USMC brass denies Sgt. TUF slot

Monday, March 01, 2010

Corps delays Lockhart’s UFC dream
Marines to use mixed martial arts TV show as recruiting tool but then block sergeant’s participation

It was an opportunity most fighters dream about but few ever achieve.

Sgt. George Lockhart, an instructor trainer at the Martial Arts Center of Excellence here, beat out hundreds of other applicants late last year and earned an invitation to appear on “The Ultimate Fighter,” a reality television show in which professional mixed martial arts fighters live, train and fight together for a chance to win a multifight, six-figure contract with the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

Contestants on the program become household names within the billion-dollar MMA industry, pushing their careers to heights that likely would take years to achieve otherwise. Now entering its 11th season, the show is credited with boosting the sport’s popularity, attracting enough 17- to 24-year-old viewers each week that the Marine Corps — seeing a potential recruiting gold mine — has signed on with the UFC as an official advertising partner.

But for Lockhart, it wasn’t meant to be — at least for now. Despite the Corps’ endorsement of the “The Ultimate Fighter,” the commanding general of Training and Education Command told Lockhart he couldn’t go. Op tempo at MACE is too high to accommodate the six weeks of leave he would have needed for taping, Brig. Gen. Melvin Spiese decided.

Plus, Spiese worried the barbaric behavior displayed by some contestants during past seasons could become a public relations nightmare for the Corps, reflecting poorly on Lockhart and the service, according to 2nd Lt. Brian “Scott” Villiard, a TECom spokesman.

But the decision to deny Lockhart a shot at the UFC could cost the Corps anyway. With about a year and half left on his enlistment, the 27-year-old fighter — nicknamed “Loaded” for the string of tattooed bullets that wrap around his right forearm — says that while he loves being a Marine martial arts instructor, he is not ready to give up his dream of UFC stardom and may forgo a career in the Corps to focus full time on fighting.

“It’s still up in the air,” Lockhart said in February. “If I could work [at MACE] for 20 years, I’d stay in the Marine Corps for 20 years.”

The path of a righteous Marine

Lockhart was just 16 when he fought in his first amateur cage match. At 18, he had his first pro fight, a loss to Edwin “Baby Face” Dewees. Soon after that, in 2001, Lockhart followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the Corps, becoming a special communications signals analyst.

With two combat tours in Iraq behind him — the first in 2005, the second two years later — Lockhart’s résumé is intimidating enough, but it is his massive biceps that likely gives Willie Smalls nightmares still. In October, “Loaded” Lockhart used a rear chokehold to beat him by submission less than 40 seconds into the second round of their bout at Atlanta’s Sin City Fight Club.

A devout Christian who often quotes from the Bible, Lockhart said fighting strengthens his body and his mind. His attitude and work ethic have won the trust and admiration of his commanders, who are in awe of the grueling schedule he keeps and his ability to balance his responsibilities as a Marine with those of a pro fighter determined to make it big.

Soon after the fight with Smalls, Lockhart took leave, telling his commander at MACE, retired Lt. Col. Joseph Shusko, that he wanted to try out for “The Ultimate Fighter” series scheduled to air this spring. Shusko granted the request, and on Oct. 26, Lockhart found himself at the Renaissance Los Angeles Hotel alongside 271 other professional fighters — 190 middleweights, like him, and 81 light heavyweights.

The fighters were weighed and randomly matched for a two-minute brawl on the mats. Lockhart won his match and moved on to the second round in which the contestants were judged on their power, speed, movement and endurance. In the third round, UFC officials along with the show’s producers conducted character interviews.

“I just went in and started telling them who I was, what I was about and why I wanted to go on the show,” Lockhart said. “I told them I was a United States Marine, born and bred. My father was a Marine, and this is who I am. They were very interested, obviously, in that aspect.”

Disappointed but understanding

After returning to Quantico, Lockhart told Shusko that the tryout had gone well, and over the next few weeks, his chain of command weighed whether Lockhart — if selected — should be allowed to go. Shusko supported the six-week leave, telling Marine Corps Times in February that he always encourages his guys to chase their dreams, provided they remain true to who they are as Marines.

“I can’t speak for anybody else, but I can tell you that here at the MACE, as long as they are doing their job, if they want to participate with MMA on their own time, I don’t have a problem with it as long as they maintain our Corps’ standards,” Shusko said. “I don’t think my guys would ever cross that line because they don’t want to ruin what they have in regard to representing our country, our Corps and everything.”

But Spiese had the final say. The decision wasn’t personal, Villiard said, and had nothing to do with the general’s feelings toward the UFC. Villiard declined to say how the general views the organization, saying only that the decision was made in Lockhart’s best interest and that of the service.

The roughly 20 instructors at MACE are responsible not only for teaching future instructors and instructor trainers of the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program, they also train every lieutenant who attends The Basic School, the first stop for newly commissioned officers.

“When we look at UFC, we see a professional organization with guys that conduct themselves in an exemplary manner all the time. They know how to separate work from play, but some of the people that come onto these reality TV shows aren’t necessarily of that character,” Villiard said. “If you put a Marine in a house with individuals that may be of that lesser caliber, it may be detrimental to that Marine because he doesn’t have control over what other people do and say, and even just being surrounded by that stuff might make him look bad.”

In previous seasons, contestants on “The Ultimate Fighter” drank alcohol liberally as the cameras documented them destroying property and mercilessly harassing their roommates, including one notorious incident in which a contestant unknowingly ate food that a housemate had urinated on.

A spokesman for Spike TV, which airs “The Ultimate Fighter,” said it’s difficult to predict participants’ behavior as some seasons are calmer than others. However, the show’s producers never “manipulate reality,” he said.

“It’s real life. It’s how these guys live,” Spike spokesman David Schwarz said. “You could have a season where it’s business as usual and there wouldn’t be anything the Marine Corps would object to, I would imagine, but some seasons you may get guys who love to pull pranks or drink too much.”

Lockhart admits the living arrangements in as Vegas would have been tough, though he is convinced he would not have been tempted by the other guys in the house.

“It drives me crazy. I see a lot of the guys drinking on the show, and I don’t think they have the discipline that the Marine Corps instills in us to get to their goal,” Lockhart said. “… I’d be like, ‘drink up,’ because that just increases my chances of making it that much further.”

And while he is disappointed by the Corps’ decision, Lockhart said he understands why it was made.

“I’ve told a lot of people in my chain, it’s like a little kid that has a Christmas present that he wants but he didn’t get for Christmas,” he said. “Obviously, you are going to wish you had it, but I got over it real quickly. It’s not my final shot or anything of that nature.”

Two schools of thought

Lockhart may be one of the toughest MMA fighters in the Corps, but his situation is not unique. Former Capt. Brian Stann, a Silver Star recipient who used to train with Lockhart regularly, fought in several World Extreme Cagefighting matches while on active duty.

Though he, too, had the support of his immediate supervisors, Stann told Marine Corps Times shortly after leaving the service in 2008 that some Marines didn’t approve of him fighting. In fact, lawyers with II Marine Expeditionary Force, his parent command at the time, sent a message to Headquarters Marine Corps seeking to quash his ability to fight professionally.

The Corps does not have a policy addressing the issue, leaving the decision to individual commanders, Villiard said.

When his contract expired, Stann decided to leave the Corps and focus on his fighting career full time. He won the WEC lightweight championship by knocking out former champion Doug Marshall less than two weeks after hanging up his cammies. He now competes in the UFC but has struggled in his last few fights. He lost his most recent bout, Feb. 6, to champion wrestler Phil Davis.

Army Staff Sgt. Tim Kennedy, a Special Forces soldier and Strikeforce fighter, is all too familiar with the roadblocks military life can impose on troops who moonlight as pro fighters. He lobbied unsuccessfully for two years to remain on active duty while pursuing his MMA career. In August, he found a home in the 19th Special Forces Group, which is part of the Texas National Guard. There, he teaches combat marksmanship and combatives full time to soldiers preparing to deploy. He also acts as the spokesman for his new unit and helps with recruiting.

“There are a group of people [in the military] that have grasped that this is the fastest growing sport in America and that every kid from 14 to 30 years of age loves MMA. They get that and want to support it, and they know that the troops love it and it’s great for morale,” Kennedy said. “Then there are the others that just won’t let it happen. I don’t think they know the opportunities they are missing out on.”

Marine officials acknowledge that within their service there are two schools of thought on UFC and the like: one that embraces the shared warrior spirit, and one that believes the sport is perpetuated by crazed barbarians. Still, some regard the Corps’ recent partnership with UFC as evidence that overall opinions may be shifting.

“There are always going to be individuals that don’t understand the sport and are very closed-minded about seeing what the sport is, but the reality is that it has developed into a competition with regulations just like the” National Football League, said Capt. Salvatore Nigro, the action officer on the UFC partnership with Marine Corps Recruiting Command. “It’s one of the top-rated programs in sports that viewers of our prospective market are watching.”

Officials with Recruiting Command would not disclose what the Corps has spent so far on its deal with UFC.

As part of that new partnership, the Corps will air a series of new recruiting advertisements during “The Ultimate Fighter” that emphasize similarities between the two organizations. Additionally, several Marines will appear on one episode and act as mentors to the show’s contestants. Nigro said details are still being worked out, but MACE instructors most likely will be the first Marines chosen to participate.

Lockhart hopes he gets an opportunity to fill that role.

“My first job is not a fighter, it’s a Marine. And it’s a Marine martial arts instructor trainer,” he said. “I think it would be awesome if I could go on the show doing what I really do, which is being a leader and mentoring individuals.”

In the meantime, Lockhart has jumped back into his regular routine, working out several times a day and helping the other MACE-based Marines train a new class of instructor trainers. He has already turned down one fight offer because it would have conflicted with his active-duty responsibilities, but he doesn’t seem too concerned.

He may have missed this chance to try out for the UFC, but Lockhart is confident another will come along one day.

“There are always fights,” he said. “It’s not going to happen overnight, but I’m going to train to the best of my ability and wait for that phone call.”

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