They Lead

From WWE To The Marines, This Man’s Leadership Style Is The Product Of His Passions

Emilee White

We’ve all heard the stories of athletes breaking world records or medaling at the Olympics in sports they only started practicing/competing in the last few years. For many others, their sport has been their way of life for so long.

It’s been said before and it will be said again that wrestling has been Denzel Freeman’s way of life for 16 years, since 2006. A two-time state placer in high school and three-time national qualifier in college, Freeman was a talented wrestler and wanted to make that his career.

After college, Freeman was recruited to work for World Wrestling Entertainment, known mostly by its acronym, WWE, as a “professional wrestler”. While his time at WWE was short-lived, Freeman did learn a lot of lessons, both good and bad, and describes the environment as being different from what he was used to.

“The WWE environment was a bit different than amateur wrestling, college wrestling, and the senior wrestling environments,” Freeman said. “I’m used to being an athlete first and being an entertainer second, but at WWE, they are entertainers first and athletes second. They tell you upfront that when you’re there, one of the keys to making it is you have to physically and verbally show that you are interested in what seniors and veterans think. In all honesty, you do have to swallow some pride if you want to make it because, in that type of environment, people are so used to it that if you don’t do it, they see it as disrespectful or they think that you don’t like them, and that may not be the case.”
Denzel Freeman

During this time, Freeman met one of the coaches who would eventually have a big impact on his life. Other wrestlers would tell Freeman to just suck up to leadership, but his coach told him that perspective is reality, a lesson worth learning for him. No matter what Freeman was doing or what his intent was, what everybody saw was what they were going to see.

Another lesson Freeman learned was to slow down. Freeman came from being a competitive athlete, where he was trying to work hard, go fast, and be the hardest working person there. But at WWE, that wasn’t going to fly.

“WWE is all about safety in the ring and entertaining the audience,” Freeman said. “For both things, you have to work with the other person. So even though I may be faster than the person I’m working with, I needed to slow down so that they could keep up with me and so that the audience could see and appreciate what’s going on.”

Freeman moved on from WWE in 2015 and bounced between amateur and professional fighting for three years. In 2018, Freeman made his way to Officer Candidate School, OCS, and graduated on a reserves contract with the idea of wrestling for the Marine Corps, but had to switch to active duty before he could join the wrestling team. Fellow Marine Jared Fekete was another wrestler looking for a spot on the team, stating that it had produced multiple national champions, two-world qualifiers, and an Olympian, on top of winning the U.S. Open and beating Army — known for its World Class Athlete Program — for the first time in program history.

But around the time both Marines were looking to join the accolade-studded team, there was talk of getting rid of the program altogether. Eventually, the wrestling team was disbanded and the majority of the team was spread out between the Marine Corps installments, according to Freeman, and now it was just him and Fekete — along with a few others so we — doing training sessions together at local gyms.

The training sessions ultimately led to Freeman and Fekete forming a fitness group geared towards training Marines from Charlie Co., 8th ESB, along with anyone else, in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, mixed martial arts, and wrestling. Freeman and Fekete formed this group not only for the physical benefits of training, but also for the mental health benefits.

“I think [BJJ] does wonders for the mental health of Marines,” Fekete said. “We’re really big on the mental health side of things because in the Marine Corps and in the service, it can get heavy. You never know what someone’s going through. So this outlet is so good.”

In terms of training techniques, Freeman said that there are similarities between him and Fekete, but their differences go hand-in-hand as well. Both Marines have extensive wrestling, BJJ, grappling, and MMA, but where Fekete’s focus is on BJJ, Freeman is geared more towards wrestling.

“When we do our sessions in the morning, we teach other units about grappling, where we combine wrestling and jiu-jitsu because they’re both considered a type of grappling,” Freeman said. “I handle the wrestling side and Fekete handles the jiu-jitsu side, like submissions and everything like that. So basically, I get them to the ground and Fekete takes it from there.”

When Freeman is training, he uses his experience to help lead his sessions. And the lessons Freeman learned at WWE, he certainly kept with him in the training program. When he is explaining something, Freeman still reminds himself to slow down so those he’s teaching can understand what he’s saying before he moves on. Fortunately, this also can be applied in the Marine Corps.

Two leadership principles that Freeman described as his favorites from Marine Corps Training were knowing yourself and knowing when to seek self-improvement, and also setting an example. When Freeman teaches Marines, either at work or on the wrestling mat, the lesson he tries to teach is that the little things matter.

“That’s very important for leadership within the Marine Corp, wrestling, and just your own life in general,” Freeman said. “It’s the little things that make it possible for you to do the big things.”

Photo credits: Images provided by Denzel Freeman