For the security conscious, walking into a crowded bar usually isn’t your idea of a good time. Crowds are exceptionally good at concealing threats, and those who have built careers (either legitimate or otherwise) by being a threat know that.

These days, I’m a pretty big fella. At six feet tall and around 245 pounds, I’ve spent the better part of my adult life as a gym rat. I may be able to throw 350 pounds around on the bench now, but I didn’t cross over the 300 barrier until I was well into my twenties. Being the “big guy” is, in many ways, not something I’ve had a lifetime to grow accustomed to — and if I’m honest, I still don’t fancy myself as all that big — but then, that may be a product of my raising. Here’s a shot of me (reminder — six feet tall and probably 230 in this shot) with my rugby team from back home a few years ago.

I’m the guy in white shorts. They grow ’em big in Vermont.

Growing up as the “little guy” did a lot of things to me. I’m never afraid to stand and swing with a larger opponent because that’s all I’ve ever done, but it also made me quick to fly off the handle as a young punk, eager to prove that my size wasn’t a handicap in the land of giants. It’s a tale as old as time: the smallest guy in the crew also tends to be the craziest, and I was happy to solidify my place within the stereotype.

In the Marine Corps, I found myself in a very different environment. Suddenly the largest guy in the room, my affinity for weight lifting and combat sports even set me apart from many of the Marines I hung out with. The Marine Corps will give you some good training, but ultimately, it will train you to its own established lowest common denominator. If you let it, the Corps will spit you out after four years as a guy with a bare minimum in hand to hand combat training and a burning hatred for formation runs — but if you want to be better than that, often, all you have to do is ask. And ask. And ask again. Get an endorsement signed by some officer you never met, and then ask some more.

To be fair, I had to do a lot of asking.

Eventually, all that asking landed me a spot on the Corps’ first formally endorsed mixed martial arts team, Fight Club 29. I already earned my brown belt and played two years on the Corps’ West Coast Champion football team before I was given my shot by our Battalion Sergeant Major and terrifying mountain of a fighter, Mark Geletko. Fighting in competitions, I’d come to learn, was much different than fighting in real life — but what makes a winner isn’t. Work hard, be humble and look for lessons to learn – in my opinion, that’s really all it takes.

After some training, I had my first fight with a guy that didn’t look like much of a threat. I was nervous, but I was confident — and then I was very nearly choked out by a shlubby piece of shit with painted fingernails with my wife, my Marines, and my coach all watching. Thankfully, I managed to outlast the choke and go on to win the match, but my brush with embarrassing defeat gave me some important lessons — primary among them being, “don’t assume someone is soft just because they look soft.” That shlubby piece of shit, I learned, was a very capable submission grappler.

After weeks of cutting weight to get down to 185 pounds, my second fight nearly ended before it began when my opponent backed out at the last minute. Fortunately, one of the fighters in the weight class above me also backed out, and the event coordinator approached my coach and I with a proposition: If I was willing to fight someone that outweighed me by twenty pounds, I could still fight. In hindsight, it seems like a decision we should have put more thought into — twenty pounds is a significant advantage (even if it’s made of fat) and I was still smarting from a difficult cut in weight, but I’ve never been afraid to fight the bigger guy, and I agreed before my coach even had a chance to start worrying aloud.

I’ll be honest with you, the fight didn’t go great. Had it been in a bar, I think I may have lost, but because it was in a competition, I was able to outlast my opponent and steal the decision. Half jokingly, I’ve always credited my ability to take punishment for the win – he secured the first round by kicking the living shit out of me, and I won the next two because he was still so tired from kicking the living shit out of me. When the fight ended, I had no idea that I’d won. We were both hurting, both exhausted, and he was too much of a handful for me to allot much attention to my coach or thoughts of points awarded. I was scrambling — looking for submissions, looking for opportunities, and trying to keep my head attached to my body.

Even shaking hands ten minutes after the fight I still looked surprised to have won.

A few years later, as I was training in Brazillian Jiu Jitsu for a short time under Abmar Barbosa, a black belt with a laundry list of world titles — many earned through open weight class competition despite walking around at 180 pounds or so — I once again found myself the biggest guy in the room. And let me tell you, that didn’t mean shit on those mats. I did successfully manage to submit his assistant coach once over the span of a few months, and every time I rolled with Barbosa himself, he smiled and joked his way through somehow gently destroying me, offering tips and words of encouragement along the way.

Over the years, I’ve rolled and swung with tough competitors of all shapes, sizes and genders. I’ve trained alongside women that could kick through bricks and men who could shoulder press me, and the one thing I know for sure as a result is that the big guys aren’t usually the ones you need to worry about in an untrained environment. Sure, some can be really capable fighters, but outside the world of those who do it for a living, most big guys either avoid fights through intimidation or win them through sheer size and leverage. An untrained Grizzly bear of a man can do a whole lot of damage, but a trained opponent can usually mitigate that long enough to put them down.

Technically, I’m a little bit bigger than former UFC Heavyweight Champion Randy Couture but we all know who would win that fight.

Coming from the conventional forces, I had limited experience with special operations service members (other than the Force Recon/MARSOC guys I met around the Corps) when SOFREP hired me, but over the years I’ve had the honor of meeting lots of former and current pipe hitters from SOCOM’s stable. One thing that may surprise many is that most of them are pretty unassuming guys. Navy SEALs, Green Berets, Army Rangers and the like tend not to be huge dudes that are worried about their one-rep maxes, because there’s little practical value in that sort of thing. They train to be the best at what they do, and maintaining three percent body fat and huge delts doesn’t help on nearly any real life mission.

In many cases, these guys need to blend in with crowds – which means looking like The Mountain from Game of Thrones can be more of a liability than it is a benefit in the Special Operations community. If you’ve ever walked around with some guys from CAG or SEAL Team 6, you’ll notice that it isn’t their size that intimidates you, it’s the aura of confidence, their demeanor, and often, the tell-tale strut that’s hard to describe but immediately recognizable — like a guy that’s trying to keep his flip flops on while managing a wrecking ball in his pants. I don’t know if they teach you that walk at BUDS or if it’s just a matter of body mechanics changing after swimming a thousand miles, but it’s nearly universal among elite operators in my experience.

I may be a pretty big guy these days, but the lessons I’ve learned over the past fifteen years or so of competition and combat training tell me that size really doesn’t mean much in a fight. In my head, adding muscle just means added torque on the submissions I’d know whether I weighed 150 or 250 — but it’s really the knowledge that makes me dangerous. Judging a book by its cover (and assuming the small or unassuming looking guy isn’t a threat) is a great way to find yourself getting the life choked out of you in front of your wife in a tournament, but in a life or death situation behind a bar, it’s a great way to lose your life in general.

Take it from a pretty big guy — spending a few hours a day in the gym won’t make you a fighter, and real fighters often don’t look the part. Never underestimate an opponent, and look for body language that’s indicative of athleticism and training. Boxers tend to square their shoulders when confronted, gunfighters stagger their stance.

And if you ever come across a guy walking like he’s wearing flip flops with a bowling ball in his pants, just clear a path.

Image courtesy of Warner Brothers’ Sherlock Homes (2009) on Facebook