and an honor to come out here and work with these guys,” said Stephen Thompson, UFC fighter. “When I first got the call, I wanted to know what these guys go through on a day-to-day basis. I knew just coming in here they were fighters. I almost felt like I’ve known them forever just sitting here talking to them.”

While the ultimate goal for special warfare and the UFC are quite obviously different, the fighters and Airmen couldn’t help but talk about the common threads the two groups share.

“It’s not just about who has the most physical capabilities, but who has the mental fortitude to push through the training and push through the suck,” said UFC fighter, Paul Felder. “Just from what I’ve seen that’s all this is about for these guys. They are trying to break you nonstop and that’s how a fight will be. It’s not necessarily who has the most skills in a fight. At the UFC level, we’re all tough and skilled. It’s who has the heart and fortitude to push through.”

The UFC fighters and the Airmen individually talked about common traits and it was clear both are driven to accomplish their missions.

“I think the mental fortitude, the physicality, the elitism comes with both careers and they are very similar in that aspect. You are always pushing yourself to be a better version of yourself,” said Master Sgt. Dave, a pararescueman assigned to Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas. “You train as a team, but it ultimately comes down to individual performances, whether it’s when you’re deployed, in combat, or if it’s in the octagon. You always want to be able to train and build your team, build yourself up in a very tight-knit way to be a better team and a better individual.”

For the Airmen, this was not only a chance to show the capabilities of special warfare, but a chance to learn from the UFC and take some lessons back to the troops.

“I run the combatives program for the Air Force out at the Air Force Academy,” said Tech. Sgt. Jarad, a survival, evasion, resistance and escape instructor. “To be able to come here and see the UFC’s facilities and see what they are doing is amazing. There are things I can take away and possibly make our program better and help train and make our Airmen better.”

Master Sgt. Steven, a special warfare veteran of nearly 18 years, said the sponsorship with UFC can be mutually beneficial. The Air Force can target the younger generations of physically motivated individuals who will be the next wave of special warfare Airmen. For UFC, the partnership reinforces its strong ties with the military.

“To be an MMA (mixed martial arts) fighter, it takes a lot of the same characteristics as special warfare – that mental and physical toughness,” Steven said. “You create your own identity. It’s the same in the ring as it is coming up through the training pipeline. If you really want to do it, you are going to put in the effort to do it. Until you get your beret, you are on the chopping block and the only person who can help you pass is yourself with the work you have to put in. People can teach you the skills, but if you are not willing to learn or put in the effort to achieve, it’s not going to happen.”

The Air Force is embarking on a total force recruiting enterprise approach to recruit the nation’s best talent. In addition to recruiting for the regular Air Force, the Air Force Reserve and the Air National Guard, total force recruiting also encompasses Air Force Academy admissions, Air Force Civilian Talent Acquisition and Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps. The UFC venture is set up to help feed each of these entities.

“In the past, we have placed the Air Force Reserve, Air Force and special warfare banners in the octagon,” Johnson said. “The leads we gather will be directed back to wherever they need to go as part of the total force. Based on the interest of the applicants, we route them to where they best fit into the Air Force.”

In addition to the workouts, Poirier took some time to grapple with two of the special warfare Airmen. One of the Airmen, who is also an MMA fighter, appreciated the time on the mat with the former champ.

“I’m really surprised he was so willing to hop in there with us,” said Staff Sgt. Mark, a special warfare Airman. “He is one of the best fighters in the world and he took the time today to train with us. He said he would do as many rounds as possible. He was doing some moves I had never seen before. He took the time to share some words of advice. I’m definitely going to take that back and implement it into my training.”

Felder is scheduled to fight Dan Hooker as the headline bout in New Zealand, Feb. 22. He said he trains every day, but being able to train with the special warfare Airmen was a welcome difference.

“This is what I do every day no matter what,” he said. “So to be able to come in here with the Airmen and being able to share the mats with them a little bit and talk and get to know them was special. I got some challenge coins and patches, so I’m leaving here with some memorabilia in my pocket that I’m going to take with me to New Zealand for my fight.”

One of UFC’s great champions said he sees why the Air Force is targeting MMA enthusiasts.

“The people who like fighting are the alphas and are the people who can do great things for the military,” said Forrest Griffin, former UFC light heavyweight champion. “The people who are fans of fighting are fans of the most complete and complex sport in the world. Those are the people I want fighting my wars and making important decisions.”

(The last names of special warfare Airmen are omitted for security reasons.)