FORT LEE, VA. --For whatever reason, karma or some other cosmic fate seemed dead-set against Sgt. Travis Zenk’s plan to battle for top honors at high level combatives contests.
In 2015, the 25-year-old Lyons, Ohio native was set to compete at the prestigious Fort Bragg Combatives Tournament, but a medical reclassification to his current military occupational specialty thwarted his efforts.
Last year, mandatory attendance at the Advanced Leader Course prevented him from grappling for gold at the the Lacerda Cup All Army Combatives Competition.
This year, however, Zenk’s pathway to combatives superiority was unobstructed. The former high school wrestler’s talents and skills propelled him to the title of best bantamweight in the Army at this year’s Lacerda Cup that took place at Fort Benning, Ga., April 8-12. Zenk admitted there was some difficulty comprehending his accomplishment.
“It was almost surreal,” said the Headquarters and Headquarters Company, Army Logistics University Support Battalion Soldier. “I always knew I had the talent, but you don’t really know (how good you are) until you do it. It was one of those things like, ‘Did this just actually happen?’”
Zenk noted how his tournament appearance required another twist of fate. Competitors ascend to the Lacerda Cup via wins at installation-wide tournaments. Fort Lee does not have such an event, and Soldiers cannot compete as independents.
“It just so happened another team (Fort Stewart, Ga.) was trying to recruit someone for an empty spot, and my name was high on the list,” said Zenk, who has competed in civilian and military tournaments since 2013. “They called and asked me if I wanted to compete.”
During the tournament, Zenk defeated three opponents on his way to claiming the title.
“The people I competed against were top level,” said the former infantryman and current traffic management coordinator. “They are definitely some of the best in the Army.”
Army combatives is similar to mixed martial arts, but there are marked differences. Opponents are prohibited from striking to the face in the first level of competition. They are allowed open-handed strikes to the face at the intermediate level as well as punches to the body. In the finals, gloves and shin pads are used, however, opponents cannot knee or elbow.
In addition to his individual win, Zenk’s Fort Stewart team placed third overall. The 25th Infantry Division squad out of Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, earned the shiniest hardware for the team event, which is structured on tactical scenarios involving hostiles.
Because Fort Lee does not have a combatives program, Zenk said his support system played a prominent role in helping to prepare him for the tournament. His wife, Rhaelynn Flores, was Team Zenk’s most valuable player, he extolled.
“She was the one who pushed me every day, and she helped me cut weight (about 20 pounds),” he said, noting weight reduction is common is mixed martial arts, boxing and wrestling.
In the gym – or more specifically, the combatives facility adjacent to ALU – Zenk got training help from 1st Sgt. Sidney Babineaux, first sergeant for Charlie Company, 262nd Quartermaster Battalion. He is a combatives veteran and experienced competitor.
“He was in the gym rolling with me every day,” Zenk said with a tone of admiration.
Now that he has fulfilled a long-held goal, Zenk wants to put a chokehold on higher-level competition.
“There is an armed forces tournament in December, so I have plans to compete in that, depending on how my body heals,” he said.
Does Zenk have even loftier aspirations? When UFC – the popular MMA league – was mentioned as a possibility, he laughed it off but has obviously giving it some deep thought.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever make it to that level, but I’ve talked to my wife a lot about this,” he said. “It’s a rough process for every fight. Weeks leading up, I’m training before and after work for months. It’s rough on me and my family.
“I would like to compete in three or four more All Army and armed forces tournaments and potentially a few fights on the civilian side,” he continued. “I don’t know if I’ll go UFC … but it’s definitely something I’d like to look into.”
Army combatives became an additional training tool for commanders about a decade ago during the height of the wars in Southwest Asia. It lost some popularity in recent years but is making a comeback, noted Zenk.
An indication is the Lacerda Cup, which took a hiatus from 2012-2017 but returned last year.