In early September 2002, UFC welterweight Steve Bruno was aboard a helicopter in the Persian Gulf, providing air support to the Navy SEAL teams searching ships below. Moments later, the helicopter crashed into the gulf, killing the man next to Bruno and leaving the man on the other side of him with a broken neck and back.
On Wednesday, Bruno entered the Octagon in Fayetteville, N.C., in front of thousands of screaming soldiers from nearby Fort Bragg.
Bruno was one of five military veterans who fought in the UFC's Fight for the Troops on Wednesday. The show was put together by the UFC and Spike TV to raise money for the National Intrepid Center of Excellence, an advanced research facility in Bethesda, Md., dedicated to treating military personnel and veterans suffering from traumatic brain injuries. The crowd comprised soldiers from nearby Fort Bragg and their family members.
"A lot of people talk s--- about loving the troops, but we love the troops," UFC president Dana White told a crowd of soldiers Tuesday during a special Q&A session at Fort Bragg. White backed up his words by taking pictures with everyone in attendance at the session and even signed one soldier's scar.
For the veterans who fought in the show, the event was personal.
"It feels like I'm coming full circle, like I'm coming home," Bruno said. "The military taught me how to live, how to think, how to be a man. It feels great to give back."
Bruno, a Brooklyn native, began training in mixed martial arts before joining the Navy out of high school in 1999. He continued training while he was in the military, against the wishes of his superiors.
"I remember having to wear makeup to cover up bruises from training, because it was frowned upon then and they were trying to get me in trouble for fighting," he said.
Bruno's training was interrupted his first week in the Persian Gulf when the pilot of the helicopter he was on lost control and crashed.
"I saw my life flash before me in a newspaper article. I remember trying to escape the helicopter as it was sinking; I just started swimming toward the light," said Bruno, who suffered a broken leg in the crash. "When I got to the surface, I started checking to see if I could wiggle my toes and checked to see if my teeth were there, and then said, 'Thank God I could still fight.'"
Bruno could still fight, and his skills were on display Wednesday at the Crown Coliseum as he took down Johnny Rees and submitted him in the second round with a rear-naked choke. The crowd exploded when Rees tapped out.
The crowd was vociferous from the start, as more than 12,000 fans packed into the Crown Coliseum. UFC stars Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture moved around the floor, signing autographs and posing for pictures between bouts.
Dale Hartt, who was a search and rescue swimmer in the Navy from 1999 to 2003, was the first veteran to fight on the card and came out to Toby Keith's "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue" and thunderous support from the crowd. Hartt said it makes sense that MMA is popular among members of the military.
"They are men's men, and anyone who is a man's man is a fan of mixed martial arts," he said. "Those guys understand fighting. The energy in the crowd is unlike any other show. Those guys are the coolest, craziest MMA fans."
Hartt won his fight with a second-round TKO after his opponent, Corey Hill, suffered a gruesome broken leg while having his kick blocked.
Former Navy SEAL Brandon Wolff was next on the card. Wolff, making his UFC debut, joined the Navy in 1997 and got out in August 2001.
"I got out before 9/11, so a big part of me wishes that I could've done my part as a SEAL team member to go over there and fight for my country. Being able to fight on a card and be part of an event to honor these guys that step into harm's way for us is personal for me; I'm proud to be there to give them a good show," he said.
Wolff was the victim of an inadvertent low blow seconds into his fight and never fully recovered, falling in the first round to Ben Saunders after receiving a series of devastating knees.
Luigi Fioravanti, a former Marine who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom, got his first taste of MMA when he started training with several fellow Marines at a school near the base. He said the majority of people in the armed forces seem to be fans of the sport.
"The Army and Marine Corps implements a lot of it in the training regime, a lot of hand-to-hand combat stuff," he said. "A lot of these guys do combatives programs, and that consists of a lot of jiu-jitsu. There's an Army MMA team; these guys are big fans of it and are really behind it."
Fioravanti delighted the crowd by dismantling Brodie Farber through three rounds with numerous takedowns, several strong submission attempts and a flurry of punches. Fioravanti won by unanimous decision.
Navy veteran Tim Credeur was the final veteran to fight on the card and echoed Fiorvanti's sentiment about the popularity of MMA in the military.
"There are a lot of tough guys in the military so I had a lot of training partners," said Credeur, who was a sonar tech on a destroyer from 1995 to 2000. "Fighting was something a lot of us watched and were into. We had wrestling mats on the base and I worked out with the Navy judo team a lot."
Credeur said his time in the military was a great opportunity and allowed him to see the world.
"Traveling, going to Thailand, seeing all sorts of crazy stuff that kids from south Louisiana never get to see," he said. "The military has a great way of showing you what you can do. I learned a lot about myself and it was awesome."
Credeur pounded his way to a second-round TKO over Nate Loughran, drawing loud praise from the military crowd with each blow he landed.
White said one of the only drawbacks of the event was how the current state of the economy could affect fundraising efforts.
"It sucks right now that the whole world is falling apart, but if a fan could give anything, even two bucks, it would help," White said. "The reality is these kids who are in the armed forces go over there and do the f---ing job. Some come back injured and are not being taken care of, so we should step up."
Mark Chalifoux works in sports talk radio in Cincinnati and is the MMA writer for the Baltimore Sun. He can be reached at email@example.com.