Journey to Camp Lincoln


It’s early March and I find myself about a week removed from Bellator 150 in Mulvane, Kansas. I open the door to the bedroom of my dorm and take note of my travel bag that’s been sitting on the floor for a week with the clothes still inside.

My phone rings–my step-cousin and “brother” Ian, a member of the Illinois National Guard, then proceeds to tell me that much like Nate Diaz, he has agreed to compete in a military grappling event on roughly two weeks notice (and with zero training.) He asks if I want to tag along.–Always on the hunt for my next fight fix, I re-washed those old clothes and was back out the door.

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We find ourselves in Springfield, Illinois entering a dingy motel room some time later as I reek of the smell of Hardee’s french fries. That’s where I met Sergeant Colin “Mitch” Mitchell.

After brief idle chit-chat between Ian, Mitch, and Mitch’s roommate/cornerman Diego Bruno, I interject with a tongue sharp enough to cut a two dollar steak. They laugh. Mitch (a poor man’s Dolph Lundgren) smiles, revealing Quench brand thirst-quenching gum. Like Ian, he’s been cutting weight.

“Today he’s chewing bubblegum; tomorrow he’ll be kicking a**”, I think to myself as “Rowdy” Roddy Piper’s famous line in “They Live” springs to mind as I observe the scene like Jane Goodall among gorillas.

A native of Chicago’s suburbs, Mitchell has been a member of the National Guard since 2011 after having enlisted to pay for college like so many others I’ve come across, and a third-year “Combatives” (grappling/ Jiu-Jitsu) veteran heading into his fourth tournament at this point.

“We had about a day of actual training and rolling, but I was hooked after that. When my drill sergeant told us we would not be competing against the other platoons due to time issues she noticed the disappointed look on my face. She looked over and said “Mitchell! Why you so sad?!”

I told her that there was a very large soldier I wanted to roll against from one of the other platoons. So she had that soldier sent over and we fought on the bay floor for a good half hour until I pinned him. Neither of us knew enough to finish the other off, and in my first year at my first unit I competed for soldier of the year, and one of the events was a round robin combative tournament, which I won undefeated.”

He takes the cut well, having learned from Basic Training that a hot meal can be a rarity at times.

“I honestly think I was in shock through most of it. A lot of soldiers went through it without batting an eye, and many cracked broke down and a couple washed out. For me, the shock never really hit.

From one of the first few days I got into the habit of telling myself I’d always been there and would always been there.

Once that mindset set in I didn’t miss home because I’d forced myself to forget about home. I didn’t mind the hard work and appreciated the few high points because there was nothing outside the frame of reference of that square kilometer I lived on.”

They all return that evening on weight before we pile in Mitch’s car and venture off to TGI Friday’s where the failed vegetarian orders a steak so rare that he wanted it to “walk onto his plate.”

I’m still not quite sure he understands the concept of a HOT meal.

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The 2016 Illinois Army National Guard Modern Army Combatives Championships sounds prestigious doesn’t it?

It does until you realize that the venue is a chilling armory building at 7 a.m. with the event held on basic wrestling mats that smell of sweat and shame and bring middle school to the forefront of your cranium. None of that mattered to us though. A fight’s a fight.

Despite a valiant effort given the fact that he basically just showed up, Ian goes 1-2 for the day after submitting to a Cross Collar Choke and Americana lock respectively with a decision victory in between to keep him on the hook for next year.

Sergeant Mitchell on the other hand is a different story. After coming up short in previous years, this time around he was out for a medal. Moreover, he was simply out to be better.

“I think my motivation to compete comes from the pursuit of excellence…No one who doesn’t roll, fight, or compete one-on-one will understand this, but you become a different person after you win a hard match. Accomplishing a goal you’ve suffered for, to overcome another man alone, head-to-head is like nothing else. What people definitely don’t understand is direct competition like this usually breeds more respect between competitors, not less.”

Running on a diet of plain potatoes, eggs, greens, and two gallons of water a day over the last two weeks (before being reduced to only gum), he steps on the mat in only his military uniform and designating colored Gi belt to square off with fellow Welterweights (155 pounds in this case, and around a 20 pound cut for Mitchell.)

Mitch drops his first bout after failed takedowns and holding on to the same straight ankle lock until his opponent won on points.

His second contest gets off to the same rough start on the feet before being tripped. His counterpart clears half guard with ease and goes for a Rear-Naked Choke. Mitch mirrors that after his man goes too high and is shucked off onto his back. The first win has come.

Tiring, the Windy City resident soon learns that he will be facing the same combatant that edged out a win earlier that morning. A hip throw ends with Mitch in side-control before a failed Americana. A Cross Collar comes into play again but fails as the nameless opponent continues to buck while on defense.

Fortunately and once again in side-control, the Americana presents itself again from the opposite side. Mitch has one bout to go: his medal round.

Right out of the gate the aggression level was a mismatch and Mitch slithers his way into a body lock, pummeling his man.

“From there I threw myself back and kicked out one of his legs as I twisted to the side, landing in his guard. I stood up to escape but he tripped me and we separated. Before he could recover I pounced and went for an ankle lock. Eventually he escaped and reestablished his guard and completed a collar choke.”

Regardless of the outcome of the last battle, after four years of on-and-off training Mitchell walked away with a medal in hand and looking to return again for the big prize. Oh, and he’s getting his master’s degree in Applied Mathematics upon graduation in December.

“I’ve never been in combat, but I do feel the skills I’ve learned rolling would keep me safe if someone attacked me on the street…I’ve had to be a soldier, a student, and most importantly an adult first and a martial artist second, but that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped or quit.

As cheesy as this sounds dreams are a marathon not a sprint.”

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#AROUNDMMA