Local fighter makes pro debut in Afghanistan

MMA: Entertaining the troops

Chris St. Jean will always remember his first profes-sional mixed martial arts fight. Mainly because it was in Afghanistan.

St. Jean, 24, was one of 10 Canadian MMA fighters to travel to the Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan, where they entertained the troops.

The trip, which lasted from Oct. 9 to 16, marked the first MMA-sanctioned event in the country.

"To go visit the troops and make my pro mixed martial arts debut in Afghanistan isn't something someone can say they've ever done," St. Jean said. "The troops were very excited to see us. Not just for the fights, but just to see fellow Canadians and bond with them. It was great. Not only for them, but for us. It was a life changing experience."

St. Jean, a blue belt and member of the Sudbury Multi-cultural Martial Arts, has been involved in martial arts for four years. He started with Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, which con-centrates on holds and groundwork, and Muay Thai kickboxing. Around six months ago, St. Jean transitioned into mixed martial arts, a sport that combines both elements.

For St. Jean, who teaches at the Sudbury MMA, martial arts is more than just a pas-time. The fighter practises five times a week, for a minimum of two hours a day and hopes to eventually fight in the UFC.

"I'm committed. I enjoy the sport of mixed martial arts. I enjoy learning martial arts. I enjoy being an entertainer and putting on a show for people," he said.

Which, to a certain degree, is what he did in Afghanistan, in a ball hockey rink with about 3,000 troops watching.

"Just to be able to have my first (professional) fight in Afghanistan, to be able to see the troops and what they do firsthand was a cool idea," he said.

St. Jean first heard about the trip from Pat Cooligan, an instructor in Ottawa who also teaches at the Sudbury MMA. Cooligan was asked to bring fighters to the event, which was organized in part by Wreck MMA in Ottawa.

After the fight, St. Jean and his group toured the military base and learned about various weapons and the difficulties of fighting the Taliban.

While he lost his fight, St. Jean is happy to have transitioned into professional matches, which have longer rounds and less security equipment than amateur fights.

"Mixed Martial Arts is a comb i nat i o n of everything. It's something I don't expect to do 100% perfectly, but I think I'll find my groove," he said.

For St. Jean, who only had three weeks to prepare for his trip, fighting in Afghanistan meant dealing with jet lag after a 20 hour flight, 40C temperatures and lots of dust.

"There was hot weather and dust. To be able to do that, that's something I'm proud of," he said.

As the only fighter from Northern Ontario, he enjoyed meeting several soldiers from Sudbury, including one local resident who gave St. Jean an Afghan flag.

"I didn't realize it'd be so nice to see him. To meet someone from Sudbury...It ends up being a small world," St. Jean said.

John Cole, the head instructor of Sudbury MMA, wants to see St. Jean in the UFC.

"The school in general is very proud of Chris. He's been working hard to accomplish his goal for four years. His progression into a professional debut, we knew it was coming, but we didn't know it would be the experience it was," Cole, who helped St. Jean train, said.