Mark Geletko has always been a fighter. Before enlisting into the United States Marine Corps, Geletko was already a Golden Gloves boxer. He would go on to serve as an infantry Marine and military police officer, serve two tours as a drill instructor, become a Marine Corps Martial Arts Instructor Trainer and eventually achieve the rank of sergeant major. Most importantly to Geletko, he led Marines in multiple combat tours throughout the War on Terror, most notably as a part of the 7th Marine Regiment. According to him, it afforded him the opportunity to serve alongside young Marines that were “far and away the best young men that our country has to offer.” The now-retired sergeant major went on to tell me that he feels that he “was blessed to be in their presence.”

But despite Mark Geletko’s well-deserved reputation among Marines as a combat-hardened leader worthy of respect and admiration, I didn’t meet him on the battlefield. I met “Coach Geletko” while he was doing the only thing he may love even more than leading Marines: teaching them.

When I was stationed in Twentynine-Palms, I had the honor of serving under Geletko, who was our battalion Sergeant Major at the time.  He devoted the few hours a day he wasn’t working to coaching our battalion and base football team as well as founding the Marine Corps’ first Mixed Martial Arts team, Fight Club 29.  While I’m not certain Geletko is aware of this, those of us fortunate enough to find ourselves under his charge had a nickname for the man back then: The Kodiak Bear.

Geletko frequently led battalion PT, and despite standing a few inches taller than my own six-foot height and having shoulders that make my two hundred and thirty pound frame look downright tiny, he could keep up on runs, out pull, and out shout the best his NCOs had to offer.  I still have a picture of me running alongside the Sergeant Major on the cover of a binder I keep my Marine Corps paperwork in – me in my prime, panting to keep pace with the Battalion colors, and the towering Sergeant Major beside me, looking as though he was just warming up.

And indeed he was.

Geletko didn’t stop training after enlisting into the Corps, instead he took the opportunities his frequent deployments and change of station orders provided him to train in various other forms of martial arts, honing his hand to hand combat skills over decades of adopting and mastering new styles.

“The whole Marine concept only fueled my desire to compete more. I was able to box in smokers and tournaments around the Corps and be exposed to Shotokan karate, Taekwondo, kickboxing and Muay Thai and to train and compete in shows and tournaments in those disciplines.” Geletko told me when I got a hold of him last week.