Three impressions. A voice first, ‘DON’T CHASE HIM!’ being yelled at me as my opponent dances in, grabs me, turns me, dances out and I do my best to chase him and my best isn’t good enough. He’s smaller and faster and better at this than me but if I can just keep up, just match his speed…I’m going to be lose.
I stand still. He approaches me. I throw him.
There’s something in my face. I’m kneeling, my opponent beneath me trying to wriggle free and I am not letting him. He pulls his left leg up and over my shoulder and across my face and that’s fine because he’s not going anywhere and, weirdly, neither am I. I’m working hard, I’m working longer than I’ve ever done before but I’m not panicking, not overstretched. He’s on the floor. I’m above him. He’s not going anywhere. Then he draws his foot back and I move forward and his foot moves forward and-
I’m kneeling on the floor, looking at my opponent as he pulls himself upright. Jamie’s yelling something at him and cuffs him on the arm. My lip feels a little big, a little sore and there’s something in my mouth, something which comes away red. I stand up, we lock up, we go again.
Judo, for me, sits on the borderline between polite and brutal. It’s a sport which consists of countless variations on the same basic movements, the physical language that I’ve spoken about before. Twist one way you do one throw, twist another you do a second. You trip and be tripped, pull and push, fall and get back up again and content yourself with the knowledge that good students, good teachers, will help you back up when you fall.
But they will do their best to push you over first.
We had a visitor at Judo this week, a former instructor and heavyweight member of the English squad. He was an instructor when Phil, the older instructor who looks after the lower grades was in his 20s and the first look I got at him was a very serious, very large man making his way down the hall towards the mat. My first thought, because I tend to go there first, was we were going to be graded this week and as a result, I was doomed. I wasn’t ready, I needed more practice, I hadn’t even made any flashcards. I mentioned this to Steve, who hadn’t seen the gentleman at all, and he looked at me thought for a moment and politely asked if I was hallucinating Mr Miyagi from The Karate Kid movies again. One time, one time and it just never gets left behind.
Our visitor turned out to be a former member of the British team who was also a former instructor at the Railway Institute Club, an instructor who taught Phil, our instructor, when he was in his twenties. I was still trying to do the maths on exactly how old he was during the first third of the session, which was sparring with people and using control games to learn how to move, feint and avoid. Holding one hand in the back of your belt, you face off with your opponent and try and hit a particular part of their body with the flat of your hand. If you’re small and nimble and fast this is great. If you’re larger, slower and have bad eyesight, this is necessary.
There’s a moment in Redbelt, one of David Mamet’s best films where the female lead comes to see Mike, the main character at his Jujitsu studio. She talks herself out of learning the martial art and is in the process of leaving when Mike, standing at the opposite end of the room says:
‘Can I strike you here?’
She thinks for a moment and says ‘No.’ He tells her to move to where he can strike her and she does, standing in front of him. He asks again ‘Can I strike you there?’ she says yes and he sayd
‘Don’t stand there.’
Judo is all about not standing there, not moving to a spot where your opponent can take you and even better, making sure that they move somewhere you can take them. I hated these drills. They made me feel fat and slow and stupid but they didn’t last long and I got better as they went on. Sort of like the violent version of eating your greens being good for you.
From there, we went onto working on a particular throw and Steve and I got pulled to one side by this veteran. He was our size and then some and together we walked, very slowly, through the throw until we got the movements down, got it tweaked, got it right. Or, at the very least, right enough for starters. There is a huge amount of subtlety and care to Judo, movements which aren’t apparent but if you can tailor them to your size, make the difference between a clear throw and a scrappy one. We spent half an hour being taught by a forty year veteran and that experience, that ability to get deep into conversation with someone who speaks the language fluently, was extraordinary. This was a man who was much further along the road than we were but was still learning, still adapting and still travelling down the road. He was in the process of getting over knee surgery, was cautious, in pain at times but kept going. He was fighting too, not just opponents but, like we all do, himself. For me, that fight is with my lack of confidence, my physical fitness. For him it was getting past a knee operation, learning how to move again. It was tough, it hurt, he kept going. So we did too.
The end of the session, after practicing the technique we had what Steve refers to as a solid half hour of ‘Fight Club’. Randori, or sparring, is practice fighting, at competition speed for some, at a speed you can still breathe at for others. I had a couple of bouts, including one with Karen who, at one point, I threw. In typical Yorkshire Judo fashion she plummeted to the ground cheerfully saying ‘Nice one!’ before picking herself up and putting me down. We chatted as the fight finished, both opting to take a breather and as we did so she said ‘You and your mate are really coming on, you’re getting much smoother now.’ That felt great. Karen’s a brown belt, she’s an excellent Judoka and if she thinks I’m getting better? I’m getting better.
We watched Steve finish a match and take a breather, and after chatting to him for a moment, I went back on. My opponent was a yellow belt, a third my size. He’s good, very good in fact and when we begun he dived for me and we began turning and turning, looking for an opening, looking for a way to take each other off balance. He threw me, we moved to groundfighting and something odd happened.
We kept going. He didn’t shut me down in fifteen seconds, I didn’t tap out. He tried a hold, I broke out of it, I tried a hold, he broke out of it and round we went. We finally got stood back up and started again and again, I tried matching his pace. As an aside, I was aware this session that the Alasdair is Having Too Much Fun siren hadn’t gone off, hadn’t even thought about it in fact. I was tired though and getting more so as we yanked each other around again and this time, the veteran yelled ‘DON’T CHASE HIM!’
I stopped. He moved onto me, and I stopped and I threw him, hard. I followed him down, tried for a choke, he broke free, tried something, I broke free and we rolled over. He tried a scarf hold on me and I just…sat up. I moved him off me, looked for a choke and he rolled out of the way and this time he was on his back. That is not where you want to be, especially if your opponent is two thirds bigger than you and I dived on him, distantly aware that Steve was laughing, yelling ‘CRUSH HIM!’ and he and Karen were commenting that I was doing pretty well.
I was aware my opponent was panicking too. Aware that he was trying to break free and even as he pulled his foot back, even as his heel bounced off my face I wasn’t angry. I was very calm, very focussed. I’d set my feet. I wasn’t chasing him. I wiped my lip, was distantly aware of my opponent being told off by Jamie and we stood up. We fought again, he threw me and again, on the ground he could do absolutely nothing. Time was called on sparring and I stood up and, to my surprise, found two things were happening. I was utterly calm and grinning like a wolf firstly and secondly, I had something left in the tank. I could have sparred again, I wanted to spar again and that was something more than the standard survivor’s joy, something deeper. I’d had fun. I wanted to have fun again. Instead, I asked my opponent if he was okay, as he was holding his wrist and he said he was, we got up, bowed to each other and joined the class’ warm up.
I made a point of talking to him because the last thing I want to do is carry macho bags between sessions. I hadn’t won, make no mistake, but I hadn’t lost and the last thing I wanted was for him to think I was lording it over him. Besdies, all that had happened was I’d held the line and he’d broken against me. I was the one able to bounce up and walk away, apparently grinning through blood stained teeth but that didn’t mean he hadn’t done well. We’d had a great conversation, one that had left us both battered and bruised and able to speak the language better. For that? Being kicked in the face is no price at all.