Reporting from Ft. Hood, Texas — Whap. Whap.
Army Staff Sgt. Jackelyn Walker is snapping left jabs at Pfc. Greg Langarica's head. She doesn't like his smirk.
She lunges for his midsection, slams him down and locks him in a chokehold. Langarica's face goes crimson. His smirk is gone.
The 1,000 or so spectators in the Army gym howl with glee.
The Army still bars women from fighting in combat units. But some women are trying to break that barrier far from the front lines — by battling male soldiers in chain-link cages against a backdrop of strobe lights, thumping music and swirling smoke.
The slugfests resemble ultimate fighting, a staple of pay-per-view television, right down to the black wire cages and throat-constricting holds with names like "the guillotine" and "the rear naked choke."
The Army says the eight-sided enclosure simulates fighting in a small room and helps develop skills that soldiers sometimes need to subdue foes rather than kill them.
The brawls are an outgrowth of mixed martial arts training that began in all-male Ranger units in the mid-1990s and soon spread to the rest of the Army. Tournaments were started on mats and in boxing rings at bases around the country.
Elaborately staged cage fights — including some pitting women against men — started in 2008, in part because commanders realized they helped with recruiting.
In the most recent cage-fighting competition, more than 300 men and 25 women — up from five last year — competed over four days in February at Ft. Hood in Texas.
One woman made it to the finals. But at least three female fighters were carried out on stretchers. Others limped to a green canvas tent that served as a first-aid station. One fighter burst into tears, upset that a referee had halted her fight before she felt beaten.
Unlike participants in Army boxing matches, cage fighters wear open-fingered gloves with thin padding and no headgear. They mostly fight barefoot, wearing camouflage fatigues or T-shirts.
Most of the women fight in the lightest weight classes: bantamweight and flyweight. To help balance the odds, they are allowed to outweigh men in the same class by 10 pounds.
The early rounds of the Ft. Hood tournament were fought on padded mats, not in cages, and no punches or slaps were allowed until the final two days of the competition. The thinking is that less-skilled fighters would be eliminated by then.
Pfc. Yennyfer Usuga, a 26-year-old immigrant from Colombia, joined the Army a year ago and started serious fight training only in January. Quiet and seemingly frail at 116 pounds, she seemed out of place among male fighters with bulging biceps. But she won her first few fights, which by luck of the draw were all against other women.
Between bouts, Usuga changed from camouflage fatigues into capri pants and shook her shoulder-length reddish brown hair out of an Army-regulation bun.
"She's very feminine," said her coach, Sgt. Dwan West.
Her opponent in the semifinal round was the wiry, heavily-tattooed Langarica. Standing 5-foot-5 and weighing less than 115 pounds, he had boxed and trained in jujitsu for years and had no qualms about fighting a woman.
Usuga came out swinging wildly and tried kneeing Langarica in the groin. She missed. The artilleryman pummeled her with body shots, threw her to the mat and staggered her with a bare-handed slap to the cheek.
She stumbled off in defeat, her eyes dull.
Langarica celebrated with a grin and a victory dance, scissoring his feet back and forth like the young Muhammad Ali, prompting a finger-pointing lecture from the referee.
The Army remains hyper-macho, but the wars of the last decade showed that women faced considerable danger even in the support jobs to which they were limited. In Iraq, 109 female service members have died, mostly in ambushes and firefights, and 29 have died in Afghanistan, even though they were truck drivers, civil affairs advisors or in other ostensibly noncombat jobs.
As a result, many male soldiers — as well as women — consider the ban on women in combat roles to be outdated.
Fighting a woman in a cage is not necessarily a picnic for male soldiers. They face ridicule if they lose and little glory if they win.
The women's motivations vary. "I just like to fight," said Spc. Amber Sellers.
The bouts "teach us to react in the moment without a weapon" and not to back down, said Pfc. Vanessa Edwards. When her mother found out she was fighting men, "she told me to kick their ass," Edwards said.
Spc. Dariana Chesser, 24, decided to join the cage fights last year after serving on a security squad for a senior officer in Afghanistan. "I want to transfer to a combat job," she said. "I think this helps us prove we are worthy of fighting in combat with men."