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.

“The great thing about the Corps was not only the exposure to these disciplines but the eagerness of like-minded Marines to train with me. Through my exposure to Muay Thai in my travels in the Corps, I was able to train and earn my advanced certification as a Black and Red Prajiet level instructor from the American Fighter Muay Thai System and Kru Jimmy Canales. So being in the Corps definitely helped me progress as a fighter and ultimately as a coach and trainer.”

After playing football for Coach Geletko, I approached him at the end of the season to ask if he’d allow me to come out and train with his team of fighters, Fight Club 29.  I was a neighborhood tough guy; the best grappler in my circle of friends but little more.  Coach Geletko, perhaps because he saw potential, or perhaps because he wanted to throw me a bone, agreed—and I soon found myself knee deep in some of the most grueling and rewarding training I’ve ever experienced.

Although retired, Coach Geletko chose to remain in Twentynine Palms, California, where he continues to serve the United States military as a contractor, and continues to coach his team that has gained a reputation within the fighting community as among the most competitive in the sport.  The team has won no less than sixteen various championships, including the California State Pankration/Combat Grappling Championship on five separate occasions. At least eight of his fighters have gone on to win individual championships as well, and Fight Club 29 has fielded five different fighters for the World Combat Grappling/MMA Games in Europe over the past six years.

Geletko himself was selected to serve as the head coach for the United States World Combat Grappling/MMA Team in Belgrade, Serbia in 2011. His team went on to win Silver, beating out Russia and succumbing only to the medal count of the Ukraine at the event.

“I was honored to be able to represent my country on the international stage and be successful. The team took the Silver Medal for the competition, against 23 other countries,” Geletko recalled. “I have been asked every year since to go back and be on the coaching staff, but work or family events have not allowed it. I may get the opportunity this upcoming year.”

It’s been nine years since I hit the mats with Coach Geletko, and while I seem to keep getting slower, it doesn’t appear as though he’s lost a single step. I had to ask him how he manages to keep pushing, lacing up the gloves and rolling with America’s best fighters.

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“I am driven by the energy of these young men and women that I am blessed to train on a daily basis. I don’t really care for people my age, I’d much rather be around young people and help them in their life’s journey, whether it be in the Marine Corps, fitness or martial arts, or all of the above. I spend the week training these guys and get to see my college age kids most weekends, so I thrive in the world of 20 somethings and I love it.”

His team, which trains in the 7TH Marines Ripper Gym on base in Twentynine Palms, is all about developing talented fighters that carry themselves as professionals both in uniform and in the cage. Despite their long list of accomplishments, championships, and awards, I was pleased to learn that their training environment hasn’t changed much since my days sparring in the desert.

“It is a converted supply warehouse with no heat or air conditioning, but we were able to lay our wrestling mats down and hang our heavy bags and pad the walls to make it home. It is pretty Spartan, but our fighters seem to take pride in the fact that we have to overcome some adversity to reach our training goals.”

Their minimalist training environment, while likely in part a byproduct of Geletko’s refusal to accept payment from the fighters he and his team of volunteer coaches train, also speaks to the fighter turned coach’s priorities.

“It comes down again to the willingness to work hard and put in the time.  My Marines know that they have to take time for extra cardio and watch their diets, hydrate, rest, etcetera. It has to become a lifestyle. They also need to be humble, there is always someone better than you in some aspect of this sport, someone you can learn from…even as a coach.”

Coach Geletko has two fighters that will be competing in February at the World Fighting Championships in Las Vegas, Nick Kimball and Xavier Vines; both grapplers that are making the transition to mixed martial arts in large part thanks to Coach Geletko’s training. He also has two amateur boxers that will see action in the Southern California Battle of the Badges Show this March, Elizabeth Rock and Jarod Jones.

Despite the incredible things Coach Geletko’s fighters have accomplished since the team’s inception in 2005, he’s reluctant to take any of the credit.

“Iron sharpens iron, and we throw these guys in a room full of competitive fighters who are also Marines and it tests their will and strengthens their character. Most of us are fueled by the opportunity to compete, I just give these Marines the venue and stoke the fire a bit.”

Geletko’s vision for Fight Club 29, and for his team of fighters, continues to grow.  He is still working to find sponsors and network with promoters to ensure his team gets every chance to compete at the highest levels possible, and if past experience is any indicator, Coach Geletko will achieve whatever he sets out to do.  Again, however, Geletko’s humble and genuinely good nature prevents him from taking the credit for all he’s accomplished.

“The Good Lord has truly blessed a scoundrel like me. I don’t deserve it.”

You can follow Fight Club 29 here.