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Feature: Controversial MMA training causes rift in Navy SEALs program

Today many US Navy SEALs train like UFC fighters. However, a debate rages over whether or not this is the best (and most ethical) way for elite soldiers to train.

Navy SEALs Operate Aboard USS Mount Whitney

For twenty years the United States Navy’s Sea Air and Land Teams, commonly known as Navy SEALs, had used a combatives system known as Close Quarter Defense (CQD) to train and prepare themselves for hand-to-hand combat with the enemy. This all changed in 2011, when CQD was dropped by the Navy Special Warfare Command (NSW) in favor of allowing Navy SEALs to train in mixed-martial-arts, both in-house and at MMA gyms across the country. The move was not without controversy, and today that decision is at the forefront of a political battle to determine who will be the next leader of the NSW, and be responsible for overseeing and conducting all future Navy SEAL missions.

Well before the NSW’s decision to end their affiliation with CQD, the SEAL community was split on whether CQD or MMA was most effective - and deadly - in the field. CQD was invented in the early 1980s by Duane Dieter, a former law enforcement officer. According to CQD’s website, Dieter (who did not respond to Bloody Elbow’s request for an interview) developed his system after he ‘traveled to the Orient’ in order to find a ‘master’ who could teach him the skills that were needed in a ‘high-risk- fight’. After visiting Hong Kong, Okinawa, and Taiwan, Dieter was allegedly told by an ‘elder master’ that, “What you’re looking for does not exist. You must develop it yourself. It must be your purpose.” CQD is split into six disciplines, which include Weapon & Zone Control, Suspect/Prisoner Control, and the trademarked terms Direct Defense Skills, CQD Shooting, Operation Physical Training, and Internal Warrior. CQD was officially adopted by the NSW in 1989. Since 2008, Dieter’s Close Quarters Defense Inc. has been awarded $1,724,296 in US Department of Defense contracts.

According to The San Diego Union-Tribune a number of former Navy SEALs consider CQD the ‘bedrock’ of SEAL training. However, detractors within the SEAL community have claimed that CQD was proved obsolete in the field during combat in both Iraq and Afghanistan. One SEAL who was against CQD was Timothy G. Szymanski, who - as a Captain - helped author a report examining whether CQD should be dropped in favor of training similar to that of UFC fighters. In 2011 Szymanski’s report contributed to the NSW ending their affiliation with CQD. The Navy then handed out a number of contracts to various MMA providers.

Timothy Szymanski was a member of the vaunted SEAL Team Six and today he holds the rank of Rear Admiral. He currently serves as assistant commander of the Joint Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, N.C. In April 2016, Rear Adm. Szymanski was ‘tapped’, according to The Washington Times, to become the new commander of NSW. Incumbent NSW leader Rear Adm. Brian Losey is to retire after complaints he had engaged in acts of whistle-blower retaliation (per

With Szymanski primed to take over all actions regarding the Navy SEALs, questions have been raised about his reasons for championing the switch from CQD to MMA. On April 5th, Congressman Duncan Hunter, a Republican and former US Marine who represents California’s San Diego County, sent a letter to US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter to request that Szymanski’s promotion be put on hold until an investigation is held into the switch from CQB to MMA.

In his letter, Hunter stated that he had, “concerns with the process for considering and awarding the contracts that have led to the removal of CQD from SEAL training.” Hunter’s letter continued to state that he was of the belief, thanks to ‘consistent reports’, “that MMA training is not conductive to SEAL operations.” Hunter also expressed that CQD was far more cost effective than MMA, costing only $345 per SEAL whereas MMA cost as much as $2,900 per SEAL. Hunter’s most serious claim was that the NSW made the shift to MMA because both active-duty and retired Navy SEALs had business interests with various MMA gyms that would benefit from the change in training. “The driving force behind getting CQD ousted as [a] program are vanity and money,” wrote Hunter who implored Secretary Carter to conduct a review of the potential conflicts of interest that resulted in the NSW’s removal of CQD.

According to The Washington Times, in 2010 there was an NSW investigation into the SEAL community’s relationship with MMA gyms. Prior to this Rep. Hunter’s father, Duncan Hunter Sr. - chairman of the House Armed Services Committee during the George W. Bush administration - had also expressed concerns about conflicts of interest among Navy SEALs and MMA businesses. The 2010 report did find instances of wrongdoing, including illegal fraternization in ownership of private MMA gyms. The findings resulted in a new round of ethics training for SEALs, but the NSW claims this investigation did not have an effect on the dropping of CQD a year later.

After NSW ended its relationship with CQD, Duane Dieter alleged that Rear Adm. Szymanski himself was guilty of a conflict of interest. When speaking to The San Diego Union-Tribune, Dieter alleged that Szymanski had steered an MMA training contract towards Linxx Global Solutions, which was founded by former SEAL Frank Cucci, a friend of Szymanski. “Sounds like Mr. Dieter is a sore loser,” said Cucci to the Union-Tribune, after being asked to comment on Dieter’s claims of favoritism.

Another claim made against Szymanski by Dieter is that the Rear Admiral once tried to solicit a bribe from the CQD inventor. Dieter also told the Union-Tribune that he was approached by Szymanski in 1993 and 1994 who asked him for a ‘kick-back’ to ensure that CQD remained part of the Navy SEAL program.

Another claim against Szymanski comes from retired SEAL Eric Deming, who wrote a letter to Representative Hunter in April. In that letter (per the Union-Tribune) Deming claimed he filed a formal complaint in 2008 against Szymanski’s alleged promotion of MMA training for the financial benefit of other SEALs. Deming was a CQD instructor. In his letter Deming stated he was passed over for promotion due to his complaint against Szymanski, and that in 2013 he was deployed to a hot-spot in Afghanistan where two spec-ops soldiers had been killed due to ‘insider attacks.’ Deming’s letter to Hunter read, “I understood (the) decision as intentionally placing me in harm’s way, in a hope that I would be eliminated, either by getting me fired or killed.” Multiple sources within the SEAL community have defended Szymanski in light of Deming and Dieter’s complaints, and heralded him as ‘the best leader’ and a ‘bad-ass fighter’.

In June, Major General Jacqueline D. Van Ovost, vice director of the Pentagon’s Joint Staff, replied to Rep. Hunter regarding his concerns over the shift from CQD to MMA and that MMA was not sufficient for Navy SEALs and the combat they would face. As reported in the Washington Times Gen. Ovost stated that the Navy had, “reviewed its training needs and determined that the combative program requires multiple techniques, instead of a single system, to provide the tools and flexibility to conduct operations.”

Gen. Ovost then named boxing, Muay Thai, judo, wrestling, grappling, and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, as skills beneficial to the Navy SEALs. Gen. Ovost did not support any investigation into the awarding of MMA training contracts. Outgoing leader of the NSW Rear Adm. Losey also weighed in on MMA vs. CQD, saying, “The current combative system evolved by Naval Special Warfare, aggregates martial arts styles, systems and techniques relevant to NSW requirements, and by definition is mixed martial arts.”

Another supporter of Navy SEALs (and other US special forces) cross-training in multiple martial arts is 11th ranked UFC middleweight Tim Kennedy (23-5), who is also a Green Beret and veteran of US wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Kennedy has been a member of the Special Forces for fifteen years and has trained extensively in various military combative programs. He has also trained with Navy SEALs.

Though he’s never trained in CQD, he is aware of the program. Kennedy’s opinion of CQD is the same as his opinion on most hand-to-hand combat systems developed specifically for the military and/or law enforcement. “Every four to five years a new form of special operations close-quarters - insert cool name here - comes in,” Kennedy told Bloody Elbow. “And they try and provide all these wazoo high-speed drills and techniques, [but they] don’t drill the fundamentals.”

Kennedy firmly believes that elite military professionals require cross-training in the same disciplines elite MMA fighters train in. “The best way I can explain it is the body’s a chassis, like a Honda Civic,” said Kennedy as he explained his personal philosophy on training as both a soldier and a competitive martial artist. “You can put on a new transmission, you can put on nitro, you can put on a different engine, you can put on drag wheels, but the basic and most important elements is that you have a solid foundation for that chassis.

“So me, Tim Kennedy, if I put on UFC gloves, what is there? I think a couple, maybe five or six guys who can beat me in the world, because my chassis, my frame is good. Now if you put me in body armor and give me a gun, and you give me a knife, you give me a tomahawk... Yeah, I don’t really think there is any dude on the planet that would survive a fight with me. Cause my chassis, the fundamentals, the basics are there and I train with both. But the most important part is that I am good with basics.”

Kennedy recommended all Navy SEALs follow this formula and seek out training with fellow special forces operators who are also accredited in MMA, such as former Navy SEAL Jocko Willink, who is a BJJ black-belt under Dean Lister. Willink and Lister operate Victory MMA together, out of San Diego, along with Joe Mannino (another former SEAL).

When asked about the controversy surrounding the NSW’s dropping of CQD, Kennedy was blunt. “It’s a bunch of bitches arguing for scraps,” said Kennedy. “It’s pathetic and it’s happened for as long as I’ve been in Special Forces.” Kennedy continued to state that the teams he has been involved in have attempted to be above this controversy and just tried to make sure everyone gets the ‘right training.’ “Guys like that are the guys you’re not going to be able to kill,” said Kennedy - referring to special forces operators who train across martial arts. “Guys like that, the guys that do Muay Thai, that do jiu-jitsu, that do wrestling, those are the guys the enemy prays they never have to come in contact with. The enemy – if anything – they’re super happy when they have to fight someone that’s been doing some boxed pre-sold government contract combative program. [They’re] like, ‘Yes, finally I get an easy fight.’”

With Rear Admiral Timothy Szymanski’s path to control over Naval Special Warfare Command now all but clear, it seems likely that the US Navy SEALs will continue to train like that of the world’s best MMA fighters. Though the argument over whether they were allowed to do so based purely on what makes a better fighter may not be over.