Mention Judo to anyone and, chances are, they’ll think of four moves. The first is the foot in the chest over the shoulder throw that Captain Kirk used on a near weekly basis in Star Trek. It’s called tomoe nage and it’s a throw I’ve not been taught just yet partially Steve and I are both larger than most other people there and partially because you have to be able to fall over, backwards and support your opponent, on one foot as you hurl them over your head and onto the ground. There are variations too, which are variations in the same way that being hit in the chest with a plank is slightly different to being hit in the head. One of them involves spinning your opponent sideways on your foot into the ground, another involves rolling all the way over with them and putting them in a stranglehold and all of them involve more skill and manual dexterity than I have, at least for now.
The second iconic Judo move is a shoulder throw or seoi nage. This is where you grab your opponent’s arm, turn and slide your other arm into their arm pit with your knees bent, lift your knees, bend your back and hurl them over the top of your head. Again, this hurts, again this looks amazing and again, this is a throw we haven’t quite got to yet.
The third iconic Judo is the Judo chop. But that’s just something Austin Powers does. Or, again, it’s something I’m not quite ready for, it’s difficult to tell.
The final iconic Judo move however is uchi mata. Uchi mata is the nuclear warhead of Judo, a throw which is very difficult to pull off, very difficult to land right and if you do, scores the maximum possible amount of points. It’s also, like all these other moves, made of very simple motions. Unlike these other throws, it’s something I know how to do.
Speed is something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about following this lesson. It’s something I have to be aware of because the faster you work, the harder you work, especially if you’re my size and that means that the amount of time you can compete begins to drop off pretty steeply. It’s all well and good wanting to be Rocky, some huge slab of man muscle that can take endless punishment but the thing is? It doesn’t work. Because you’re a huge slab of man muscle and man muscle is HEAVY. So it’s all well and good throwing yourself around like a ninja but you’ll be able to do that for just over a minute. Then you’ll be throwing yourself around like a large, stumbling overweight person desperately trying to breathe. And by you I mean me.
So speed is a factor as is size. And as a result I was desperately grateful that after the traditional brutal warm up, we moved onto uchi mata in the last possible way I expected us to; at walking speed.
You see, speed in Judo is a shared commodity and one that you both try and gain possession of. Every time you move you generate energy and if you generate the right amount you can take your opponent down, or throw them or put them where you want to be. Of course every time you move you also give your opponent what amounts to a free start on getting you where they want you to be. Balance and strength, speed and power, move and countermove. Like I said last week, Judo is a language, a Judo match is a conversation and uchi mata it seems is a full stop.
We partnered up and, as Steve had waved off for the night, I was partnered with Karen, one of the club’s brown belts. Karen’s very polite, softly spoken and an excellent teacher and together we followed the instructions which meant we walked slowly back and forth, facing each other and holding our gi jackets on the collar and sleeve three steps one way and three steps the other. You live and die in Judo based on your weight, where it is, what your balance is like and this drill got us to focus on that. Next, we walked three steps each way and on the third step, the person moving backwards stopping as the person moving forwards took an extra step towards them. Then we did it again, adding a fifth step as you turned towards and into your opponent. Then we did all of that, followed by a turn sideways into your opponent and lifting your off leg. Then turn sideways into your opponent and lift your off leg and sweep it back wards. Then do all those steps again, with your partner following through and landing as though thrown. Then, doing it at full speed.
Uchi mata is a visually impressive throw, as you grab your opponent, turn into them and sweep a leg backwards as you simultaneously yank their shoulders down and around. It literally spins your opponent around your leg, driving them through two hundred and seventy degrees and into the ground.
We ran through it a few times and then the instructor called a break and yelled ‘You! Big white belt at the end! Ever done this before?’ I had a moment of absolute nothing, absolute clarity. Was I in trouble? Probably not. So I said ‘No’ and the instructor said ‘Everyone look at this, do what you just did.’
And I did. And it worked, and Karen pinwheeled into the mat. The instructor pointed at us and said ‘First time he’s ever done that, that’s pretty good.’ And just like that I felt something fit into place. It wasn’t a big Damascene moment, no shining light, no ancient warrior spirit bowing in acknowledgement of me or anything like that. Just the realisation that I’m good at this, I’m not a dead weight, that I’m capable and crucially, becoming capable of doing much, much more. I didn’t rest on my laurels, I kept working hard and in fact didn’t have a choice. The conversation hadn’t stopped after all.
We moved onto a strangle, and I have to confess, I love these. I’ve been fascinated and terrified by the thought of learning chokeholds and strangles since I started because I have a superhumanly strong gag reflex, something that I find out three or four times a lesson when I hyper ventilate and start to retch. This has become known to Steve and I as the ‘Alasdair is Having Too Much Fun’ siren and every instinct I have is to work through it. I don’t. It beats me every time so now I work on trying to spread the gaps between the times the siren goes off. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. As a result though, strangles and chokes are something which fascinate me because they show me where the line is, show me things I can’t do, where my weaknesses lie.
The strangle we learnt this week is, like all my favourite Judo movies utterly simple and utterly brutal. Once your opponent is prone, you dive on them, sliding the hand nearest their bum (This is honestly how it was explained to me) under their arm pit to grab the far side of their jacket. Then your other hand digs into their collar at the neck and then your first elbow drops. You effectively crush their windpipe between your arms and then you roll on one shoulder, dragging them over the top of you and either put them in a scarf hold or keep the choke on and get the submission. It’s a really, really nasty elegant move and it was the other major thing we practised this lesson. Again, it was something I got, another piece of vocabulary dropping into place, another word in the language learnt.
As is always the case, most of the last fifteen minutes of the lesson was sparring and, as is always the case, I didn’t last through all of it. The Too Much Fun Siren kicked in about three quarters of the way through and I raised my hand and walked off the mat. It’s one of the things I love about the Railway Institute Club, they positively encourage you to not be a hero. If you hit your limit, and you will, then you raise your hand, take a couple of minutes off the mat and then come back on. When I step off, what I try and do is pay attention to the fights that are still going because then I’m still learning. Admittedly it’s difficult without my glasses and everyone is reduced to a pink blur but I won’t put my glasses back on during a lesson. That’s a crutch, a lifeline, me running back to being mild mannered and nerdy and unfit. If I do that, the me on the other side of the mat wins. So I stand, because you get your breath back faster that way and I watch how other people move and I think about what it’ll be like when I’m fit enough to go a whole lesson.
I could have stayed off the mat for the last ten minutes. I ached, I’d been thrown around, I’d worked hard. I quite wanted to stay off the mat, run out the clock. Then the instructor asked for a volunteer and I stuck my hand up before I was quite aware I was doing so, walked forward and down to the bottom of the mat and bowed to Ollie, one of the other white belts. He bowed to me, the teacher signalled us to start and we locked up.
Ollie is two thirds my size and wiry and strong and as we fought for leverage, I realise now that something stopped happening; I stopped thinking. I reacted, launched attacks, turned him around and got dumped on my ass. I was already moving as Ollie wrapped his legs across my shoulders and tried for an arm bar but was able to resist it. Arm bars are where your opponent uses their entire weight and both arms to hyper extend your arm and force you to tap out. If you don’t, your arm breaks, it’s that simple. Much like Uchi Mata it’s a fight ender, a full stop. Unless you get your other arm around the one that they’re trying to arm bar, which I managed to do.
We got back up, went back at it and Ollie got me again and this time, got the arm bar on and I tapped out to show I’d submitted. This is when you tap your opponent twice to make sure they know you’ve quit and it’s a must if you don’t want to get hurt.
What interested me in both cases was these were rough fights. Neither of us held back, both of us wanted to win badly and yet when we’d finished, Ollie grinned, patted me on the shoulder and we congratulated each other, as did one of the instructors. Judo is a language of violence but it’s also a courteous one.
Judo takes it all out of me so I tend to be one of the last people out. As I was leaving, the instructor who’d called on me earlier said ‘Your uchi mata worries me.’ He grinned as he drew level with me and said ‘I get very uncomfortable seeing big men do that move that well. It’s such a hard move to land but if you can? That’s a match winner.’ He headed past me out to the changing rooms and after a minute, I followed. After another minute, the quiet, satisfied smile even began to fade.
I hurt after every lesson, sometimes badly. Despite the armbar Ollie got on me being half strength, my elbow ached for four days afterwards. It pushes me to the absolute edge physically and intellectually and, for the first time, I got an indication that I’m good at this, that I can learn and most of all improve. Or to put it another way this isn’t just a language I can speak, it’s a language I’m starting to learn. The road is still stretching out in front of me, but I’ve travelled some distance and, for the first time, I can see that.