Oliver Copp, UFC - On April 27 and 28, the Ultimate Fighting Championship teamed up with Armed Forces Entertainment to visit five U.S. military bases in Germany where fighters Dan Hardy, Mike Swick, Jon Fitch and Octagon girl Edith Labelle were received by hundreds of enthusiastic servicemen.
By Oliver Copp
It's no secret that there are many UFC fans among the U.S. Armed Forces stationed in Germany. Many things that are needed for a successful career inside the Octagon are absolutely essential for the men and women of the military who are often deployed to areas of conflict all over the world to protect freedom and democracy. From obvious things like hand-to-hand combat to more advanced topics such as proper nutrition, there are a lot more similarities than meet the eye.
After having taken part in Essen's annual fitness and bodybuilding expo FIBO, UFC's stars were taken to their first stop on the tour, Air Force base Spangdahlem in the Eifel part of Germany, where they had breakfast with the troops at 7am on Monday morning. Afterwards, Mike Swick, Dan Hardy and Jon Fitch held a seminar on proper nutrition before a group of young Air Force recruits. The one-hour Q&A session definitely turned out to be the highlight of their day, as they learned a lot about supplements, dieting, good and bad carbs and much more.
An hour later, the three found themselves on the mat with some of the base's finest martial artists, giving them pointers on proper execution of grappling techniques. They demonstrated and discussed everything from how to properly shoot in for a takedown to perfecting a triangle choke to some holds that hurt while just watching them being executed. And during all this, there was never a dull moment. In fact, everybody was all smiles even before it was time to take pictures with their UFC idols at the end of the seminar.
Jon Fitch was perplexed, to say the least.
"We're just normal people compared to these men and women who risk their lives every single day so we can excel in our chosen professions. They are the true stars, not us."
Afterwards, everybody headed to the base's community center, "The Brick House", where hundreds of soldiers were already waiting to get autographs and their pictures taken with UFC's stars. In the early afternoon, it was time to bid farewell to Spangdahlem and leave for Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, the U.S. Armed Forces' biggest medical center outside the United States.
Edith, Jon, Mike and Dan visited soldiers there who had recently been wounded in action and were receiving treatment in Landstuhl. Despite their injuries, everybody was smiling from ear to ear and some quickly scrambled to call their best friends on their cell phones, saying things along the lines of "You'll never believe who just walked in." One thing that truly made a lasting impression on the UFC group was that everybody they met urgently wanted to return to their units. "Their dedication is absolutely unbelievable“, Mike Swick said.
Within the LRMC compound is the "USO Warrior Center", which is operated by the United Service Organizations (USO). The USO is a non-profit founded in 1941 and dedicated to the well-being of the U.S. Armed Forces and their families. Its casual atmosphere spawned animated conversations between Center visitors and UFC's fighters on MMA and many other topics, while eating a home-cooked meal together, having their pictures taken and writing countless autographs.
The transfer to Ramstein Air Base concluded the first day of the trip, a very memorable one which will stay on the minds of those there for a long time to come. English-born Dan Hardy concluded: "These guys are just as crazy about the sport as the fans back home." If not more so.
Tuesday's first stop was a visit to the studios of American Forces Networks (AFN) in Vogelweh, a district of Kaiserslautern - or "K-Town" for those having a hard time pronouncing the name. First, the four UFC stars went on live radio, where listeners could call in and ask them anything on their minds. For Dan Hardy and Mike Swick, many questions obviously revolved around their upcoming fights on June 13 at UFC 99 in Cologne's Lanxess Arena. Right afterwards, each of the four taped a public service announcement for AFN television. While they were all great, Edith's will probably end up being replayed for years throughout Europe and Southwestern Asia, as she arm wrestled - and defeated with ease - a serviceman. We think his buddies will probably never let him live it down. Maybe he should have focused on besting the Canadian beauty, as opposed to dreamily looking her in the eyes and smiling.
Back in Ramstein, the group visited the 435th Contingency Aeromedical Staging Facility (CASF), which is one of the base's most important units, as CASF arranges the transport of wounded servicemen back to medical facilities in the United States. The four UFC representatives were there for the loading of a McDonnell Douglas C-17 with patients and medical personnel en route back to the U.S. - they even got to visit the cockpit for a quick chat with the captain and his crew. The CASF visit reunited the fighters with a patient they had visited the day before at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center. Mike Swick had given him his baseball cap as a present - and this very cap was the only thing he held on to while being strapped to the gurney as he made his way onto the airplane. "To see how much our visit means to these men and women is purely overwhelming“, Swick told UFC.COM.
Over the course of the early afternoon, it was time for a meet & greet session at Ramstein Air Base's passenger terminal, where hundreds more UFC fans got in line to take a picture with Edith, Mike, Dan and Jon and get their autographs.
The second day - and the tour - concluded with a visit to the U.S. Army Garrison Wiesbaden, which hosted a grappling tournament at the base's fitness center that day. Despite the scent of food in the air, the fighters opted to rather watch the closing minutes of the competition in awe and be an integral part of the awards ceremony, each giving speeches to the competitors and the many visitors in attendance. After a quick meal, Mike, Edith, Dan and Jon returned to sign autographs and take pictures with everybody in the long line that had formed in the meantime. After the final fan had been accommodated about two hours later, UFC's group got together in front of the American flag to take a final group picture to commemorate two emotionally touching days with the Troops.
Marshall Zelaznik said: "The UFC is a big supporter of the Armed Forces and we are delighted to have this chance to visit the US Forces based in Germany.
“There is a kinship between the fighters of the Octagon and the servicemen of the Armed Forces, and our fighters can never say “yes” fast enough when offered the opportunity to visit these brave men and women.”
We would like to take this opportunity to thank George DeGrella and his team from Armed Forces Entertainment who made everything on this tour work like clockwork and did everything to make this first AFE tour ever for UFC on German soil something that every participant will remember for a long time to come.