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Airborne Soldiers Rumble in the Desert

By Pfc. Chris Jones, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service

MOSUL, Sept. 23, 2003 – What brought Army Spc. Kevin Roice's opponent to the floor wasn't necessarily the glorious display of hooks and jabs that brought hundreds of spectators to their feet.

Though Roice's speed and agility in the ring were irrefutably impressive, something much deeper than his athletic ability brought him the victory by technical knockout. The longing for home, the loneliness and fear in the deployment -- all the uncertainties and anxieties that have plagued him since leaving Fort Campbell, Ky., seven months ago -- came flooding back to him.

"Getting inside that ring just brought out all the aggression, all the pain of missing home," he said. "It spins your emotions all around. It's crazy."

The 167-pound Roice, a soldier with 2nd Battalion, 44th Air Defense Artillery, signed up for the "Smoking Boxing" tournament his battalion hosted Sept. 20 as soon as it was announced earlier in the month. The event was held at a dining facility.

All soldiers within or attached to the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) were invited to beat the stuffing out of their opponents in the ring. When the big night arose, Maj. Gen. David Petraeus and Command Sgt. Maj. Marvin Hill, 101st commanding general and command sergeant major, joined a horde of soldiers came to watch the carnage unfold.

After Roice left the ring, he was hoisted above the shoulders of a pack of Turkish soldiers from with the Joint Iraqi Security Company. No translation was needed for their chants as they lifted Roice; "Hooray!" is a universal term.

Eight fights took place in the two-hour event. Each was scheduled for three rounds, but technical knockouts in the first or second round brought some to an early end.

Introducing each contestant with a rowdy, thunderous voice was Staff Sgt. Wayne Ebenreiter, a member of 2-44th who volunteered to host the fight. A friendly rivalry between the 82nd Airborne Division and the 101st floated through the air, and Ebenreiter inflamed it.

"This crowd had better give me a loud 'air assault' right now," said Ebenreiter, demanding the crowd scream the 101st battle cry. Unsatisfied with what he deemed a puny chant, he continued, "I'll stop this competition right now and give it all back! I had better get an 'air assault' right now! I want an 'air assault'!"

A soldier in the crowd yelled "airborne," the watchword of the 82nd, to which Ebenreiter responded, "Hey, you didn't wait your turn! Now I want a big fat 'air assault'!"

The friendly competition between the two divisions took place between fights. When the time came for two more fighters to take to the ring, a brief silence fell, followed by music. Each contestant made his way to the ring to the sound of an entrance song of his choosing. The music, in addition to the pageant of blood and sweat inside the ring, kept spectators on their feet throughout much of the event.

Fighters were allowed to go with or without headgear. For many, the decision to wear it didn't matter, because a few minutes into most fights, a solid hook sent it flying off. This set the stage for a night of gritty violence. A doctor was on hand to ensure no fight got out of hand.

Chief Warrant Officer Bruce Ward knows boxing. With a cousin who competed in the Golden Gloves boxing program and a brother who participated in high school boxing, Ward said he learned a lot about the sport.

Ward, an engineer with the 1438th Engineer Detachment, Michigan National Guard, said "Smoking Boxing" was more intense than professional boxing.

"More than professional, this resembles street-fighting," he said. "I think poise and passion are important to win these fights. It takes a lot of adrenaline and endurance, as well as knowledge, to keep fighting after you start getting hurt in the ring."

The 54-year old Ward said he's content being in a job where he fights only when it involves the security of freedom.

"I've gotten a little wiser in my older age," he said, smiling. "I fight when I have to for survival, not for fun, although it does get your blood going. And hey, a person could definitely be tempted to get in there."

Acknowledging the between-bout rivalry between the 82nd and the 101st, Ward said the 101st probably had a slight edge.

"It's hard to tell, but my gut feeling is that the 101st has got it tonight," Ward said. "It's a good spirited competition either way. This has just been a lot of fun and a good break from the regular, everyday routine."

Legendary boxing promoter Don King financed the event, donating water bottles, white knit shorts, bags of candy mints in American flag wrapping, gloves, hats, caps, T-shirts and other items. Staff Sgt. Franklin Eldridge, Headquarters and Headquarters Battery, 2-44th, spent several weeks trying to find financial assistance for the event, until he finally sent an e-mail to King's secretary and found "gracious approval." Eventually, Eldridge spoke with King on the telephone.

"I asked [King] for financial support in the event," Eldridge said, "and he was extremely gracious."

In an e-mail to Eldridge, King wrote, "I send my heartfelt thank you to you, your division and all of our men and women deployed in Iraq. Please take care of yourselves, and I hope you are able to come home soon."

A much bigger boxing event could be on the horizon for soldiers, as discussions are under way with about the possibility of an exhibition match in Mosul involving world welterweight champion Ricardo Mayorga in Mosul.

The Associated Press called Mayorga "easily one of the most exciting fighters on the planet these days. His reckless style of well nourished mayhem inside the ring is already quite legendary."

Eldridge said, "I told King, 'If you can come over here, it'll boost the soldiers' morale like you wouldn't believe.' Right now, he's lobbying for government support, and he's got one of his lawyers and the (United Service Organizations) working on it.

"He's also trying to bring some musicians and dancers out here for the fight," he continued. "King is a true American. Many people take shots at him, and he just keeps on going, and that's what our division is all about."

According to a press release produced by King's staff, the event could take place in January if King and Eldridge can get government support.

"This was a real morale booster for both the soldiers and tournament participants alike," Eldridge said.

The event closed up before 8 p.m., and soldiers quickly emptied the 'arena,' making playful jabs at one another. Inside, Ebenreiter's voice could still be heard, wandering through the darkening night: "I want an 'air assault'!"

(Pfc. Chris Jones is assigned to the 40th Public Affairs Detachment.)

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Click photo for screen-resolution image. MOSUL, Iraq (Sept. 20, 2003) -- A soldier is checked by his manager and a doctor after the first round of a boxing match at the Boxing Smoker, an event where soldiers fight soldiers. 2nd Bn., 4th ADA, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) organized the event and Don King helped finance it. Photo by Pfc. Chris Jones  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageMOSUL, Iraq (Sept. 20, 2003) -- Two soldiers stare each other down before the first round of a boxing match at the Boxing Smoker, an event where soldiers fight soldiers. 2nd Bn., 4th ADA, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) organized the event and Don King helped finance it. Photo by Pfc. Chris Jones  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageMOSUL, Iraq (Sept. 20, 2003) -- Two soldiers duke it out in the second round of a boxing match at the Boxing Smoker, an event where soldiers fight soldiers. 2nd Bn., 4th ADA, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) organized the event and Don King helped finance it. Photo by Pfc. Chris Jones  
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