When you raise your right hand and swear an oath to defend the constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, it means you are a soldier, sailor, airman, or a marine first and foremost. When Uncle Sam calls, your primary function is to complete the mission he gives you and all your hobbies, interests, and desires are subordinated to the needs of the services. So if you’re the duck calling champion of western Kansas and you’re brigade from Fort Riley gets picked to go to Iraq, then you won’t be defending your title this year. With 150,000 troops overseas and everyone sharing multiple deployments, training for an alternate career as an MMA fighter seems ludicrous. But that’s just what Damien Stelly (10-2, 0-0 UFC) is doing.
Following in the footsteps of Marine Lieutenant Brian Stann and Army Sergeant Tim Kennedy, Stelly is looking to make an impact in MMA at this weekend’s Bellator middleweight tournament despite being a full time soldier.
“I’m a combatives instructor and it’s still hard to find the time to train,” Stelly says. “I know there are hundreds of soldiers out there who have it worse than me too. They’d train and fight if they had the time to.”
Stelly is lucky. He’s now assigned to the Modern Army Combatives Program (MACP) at Fort Benning, Georgia where he teaches hand-to-hand combatives to troops. It’s an assignment that affords him more resources than the average soldier has, so he can stay in fighting shape. But when his MMA career began, his only training consisted of the grueling lifestyle of an Army Ranger, which foments a selfless attitude and demands one hundred percent and then some.
Born and raised in TUF alum Tim Creduer’s hometown of Lafayette, Louisiana, Stelly enlisted in the Army just before 9-11 in the elite 3rd Ranger Battalion at Fort Benning. Finding the time to sharpen his MMA skills took a back seat to kicking in doors and engaging targets with his M4 carbine. Since then he’s had three combat tours including the initial assault into Afghanistan in 2001.
His life changed in 2004 when the Chief of Staff of the Army, General Peter Schoomaker made an Army-wide policy that all soldiers would be trained in hand-to-hand combatives. Up until then hand-to-hand was practiced mostly by elite units while the rest of the force abandoned it as a relic of past wars. Stelly was one of the first men chosen to be an instructor at the MACP and he used that time to hone his skills and enter local fights. Since then he’s amassed a record of 10-2 at a hodge podge of events across the south and was the Army over-205 pound champion in 2005.
But then he went back to the Ranger Battalion for another tour where the demands of living at the tip of the spear presented Stelly with the same difficult decision that Army Staff Sergeant and Green Beret Tim Kennedy faced-be a soldier or be a fighter. There simply weren’t enough hours in the day to be successful at both. “I loved being a Ranger,” Stelly says. “But I enjoy training myself and the troops over at the MACP too. I’d love to have the same deal that Kennedy has now, but we’re in different units.”
Tim Kennedy recently signed a deal with the Army to fight full time and stay on active duty. Kennedy will travel the country training as a professional fighter while assigned to the Special Operations Recruiting Battalion at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
This weekend Stelly will have his chance to show he deserves the same deal when he fights in Bellator’s middleweight tournament, where more than money is on the line.
“I want to represent the Army and show what we can do,” he says. “Soldiers might not train twice a day like pro fighters, but we’re just as hungry to win and have just as much heart as anybody. I definitely want to go out there, win the fight, and give a big victory yell. That’s my mission.”