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Airman earns spot on Arizona’s Combatives Team

Senior Airman Ed Small, right is declared the victor in his final Mixed Martial Arts match at the Arizona National Guard Combatives Team tryouts Jan. 15. He won a place on the team and the light heavyweight division at 205 pounds. Small, an aircraft maintainer at the 162nd Fighter Wing, was the only Airman at the tryouts. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Dave Morgan)

Senior Airman Ed Small, right, is declared the victor in his final Mixed Martial Arts match at the Arizona National Guard Combatives Team tryouts Jan. 15. He won a place on the team and the light heavyweight division at 205 pounds. Small, an aircraft maintainer at the 162nd Fighter Wing, was the only Airman at the tryouts. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Dave Morgan)

Senior Airman Ed Small, bottom, grapples in a ‘full-guard’ position in an attempt to get his opponent to submit and ‘tap out.’ Airman Small was the only Air National Guard member to try out for, and earn a spot on, the Arizona National Guard Combatives Team Jan. 15. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Dave Morgan)

Senior Airman Ed Small, bottom, grapples in a ‘full-guard’ position in an attempt to get his opponent to submit and ‘tap out.’ Airman Small was the only Air National Guard member to try out for, and earn a spot on, the Arizona National Guard Combatives Team Jan. 15. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Dave Morgan)

Senior Airman Ed Small, left, reaches for his opponent’s collar during a grappling match at the Arizona National Guard Combatives Team tryouts Jan. 15. He won his division in the 205-pound weight class. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Dave Morgan)

Senior Airman Ed Small, left, reaches for his opponent’s collar during a grappling match at the Arizona National Guard Combatives Team tryouts Jan. 15. He won his division in the 205-pound weight class. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Dave Morgan)

Senior Airman Ed Small waits for his next match at the Arizona National Guard Combatives Team tryouts Jan. 15. Competitors wear the Army Combat Uniform or Airman Battle Uniform without boots. For grappling and Pancrase matches, they must also leave their shirts unbuttoned to allow their opponents to effectively grab their clothes for throws and takedowns. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Dave Morgan)

Senior Airman Ed Small waits for his next match at the Arizona National Guard Combatives Team tryouts Jan. 15. Competitors wear the Army Combat Uniform or Airman Battle Uniform without boots. For grappling and Pancrase matches, they must also leave their shirts unbuttoned to allow their opponents to effectively grab their clothes for throws and takedowns. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Dave Morgan)

TUCSON, Ariz. -- Hand-to-hand combat training for the U.S. military is designed to save lives on the battlefield. On the wrestling mat, in the ring or in the octagon, the Army calls it 'Combatives,' and there it's about competition and sharpening one's skills.

One Airman assigned to the 162nd Fighter Wing punched, kicked and choked his way onto the Arizona National Guard Combatives Team during a tryout held at a Tucson boxing gym Jan. 15. It was widely acknowledged that he was the only 'Air guy' at the event. The fact that he was twice the age of the youngest competitor was not.

Senior Airman Ed Small, 41, is an aircraft maintainer who specializes in F-16 Fighting Falcon engines. He joined the wing less than a year ago after serving five years in the Army when he was in his early 20s.

"I came back [as a traditional Guardsman] for the love of the military," said Airman Small, who works full time as a water treatment specialist for Water Energy Systems Technology, Inc. "I heard such great things about the Air Guard. I wanted to become a part of the team. The people are great and it's a big family."

For the last three years, he's spent much of his spare time studying Brazilian Jujitsu.

"On the first day I went, I loved it. I thought, 'This is it!' So I started going regularly and eventually began going to tournaments," said Small.

He competed in the 205-pound weight class against an all-Army group of challengers for a place on the 2011 team. Not only did he earn a spot but he won first place in his division.

"It was exciting to see the competition," said Senior Master Sgt. Sandra Ahern, a fellow 162nd member who attended the tryout as part of event contributing organization the Enlisted Association National Guard of Arizona.

"In the Air Guard that type of environment isn't as common as it might be in the Army where [hand-to-hand combat] may be a core skill set. It was unique to see Airman Small crossing over into the Army world just a little. For me, as a fellow Airman, a fellow wing member, I couldn't help but cheer him on."

Combatives, as a sport, takes contestants through three, increasingly-grueling, matches - grappling, Pancrase, and Mixed Martial Arts. The first match, grappling, consists of wrestling and Jujitsu. The second match, Pancrase, involves open hand strikes to the face and head, closed fist strikes to the body and kicks to the lower body. The final match, Mixed Martial Arts, allows an array of strikes and submission holds to virtually all parts of the body.

Winners are determined based on an intricate scoring system, or if one fighter is knocked out or concedes the fight by 'tapping out.'

"The Army is taking this by storm," said Airman Small. "They're holding classes, they have programs and gyms dedicated to combatives. It's even part of their basic training."

But for Small the sport isn't a professional requirement, or even a hobby.

"I call it a challenge to myself because I have to stay in shape and I have to keep my weight down. I have to be in shape beyond what it takes to pass a PT test.

"Actually going against somebody else who's trying to take you down, you have to dig deep inside yourself and you have to try to win. If I run two miles a day and my opponent runs two miles a day but adds 10 sprints then I have to add 10 sprints or more," he said.

Though his challengers ranged in age from 20 to 28 years old, Small said confidence made the real difference.

"If I believe in myself and my skills then I don't think age matters. I just feel so much better doing this... so much more alive. I plan on doing this a long time," said Airman Small who was sure to express his gratitude for the support he's received from the Air Guard.

"The 162nd has been so supportive. I'd like to thank Master Sgt. Brett Garrett, Command Chief Shane Clark, Senior Master Sgt. Ahern, Master Sgt. Dave Morgan and the wing for helping me participate."

Small's next step will be some team practice and preparation before heading to the nation-wide competition at Fort Benning, Ga., this September.