Hand to hand combat is an important part of training for every service member, but that doesn’t mean that every service member knows how to fight. In the Marine Corps, every recruit must earn their tan belt (the equivalent of a white belt) in the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program before graduating from recruit training. From there, how high you climb in the belt rank structure is based on your job, your unit’s training schedule, and how fervently you’re willing to pursue getting punched in the face. I can’t claim to be good at a lot of things, but I’ve always been good at getting punched in the face.
By the time I had achieved a brown belt in MCMAP, I had begun training as a part of Fight Club 29. Under the incredible coaching of Sergeant Major Mark Geletko, a group of us would meet in a steel hanger under the beating Twentynine Palms, California sun and proceed to spend our chow times, evenings, and weekends conditioning, training, and beating on one another. On the wall, Coach Geletko had painted the words, “Today I do what no one else will, so tomorrow I may do what no one else can.” This statement permeated throughout his training methodology. He worked you hard, pushing Marines further than even they thought they could go, and rewarded your efforts with a sincere respect and a sense of comradery.
During my time under coach Geletko, I competed at a civilian tournament, winning both of my bouts despite fighting a weight class up due to a poor turnout in the class I’d cut weight to compete in. Soon thereafter I received change of station orders. I hung up my gloves and walked away from the world of competitive martial arts in pursuit of new challenges in a new duty station, but a part of me always missed the time I spent training for what, in my mind, is the purest form of physical competition.
Throughout the next few years, I would earn my black belt, but also undergo a series of surgeries that would ultimately culminate in my separation from the Marine Corps. Nursing my wounds and my ego, I enrolled as a full-time student at Framingham State University in Massachusetts and took what I thought was my rightful place on the elliptical machine at my local gym next to a pleasant older woman named Gladys. She and I would watch Kelly Ripa and Michael Strahan interview celebrities on the TV mounted on the wall in front of us and through my sweat, I’d lament internally about a time when training hurt because it was supposed to, not just because my body had given up.
A few years later, at the ripe “old” age of thirty-one, I had begun to think of fitness as a part of my life I’d left behind. I still worked out, but all I really did was a few beach muscle lifts a day so I could maintain my position as a “fitness guy” on my Instagram account. Bad knees, slipped discs, and concerns about aggravating old injuries kept me from doing the things that once defined me. As a veteran, I prided myself on my days as a warrior, even if I was sure that they were all behind me.
One fateful night, my best friend from high school reached out to me on Facebook. We exchanged the usual pleasantries as we caught up on what was going on in his life and mine. He had fractured a bone in his neck playing rugby a year or two prior and his inability to compete since had left him depressed. He asked how I handled leaving rugby, football and fighting behind, and what I did to keep it from bringing me down.
I thought long and hard about what I could say to him that would help, but nothing came. Finally, I admitted that I didn’t have any secrets to post-competition happiness. I was miserable too. After a few minutes of commiserating, we each agreed that we would go find something. In his eyes, he was a competitor in need of a sport. In my eyes, I was a warrior in need of a fight. We were both right.
A few days after we had that conversation, I reached out to a man named Anthony Penaloza. Anthony ran the North Georgia Academy of Martial Arts and was a Navy Corpsman assigned to the Fleet Marine Force while enlisted. Like me, he had been separated from the military due to injury, but unlike me, he never let that stop him. Penaloza holds advanced black belts in four distinct forms of martial arts and transitions between styles and accompanying languages as casually and fluidly as I might talk about television shows. I was immediately impressed by the way he carried himself, and asked if he’d be willing to take me on as a student.
Of course, I presented him with a list of reasons why I wouldn’t make a good one. My knees don’t work, my back is a constant problem, and my flexibility could be compared to that of a cinder block. As far as Anthony was concerned, however, none of those were problems. He refused to accept payment until I was certain his style of training was right for me, and started training me a number of times a week during the work day.
After a few months of one on one sessions, my feet were moving like they hadn’t since I was a young lance corporal. I was able to touch my toes without wincing and, to my abject surprise, I was starting to feel like a fighter again. I came home from training sessions feeling energized rather than exhausted and I even went out and bought my own punching bag so I could continue to work on the techniques Anthony taught me.
Anthony’s teaching focuses on combat applications, and the terms he uses sound familiar to those of us that spent time in the service. “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast,” can be heard repeated in nearly every session. When you attend training under Anthony Penaloza, you can always expect an experience that feels as much like grueling combat training as it does a sermon. His faith and his strength and are one in the same.
Currently, a small group of Anthony’s students meet in the basement of a local house once a week. My wife calls it “the old man fight club,” though there are some young bloods that participate with us older guys. During an early session, we were wrapping up our day with a bit of light sparring and I took a solid right hand to the chin. My partner hadn’t meant to land it as well as he had and for a split second he dropped his guard to check to see if I was all right. We were both exhausted, and were both genuinely trying to put a hurting on one another, but that sense of comradery I hadn’t felt since my time in boot bands made us also want to keep each other safe. We were warriors, training for a fight that might never come, but equally invested in one another’s safety and wellbeing.
I realized then what it was that I missed so much: it wasn’t just that I missed being in a fight, though I did. It felt great to have a good reason to hurt again. The taste of a fat lip was like a phone call from an ex-girlfriend; it wasn’t necessarily a good thing, but something about it still felt sort of right. More so however, I missed having someone to fight alongside. In a few short months, Anthony Penaloza had given me the ability to move my old joints in ways I thought I never would again, then he had given me new skills I never possessed as a young man, and finally, he had given me a chance to feel a kind of comradery I’d all but forgotten about – a comradery born in pain.
I told Anthony that I would be writing an article about rediscovering a part of myself that I’d lost since my days in the Marine Corps, and the significant role he had played in it. As always, he responded with the measured positivity he’d use when coaching you out of a choke hold or ordering a pizza. He was happy to be a part of the journey, as well as the article. He always speaks as though he knows how things will turn out well before any of us, and somehow, he tends to be right. He credits his faith for his ability to roll with the punches (both literally and metaphorically) and frequently tells me to put my problems in God’s hands. He argues, focus on what you’re doing right now, and trust the rest to fall into place.
“If you need to build a wall, don’t spend all of your time thinking about the scale of the project or what can go wrong. Focus all of your attention on the brick you’re laying right now. Do it as perfectly as you can. Then move on to the next brick,” Anthony told me as we cleaned up after training, “If you keep laying bricks as perfectly as you can, the wall will come.”
I know that, five surgeries and countless broken bones in, I’m not the Devil Dog I once was. No amount of training could give me back the cartilage that’s missing or bring elasticity back to my ligaments. But thanks to lacing up my gloves and throwing some punches, I’ve learned that what made me who I was back before I got hurt never left. I’m still a warrior. I’ve still got plenty of fight left in me. I just needed to be in the company of other warriors once again to remember. We didn’t become brothers back in the barracks because of how much time we spent together, we became brothers because we hurt together, and held one another up when it hurt too much.
Neither Anthony nor I wear uniforms anymore, but that brotherhood of pain is still alive and well for us today, and it can be for you. How hard you train after separating from the military or recovering from injury can be based on your job, your family’s schedule and in some cases, how fervently you’re willing to pursue getting punched in the face. I’m proud to say that, after years of self-doubt, getting punched in the face is still something I’m pretty damn good at. And now I’ve got a group of brothers I can share that with once again.