The Judo Diaries: Week 5 – Big Time

It’s probably time we talked about Batman. I grew up in the 1980s and as a result I have a deep intimate knowledge of the old Adam West Batman TV show as it, along with The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, was a mainstay of kids’ TV. I couldn’t stand the Adam West version for a long time, thought it was dull, had aged badly, wasn’t funny. Now I think it’s hilarious and not only that but I credit it for being my first introduction to the character and to the work ethic that sits behind the character.

You see what really fascinates me about Batman is the fact he’s a brain and a body working in perfect harmony. A deductive genius with medical and scientific training, a man who is at home swinging from a rope dressed as a giant bat as he is punching a mugger in the throat as he is swapping thoughts on F.Scott Fitzgerald at a blue blood fundraiser. Thousands of words have been written about the inherent duality of Batman, the fact he’s two personalities trapped in the same body but, because I’m arrogant, I disagree with that theory. I think Batman is truly a character in absolute unity with himself, someone who is as comfortable intellectualising the physical as he is taking the physical approach to the intellectual.

I mention this because one of my earliest memories of Batman comics is a story about Batgirl (Work with me it was the 1960s) and her final exam before being allowed out on the street. As I remember it, the story opened with the pair of them facing off on either side of a roof and Batman saying ‘A fight is like a conversation’ and the fight between them being the framing device for another story. That line always stuck with me and it’s one which returned to me this week at Judo.

Although, with all due respect to the last heir of the Wayne fortune, I think he’s wrong too.

You see, I don’t see Judo as a conversation, I see it as a language. It’s a physical language, certainly one where you communicate by controlling your opponent’s movement, their space, their limbs and they attempt to do the same. It has grammar and structure in its’ structure,its’ uniform and it has punctuation in the way that a fight transitions from standing up to the ground and back again. It’s a means of communicating and it’s a means which, up until this week, seemed designed for people a little bit smaller than I am. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got huge amounts from my first month at Judo but I was very aware going in of these three things;

-I’m tall and bulky.

-I’m overweight.

-I’m not very bendy.

A lot of Judo throws are genuinely graceful especially the advanced stuff. You twist your body through space to either escape an attack or drive one home and you do so at speed and at angles that my knees look at and, well, start laughing a little hysterically. I’m tall and bulky, I’m overweight, I’m not very bendy. It’s all well and good showing me this stuff where I bend through thirty degrees and throw my opponent onto the mat over my shoulder but…I’m tall. I’m bulky. I’m overweight. I don’t do bendy. Straight lines? I do. Short explosive power? I do.

What sealed the idea of Judo as a language in my mind was what I learn this week; it has dialects, including one especially for me. You see there are really a couple of major ways a Judo bout will go. Lightweight players will pull each other around the mat, going throw for throw, trading big, exhausting techniques until one of them gets lucky and pins or submits the other. Heavyweight players on the other hand, well, we have a big asset and a big problem; we’re big. Whether it’s flab or muscle or both the simple truth of it is this; the human body is difficult to push around for extended periods of time at speed and when you throw in another human body of the same type? And clash them together over and again? And then when you do gain control you have to pick up your opponent or throw them off balance, land them on the ground and either pin them or force them to submit? You can see how it gets to be hard work. That’s even before you factor in the way that Judo is 5-10 seconds of massive effort with 10-20 seconds of less effort followed by 5-10 of massive again. Like an instructor said to me a little while ago, the sheer effort involved in breaking an opponent’s guard and slamming your body into their’s is exhausting and when you’re already working hard because you and your opponent are huge it translates to a lower work rate and shorter fights. If you land the primary attack in a heavyweight fight and you land it fast and hard? Chances are you’re going to win. The trick is working out what that attack is. This lesson, we were shown it, at least for me.

You’re not allowed to use a leg sweep as a primary attack in Judo so we were shown how to use leg sweeps as primary attacks and get away with it. Sort of How I Learnt to Stop Worrying and Love the Tackle because that’s exactly what the techniques I was shown this week are; tackles. The first two were basically the same technique; run do not walk run at your opponent, duck to one side, him them with your shoulder and sweep one leg inside your opponent’s leg and pull backwards. If you want to steady yourself, raise an arm and drive it into their chest diagonally. They’ll fall down either way, especially if you’re big. Especially if you’re me. We spent a lot of time on these techniques and, well, they sort of amazed me. They’re rugby tackles. I can do rugby tackles. I’m good at rugby tackles and when I tackle someone they stay tackled. These are techniques that are built for people who are built like me and I’m good at them and I really, really enjoyed learning them.

Of course the throw we learnt after them, which involves grabbing your opponent’s back, sweeping one leg and hopping them backwards before lifting them in a circle and slamming them back first into the mat completely lost me. It’s odd because there’s some parts of this sport where I can almost feel the red line at the edge of my understanding in front of me. On the other side of it are these amazing, balletic throws but right now I can’t cross that line. That’s a part of the language I don’t speak, or rather, I don’t speak right now.

They also led to a moment which is one of those shining little things you don’t expect until they break over you. A lot of lessons now are ‘Here’s the technique, try it with a couple of sparring partners, here’s the next one’ and I ended up partnered with a twentysomething brown belt for one of these techniques. This guy is good, in great physical shape, fantastically gifted and as is always the case when I fight him, he won. But the whole time he was giving me tips, things like break the lock on your opponent’s elbows to get them close enough to you, to move faster, close the distance faster, launch the first attack. The end of the fight, he patted me on the shoulder, grinned and said ‘You want to work on these techniques. A guy your size will flatten people with them.’ He’s far, far better at this than me, far fitter and he took the time to complement me on how I’d done and give me some pointers.

I had another like that later on when Steve and I were taken to one side by Paul. Paul’s one of the instructors, and he’s built the same way as us. He’s also refreshingly up front about the limitations you face as a big guy in Judo and told us that a lot of the time it comes down to who gets the first attack in or ‘Fuck them up first’ as he likes to call it. I ended up sparring with Paul and noticed something fascinating. He doesn’t make eye contact, at any point, with his opponent. He does it all by feel, by touch, sensing where his opponent is without having to look at them and that speaks to both the idea of Judo as a physical language and the idea that you can take different approaches and reach the same destination.

Paul also makes this look easy and kept up a running commentary throughout the fight. There’s a principle in Judo called ‘fighting distance’ that everything happens within two feet of your opponent and a lot of the defence moves I’ve been learning involve holding your opponent at the edge of that space. If you can close through that gap, get yourself next to the other player, then you have the chance to throw them and to do that you have to move fast, explosively, push through their guard and basically slam yourself against them.

I did this, for the first time, with Paul. I think it was a tai toshi and I was so surprised I’d got him I almost didn’t finish the technique. Hurtling towards the ground, Paul very calmly said ‘No worries, I have no problem being thrown if you’re doing it right’ and then hit the ground. I’d done it right. Just once, but I’d done it right. I’d spoken the language.

That idea, that Judo is a language fascinates me. It’s a language of throws and sweeps, pushes and tugs, arcs and slams and the mathematical grace of letting momentum do your work for you. It’s a language of explosive physical activity and pushing past your limits and it’s a language whose sentences are frequently savagely violent. But it’s a language, it’s a means of communication, it’s something I can do not only with my body but with my mind. Six weeks ago, I had no idea how to even introduce myself in it but now? Now I can at least order a coffee and I’m learning more every week. A fight is a conversation, Judo is a language and I’m learning to speak it.

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3 comments

  1. Wow – six weeks in and you’ve nailed a lot of what japanese martial arts are about – meeting of minds. In the tea ceremony there is a moment when the host hands the cup to the guest, in kendo the minds meet as the points of the shinai touch and form a discussion of tiny probing movements.

    How you talk about distance is also interesting – safe distance and attack distance – 2 feet in judo? 3 feet in aikido? 4 feet in karate? Etc.

    Anyway great update!

  2. Doing things by touch is quite common in arts where you have some form of contact when you’re engaged but haven’t started trading techniques yet.

    It’s related to the magician’s truth that “the hand is quicker than the eye”.

    A classical fencer would call it “Le sentiment de fer”.

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