The Marine Corps Martial Arts Program is a combat system developed specifically for use by United States Marines and combines elements of various fighting platforms into a single discipline in which all Marines must undergo training. MCMAP uses a belt system similar to that of traditional martial arts disciplines, with tan standing in for white on the belt spectrum, followed by gray, green, brown, and black. Once a Marine attains a black belt, there are additional levels of qualifications he or she can pursue, referred to as leveled degrees.
Among Marines, there are two different camps regarding “Semper Foo:” Some believe it serves as an excellent introduction into hand-to-hand combat techniques, while others tend to laugh it off, calling the low-level belt techniques useless and even accusing the training of giving young Marines a false sense of security, believing their training to have made them a better unarmed combatant than they actually are.
Full disclosure: I actively pursued MCMAP training throughout my entire time in the Marine Corps, earning my black belt as a corporal and transferring much of the training I received into competition when participating in civilian mixed martial arts tournaments.
The following is my attempt to bridge the gap between those who feel MCMAP is important, and those who disregard the value it offers our warfighters.
Prior to a policy shift in the waning years of my own Marine Corps career, it was not required that any Marine pursue MCMAP beyond the tan (white equivalent) belt all Marines must earn in order to graduate recruit training. An order released in 2010 mandated different belt requirements for different MOS’s—requiring direct combat arms occupational specialties to earn a green belt in the discipline before being considered fully trained.
In what promises to be the most inflammatory statement I’ll make in this article, it’s my experience that those who discount MCMAP for being useless are usually the same Marines who never achieved a higher belt level than tan or gray. Of course, that’s not always the Marine’s fault; occupational specialty, unit operational tempo, the availability of instructors, and any number of other variables could affect a Marine’s chances at chasing higher belts. Still, it’s worth mentioning that my own unit offered no formal MCMAP training beyond mandated annual refreshers. I had to seek out senior instructors and jump through bureaucratic hoops for each belt I earned, and conduct nearly all of the training during my liberty hours. As I’ve written about before, I’ve always chased after new and interesting ways to get punched in the face, so in my mind, MCMAP was a logical thing to dedicate my off time to.
MCMAP’s biggest weakness is also, in my opinion, its biggest strength. The Marine Corps places a larger emphasis on small unit leadership than most of the world’s military branches, and the MCMAP program is no different. You can earn your MCMAP instructor tab as a green belt, and begin training and testing Marines in the techniques of the belts lower than your own immediately thereafter. That means there are tan, gray, and green belt courses being taught all over the Corps by junior-ranking Marines with instructional experience limited to their tab course. Although there’s a strict syllabus, outlining the number of hours that must be spent practicing each technique, discussing moral and ethical tie-ins, and conducting combat conditioning, there’s still a chance that you get an instructor who’s lazy, unmotivated, or just downright not all that good at teaching someone to fight.
The opposite side of that same coin, however, is that the variety of Marines who teach the course offers the student an opportunity to seek out the type of instructor from whom they will learn well. Some people learn best in an aggressively competitive environment, for instance, while others may need a more conversational explanation of the movements entailed in each technique. Some Marines want to be thrown in the mud and given a chance to fight for their lives (idiots like me), while others prefer to learn the exact technical details of the discipline before busting any knuckles—or skulls.
The biggest complaint I see levied at MCMAP within Marine circles is the claim that the techniques don’t work in real-life situations. These folks, again, tend to be the ones who left Parris Island with a tan belt and never gave the discipline another thought. The techniques taught in the tan and gray belt syllabi are generally not intended to serve as stand-alone training, but rather as preparation for more complex techniques that are taught in higher-level belt courses.
The front choke is an excellent example of just such a technique. As demonstrated in the video below, the front choke is a gray-belt movement that involves gripping the collar of your opponent’s shirt with crossed arms, and using it as a means to restrict blood flow through his or her carotid artery. The video, like the technique, isn’t particularly dynamic, and critics of MCMAP will point to movements like these as evidence that the discipline wouldn’t fair well in a real-world scrap.
If this was the last time we saw the front choke enter the MCMAP syllabus, I might be inclined to agree, but a few belts later, you run into this:
If you’re at work, or just aren’t really into watching old training videos of guys choking each other, the second video depicts the same gray-belt front-choke technique, but from the mounted position on an opponent. Although the gray-belt version of the front choke isn’t particularly effective in itself, by incorporating it into different positions, it becomes an extremely viable offensive movement against anyone wearing military-style uniforms, jackets, or, as was the case in my Brazilian jiu-jitsu days, a Gi.
MCMAP wasn’t initially designed for Marines to spend a few weeks training in the tan-belt techniques and then hang up their gloves for the rest of their careers. It was designed to establish a simple procedure Marines could use to compound their fighting skill sets over time. By teaching techniques like the front choke at lower-level belts, instructors are able to discuss the important elements of using submission chokes (such as the value of a blood choke over an air choke, and how best to subdue an opponent silently and quickly if need be). That allows higher-level belts to rely on previous training and begin incorporating increasingly realistic situations in which to use some of the techniques the student already knows.
This lack of understanding about how techniques build upon one another speaks to one weakness in the program that I can’t defend, however. The MCMAP program relies on strictly established guidelines for belt advancement that include demonstrating an expertise in the techniques of the belt you are testing for, as well as each of the lower belt’s movements, but does not mandate enough regular maintenance of these skills. Fighting, like anything else, is a diminishing skill set when not used. In other words, I may have earned my black belt fairly early, but if I stop practicing the skills I gained through the training, I become less combat effective by the day. Training is ongoing, and martial arts belts are not a destination to reach. Although refreshers are mandatory, and higher-level belts require more regular training to keep your status, keeping a black belt, in my opinion, should require frequently exercising your skills—and demonstrating a continued ability to do so.
Ultimately, MCMAP is no different from most other fighting disciplines in that you will only get out of it what you are willing to put in. If you hear there’s an instructor who passes everybody, and you arrive at your course with the mindset of someone just trying to improve their chances at promotion, chances are good you won’t gain much in terms of fighting ability. On the other hand, if you’re driven, you can learn a lot from even the worst instructor, and if you continue to train in your off time, you can find yourself becoming a pretty capable tough guy.
For a long time, I had a running bet with the Marines who worked for me that if one of them could choke me out, make me submit, or knock me out in training, I would give them my black belt. I almost lost once to a new guy who turned out to be a competitive grappler and one hell of a scrambler. It gave us a great way to let off steam, it gave me a good excuse to punch troublemakers in the neck without being accused of hazing, and it demonstrated to my Marines that a guy who joined the Corps as a 155-pound punk could become a force to be reckoned with if they were willing to put in the work. For what it’s worth, that black belt is hanging in a frame in my office now despite dozens and dozens of attempts from my guys—and it’s not because I’m an unstoppable bad ass (lord knows I tap out 10 times a day in training), it’s because I paid close attention to the lessons I was taught and I worked regularly to try to keep those skills sharp.
So as I read posts on social media from Marines who lament having to go through another round of MCMAP training and complaining about it being useless, I look at my belt hanging in its frame and wonder: If the training that got me that belt was so useless, why didn’t anybody take it from me?
Maybe that’s a cocky thing to say, but hey, neither the Marine Corps nor its martial arts program are particularly renowned for their humility.
You can see a brief demonstration of MCMAP black belt techniques below.
Featured image courtesy of the U.S. Marine Corps