We need to talk about film for a minute. In fact, we could take about film for days, film is very much my text, my safe place but that’s for another time. Instead, we need to talk about A Knight’s Tale, what it means to me and what it means to my study of Judo.
A Knight’s Tale is the story of William, a knight’s squire who, when his master dies on the way to a tournament, is urged to take his place by the other apprentices. They’ve not eaten for days, Will was always better with a sword anyway, and he secretly revels in the attention, so they put him in the armor, strap him up and he wins. In fact, he keeps winning and in order to maintain the illusion they find themselves having to recruit a female blacksmith, played by Laura Fraser and Geoffrey Chaucer, played by Paul Bettany. In any other film, Bettany would walk away with it, and, truth be told, he pretty does here, but the entire cast is flat out magnificent and the film unpacks its concepts in fascinating ways. Will’s relationship with the Black Prince is beautifully sketched, the interplay between Mark Addy and Alan Tudyk as the other apprentices is wonderful and there’s a single stylistic choice which is one of the closest approximations of pure joy that I’ve ever seen on the screen. I won’t spoil it if you haven’t seen it, because you should, for that scene if nothing else.
I mention A Knight’s Tale because at one point, this being a sports movie (Just one which is a bit clankier), Will is inevitably arrested and the villain of the piece, played by Rufus Sewell, misquotes the Book of Daniel stating that he has ‘been weighed, and measured and found wanting.’ It’s a line which the film returns to, and it’s a line which becomes the heart of the second half of the film. Will’s an apprentice, a nobody and he’s committing a crime just by being there. Whether or not the fact he’s good at it, or his knightly demeanor have nothing whatsoever to do with it. He puts in a ton of hard work and there’s no guaruntee that it’ll do anything other than get him arrested or killed. He puts everything on the line, knowing he might still fail. That has a certain emotional resonance the week of my grading.
I have never passed a physical test. Ever. I was one of the two kids in my class who failed their cycling proficiency test at Primary School, I sat my driving test multiple times and failed each one, I captained my school’s second Rugby team for no reason other than I’d been there longer thnan every other player and the first time I went to boxercise I was told, strongly, to get a drink when I turned a deeply purple colour. I don’t pass physical tests. I’m a sharp brain in a doughy body, someone who has spent their whole life two steps back from the world because I take up too much room. Or to put it another way I have been weighed, I have been measured and I have been found wanting plenty of times so the concept of being examined in how good I was at Judo filled me with something close to terror.
Actually that’s not true, what terrified me was the idea of failing where everyone else succeeded. There are four white belts and as far as I knew all four of us would be grading. Steve’s done Judo as a kid and Karate as an adult, Jim and Ollie both did Brazilian Jujitsu prior to joining the club and I can spell Brazilian Jujitsu and have watched Karate videoes on youtube, whilst eating a cheese sandwich. If anyone was going to fail, it was going to be me and that’s even before you factor in my weight, my lack of good eyesight and a dozen other different factors. As a result, I spent most of the day being haunted by one image; Steve, Olli and Jim getting their yellow belts, me failing by the tiniest of margins. The version of me standing across the mat smiling, turning and walking away. Weighed, measured, found wanting.Again.To make matters even worse, I’d sat out the Friday session the week before, which, it turns out, was essentially a How to Pass Your Grading Session.
Weighed. Measured. You know the rest.
So, on Steve’s suggestion, we turned up early and asked for mat space to practice. Grading is actually a very simple process; you just have to answer two questions, know some Japanese terminology and be able to demonstrate five throws and five holddowns. Simple, right? Especially after ten weeks.
I knew three hold downs. I was okay on two throws out of three, not five. We worked pretty hard as a result, walking through multiple practices of each technique both the motions and completing it. We did it at half speed, because we’re not idiots, but even at half speed this is a tough sport. You get picked up and put on the mat, hard, over and over and by the time the lesson started, we were both very, very warmed up and as ready as we were ever going to be. We even had a plan; obviously we’d be working together so on the hold downs we’d struggle enough to look convincing but not so much that we’d tire the person being assessed out. Easy, simple.
After the warm up, Steve was called over to do his grading and I was put in with the class. To the wet, apologetic sound of our plan collapsing under the weight of logic, I sparred with five different people as we worked on how to do throws right and left handed, going backards, forwards, sideways, stationary and at speed. Backwards throws are particularly fun because if you’re moving backwards your opponent thinks they’re on a winner, they step forward, you sweep their legs away and you both hit the mat. The secret is, make sure they hit it first.
Sparring at the top of the lesson is always a little weird because there’s no aggression but a lot of energy and focus. It’s also really interesting to do as a white belt because you’re essentially getting one to one coaching some of the time too, in between the violence. I remember sparring with a green belt who put me down, I got back up and he said ‘You got a grading tonight?’ I nodded, said I was worried and threw him. He got back up, smiled and said ‘You’ll do fine, your osoto otoshi’s great.’ and threw me again. Polite violence, a good conversation, reassurance. All those things and more in nothing more complex than four motions and a breakfall.
My last bout was with Wes, the US marine who also teaches at the class and by this stage we were drilling to land a throw, move to newaza or ground work and put our opponent in a hold. We locked up and Wes, as usual, didn’t make eye contact. He and a couple of the others never do this and it’s interesting because you don’t need to look at your opponent, you can feel where they are, what they’re doing. He threw me, put me in a hold, I did the same and suddenly, he was looking at me. In fact, he was looking at where I was positioned, whether I was actually holding him down. I was being assessed and after a few seconds he nodded, said ‘good’ and up we got. This went on until the last hold I was going to be graded on, the chest hold. I put Wes down, locked it in and he looked at me and said ‘What are you doing?’
‘The chest hold?’
‘Push down, come on! A guy your size I shouldn’t be able to breathe!’
So I did and then some more and then some more and finally, he nodded and up we got. We locked up again one alst time and he smiled and said ‘You’re not nice to your opponent on the mat, on the mat? You crush them. You buy them a drink in the bar afterwards, that’s when you’re nice.’
Show up. Work hard. Fight. And in my case, be graded. I was up.
I didn’t get a chance to talk to Steve, just got called over and bounced on the balls of my feet until it was time to go. I felt weird, calm, focussed, not worried, just…ready. I wonder if getting ready to compete is going to feel the same. I suspect it’s going to involve a lot more fear and nausea followed by hysterical laughter when I finish my first fight.
This time though, there was no laughter. Just Phil calmly telling me to execute a back breakfall, which I did, followed by a side breakfall. I did a front one and he gently pointed this out and even more gently guided me through the ten seconds of ‘OH GOD I’VE FAILED ALREADY’ hysteria that was clearly written all over my face. It turned out I had to do three front break falls anyway so I did my side one, then two more front. By the way, a front break fall is a forward roll off one shoulder and I’m surprisingly good at them. Backward rolls? Let’s just say my natural grace is in the mail.
Techniques were next and two of the yellow belt throws are amongst my favorites. Osoto Otoshi is lovely, nothing more than stepping to the side of your opponent, putting one foot behind them and shoving them backwards. I nailed that and nailed Deashi Barai, my other favourite following it. That’s as simple; wait for your opponent to move forward onto you, sweep their outer leg and power them into the mat. Again, it went well, something I was massively relieved with given I’d seriously practiced it for the first time an hour previously.
Uki Goshi followed that, or the Pussycat Dolls Hip Bump Throw as I still think of it. On big guys that’s a little difficult for me but Dave, a Scottish brown belt with a spectacularly deadpan sense of humour was very easy to throw. Plus, he sold for me like an absolute pro, executing perfect breakfalls despite being thrown by a scrappy, slightly panicked whitebelt.
So that was the vocab out of the way and the next stage was a few sentences in Fight. We did the throws again, this time transitioning through to a different hold down every time. Hold downs? Are very much my bag, as, when it comes down to it, all they actually are is restraining your opponent and lying very flat on them. Wes’ words echoing in my ears, I followed through, pushed my chest as far as I could down onto Dave’s and again, we were done. Break falls, throws, throws to hold downs and following that, escapes from hold downs all came naturally. The version of me on the other side of the mat suddenly looked further away, a little uncomfortable, a little like he was going to be beaten.
Two words, a single, completely blank mind. It was oddly restful in there, all I could hear was my breathing, echoing softly around in a lot of empty space. The other me, on the other side of the mat, began to laugh and saluted me. He turned to go, he’d won, he didn’t need to see the rest.
I scrabbled to keep the panic down, scrabbled to get focussed again. I was so close, so close that I could feel it and the image of me as the last white belt left in the shop was just that; an image. It wasn’t going to happen, I wasn’t going to let it.
I was going to think my way out of this. I paid attention to what was being said to me, how it was said, I put the bits I could remember in line and I…guessed. I had a decent shot, I knew most of it and all it was was language. I can do language. I can’t do physicality, I suck at physicality but language? Language I can damn well do.
I guessed, I got it. Phil looked up at me, smiled and said ‘You’ve passed, well done mate.’
I swear to God the triumphant Top Gun guitar theme started playing in my mind as I walked over to the rest of the class. A Steve shaped pink blur looked over at me and I gave him the thumbs up, he gave me one back. We’d done it. We’d done it and after two hours of physical exercise I was all set to go again. Put me in, set me in front of someone else and whether or not they’re going down they’re damn well going to have to work to put me down. I felt great, I felt strong, I felt ready and that feeling lasted exactly as long as it took me to get two steps into the warm down. Everyone else was moving with grace and speed and control. I was, well…let’s just say I was moving. For a while. Then I stopped.
We lined up and Jamie told the class we’d passed. We were called out one by one to get our licences and clapped on the way back to the line. As we were dismissed, Wes shook our hands, Gareth congratulated us and Phil quietly reminded us of the phrases that, it turned out, we’d both tripped up on. Florien, who six weeks earlier had dropped me very hard on my shoulder, even stopped to congratulate us.
Someone else didn’t. The version of me I always stand across from didn’t congratulate me. He looked at me, for a long time and didn’t say anything. He wasn’t smiling, and he still isn’t. He knows he’s in a fight now.
I’m writing this the Sunday after the grading and it’s taken four days to get my knees working properly again. I’m tired, I’m sore and I’m very aware that I no longer have a safety blanket. I’m not a white belt anymore, my job is no longer to fail better next time. My job now is to get better and to keep getting better, because no one’s going to go easy on me anymore. I’ve got a belt, I’ve got a rank and that means I need to work harder not just for me, but for everyone else. For the next tubby thirtysomething white belt who doesn’t know if this is a good idea or not. Him, especially, I’m looking forward to working with.
I’ve progressed. I’ve learnt a huge amount in the last three months and whilst none of it’s been easy it’s all been fun, even being kicked in the face. The ground beneath me used to be white but now it’s yellow. Three months back, a fat, frightened man with crappy eyesight is wondering whether or not he’s made the right choice. Now, a less frightened, less fat man (Who still has crappy eyesight) is looking ahead to his next grading, for orange belt, in a couple of months. I have been weighed, I have been measured and I have not been found wanting, not even close. Who knows, maybe they’ll make a knight of me yet.