Three-peat title for CAF Combative Grappling

MS Thibault receives his gold medal at the CAF Combatives Grappling Tournament.

MS Thibault receives his gold medal at the CAF Combatives Grappling Tournament.

A/SLt Jesse Grigor, Contributor

Master Seaman Lee Thibault’s elation and pride poured into each word as he detailed his impressive performance at the CAF Combatives Grappling Tournament in Petawawa, ON, in June, and the people who made it all possible.

His win in the heavyweight division, his third national title, was his toughest to date.

When asked how this title compared to the previous two, MS Thibault tipped his hat to his opponents and noted this was the toughest tournament he has competed in.

“The division was stacked,” he acknowledged without any reservations.

This year’s CAF Combatives Grappling Tournament surpassed previous tournaments in competitors and online viewers. The tournament was live-streamed and had approximately 80,000 watching online at any given time. In total, 164 men and women from the army, navy, air force, including special operations forces, from privates to lieutenant colonels, took to the mats to compete in the growing sport of combatives, also known as grappling or submission wresting.

The tournament format was double-elimination – two losses and competitors were eliminated. Winning his first two matches on points, MS Thibault entered the semi-finals undefeated, but came up short in a grueling semi-finals match. However, because his semi-final loss was his first, and each of his opponents had all lost a match heading into the semi-finals, he was able to enter the finals, only to face off against the opponent who beat him in the semi-finals.

“Because I was facing off against the guy who had just beat me I was mentally shaken and I needed to wake up,” MS Thibault admitted.

His father and life-long coach, Mike Thibault, a retired military police, had been meticulously studying both his son and his opponent during their matches throughout the tournament and was a pillar of strength and focus for him heading into the final match. He remembers his father telling him after the semi-final loss, “Don’t worry. We’ll get him.”

With renewed focus and critical observations from his father, MS Thibault was able to shake off the effects of his semi-final match and enter the finals to reassert himself as the heavyweight champion. After five minutes of exhausting hand-to-hand combat he emerged from the battle physically and mentally drained, but victorious.

“We won the gold medal together,” MS Thibault said as he reflected on his championship with pride. “My father has been to all three of the CAF tournaments as my coach. It was just like it was when I was a teenager when we use to travel around to different competitions for me to compete at. He’s always been in my corner.”

Mike Thibault trained with former UFC fighter Gary Goodridge when his two sons were growing up. When many 10-year-olds were learning to play hockey, both brothers would instead accompany their father to the gym and learn how to take down an opponent.

Not only did both brothers fall in love with hand-to-hand combat sports, both also excelled to become champions in different disciplines. While MS Thibault has earned three golds at the CAF Grappling Tournament, his brother, Tyler, has claimed gold in Jujitsu at the Pan-Asian Games for the last three years while living and teaching in Hong Kong, China.

When asked what advice MS Thibault would give to those considering entering the sport or competing at the CAF Combatives Tournament, he exalted with unbridled passion that there are tons of opportunities on Vancouver Island to join gyms that safely teach people different hand-to-hand combat disciplines.

“The island is flooded with talent,” he says, underscoring that each gym has beginner, novice and advanced levels so people can always feel comfortable competing against those at the same skill level. “My intention is to have a navy team represented in Petawawa each year, with sailors participating in all weight classes, and have them competing at the beginner, novice and advanced levels.” 

The aim of the tournament is to conduct the safe and competitive practice of modern hand-to-hand combat. MS Thibault noted that some people are afraid of the sport because they assume that grappling is just like UFC fighting. He stressed that, “Grappling is a controlled environment. It’s extremely safe. Sportsmanship is key. We’re not going UFC on people.”

Lieutenant Colonel Burgess, tournament technical director and senior military combatives instructor, writes “…combatives is not only a life-saving military skillset, but is also the essence of the war fighter. It is the foundation for the development of the warrior mindset and forms the framework for our understanding for the warrior ethos.”

MS Thibault has trained at Crusher Combat Sports in Langford, B.C., for the past eight years where he is also a wrestling instructor. In addition to the support he receives from his family and friends, MS Thibault recognizes the tireless hours Sensei Mike and Sensei Kerri from Crusher Combat Sports have invested in him. With heartfelt gratitude, MS Thibault acknowledges that they have continually supported him and have never allowed him to enter a tournament unprepared.

In addition to concluding a successful CAF Combatives Tournament, over $4,000 was raised for Soldier On – a CAF program which assists serving and retired members with mental and physical illness through sport and physical activity.

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