I’m a yellow belt. That means on the most basic level that I know how to do five throws (Osoto Otoshi, Deashi Barai, Uki Goshi, Uchi Mata and Tai Otoshi and note I said know how to do them not how to spell them) and five hold downs (Kesa Gatame, Broken Scarf Hold, Chest Hold…the other one and side hold). I know how to escape from hold downs three different ways (Not even going to try with those) and I spend about twenty minutes a week fighting. Six weeks ago I would have said I spent twenty minutes a weak getting beaten up but that’s got a little bit better. Not much, but a little.
I’m a yellow belt. I’m fitter, I’m stronger, I’m smarter than I was. I don’t get terrified when I fight anymore, just lightly scared. I’ve bled, out on the mat, which is a ridiculous Hemingwayian chest-beating piece of machismo but it’s one I’m oddly proud of. I’ve been hurt in a fight and kept going, not won, but held my own.
I’m a yellow belt. I’m one of them now, no longer a rookie, no longer a tourist. I’m on the path, the same as everyone else, a fellow traveller learning the ways the human body moves, its tolerances, what it can stand, what it can’t abide, where my limits are and how to push them. I’m not perfect but I’m not meant to be, I’m meant to be learning, meant to be improving. I’m standing on yellow ground where I used to be standing on white. I’m on the path. I’m getting there. I’m a yellow belt.
Except I’m actually a red belt.
I was a couple of minutes late to class this week, and when I got there they were just starting warm up. I had my glasses off before I really noticed anything and halfway through warm up, Steve came over to me and I realised that his belt was visible. Now the thing is, for anything to be visible to me is quite an achievement with my glasses off but his belt was visible. It was also red. He explained that apparently the club used the red belt rank as well, which is discretionary, and whilst we had definitely graded, we had graded to red belt. As was pointed out to me later, this was probably why the base of the certificate I got saying I’m now a 6th Kyu Judo player and the little sticker I got to put in my licence book were both red. By the way that little book and the fact there’s now writing in it is one of the things I’m proudest to own.
Anyway, a belt is a belt, red is red, so I tied a belt on and off we went. Jamie’s doing a lot of work with gymnastic stretches at the moment and it’s paying dividends. Judo, fundamentally, relies on your flexibility as much as your strength and skill so the bendier I am, the better position I’m starting from. If nothing else, the bendier I am the more capable I am of wriggling out of holds and the more able I am to throw myself around the mat. That’s coming too, especially my forward rolls, as was demonstrated by the forward break falls I did last week. It’s not impressive by any standards, but I’m quite proud of being six foot one, 22 stone and able to execute a pretty damn good forward roll.
By the way, that little fact was me sharing. You may all begin colouring in your pictures of me green and marking them Shrek now.
Anyway, the techniques this week were a couple of turns, which are really important. If you’re thrown during a Judo bout, and your opponent isn’t quick enough, you can turtle. You pull your arms and legs in make yourself as small and heavy as possible and bank on them either wearing themselves out trying to move you, the fight being restarted on your feet or them screwing up and giving you the chance to fight from the ground. The two techniques we learnt were great for countermanding this, the first involving grabbing your opponent under the arm pits, tucking your head under their right arm and rolling sideways with them going over the top. Do it right, you basically land with them in a chest hold and, well…I have a lot of chest. Do it wrong, they’re still in trouble but you’re in line with them when you should be at ninety degrees to them. We did this a few times, and some we got wrong and some we got right. That’s how it works, after all, we’re COLOR TO BE DETERMINED LATER belts now.
The second technique was similar but way more fun. From a standing position you grab your opponent under the armpits, haul them up against your knees, bump your legs against them and fall backwards. Do it right, they basically fly where you want them to and this one? This one we nailed. Steve and I are both drawn to ‘No you’re going OVER THERE’ techniques and this is just the ticket. I think I can add it to my arsenal (Arsenal in this case being two throws and three hold downs plus some stuff I still need to do the maths on) after another week or so.
Then the real fun began. Jamie’s very fond of what I call ramping randori, starting with throws and nothing else and building up to full blown bouts. This was what we got plugged into and as the lesson went on I did a full run of five opponents and five matches. It occurs to me now that this is not only the second week I’ve done that but only the second week I’ve done that. My fitness is definitely improving, my technique, well it’s on the way.
I love randori. I used to hate it but now I love it, because it’s fun, because it’s playtime. It’s a chance to try techniques out on people who trust me and who I trust and pick up some valuable tips. This week, it was also a chance to catch up with some old friends. Two matches in, I bowed, walked forward to my opponent and was met with the smiling face of Greg, who I referred to as Glen in week nine. Greg was the guy I’d had the (relatively) epic fight with, where I’d got kicked in the face and he’d had a full size me land on his wrist by accident. He waved at me with a hand in a purple cast and I boggled and asked if he was okay. He grinned, assured me he was and we bounced each other off the mat for two minutes. This one, he got the better of me on, but it doesn’t matter. Every match is a learning experience and, being honest, I was worried about him. I was worried about hurting him, and more so when Steve mentioned in passing that he was training to be a surgeon. I didn’t particularly like the idea of accidentally being complicit in the maiming of a surgeon. Being very honest I was also worried, no, frightened, that he was going to want to kick my ass seriously. He wasn’t, he didn’t, it was a fun fight in a string of fun fights that also included getting bounced around by Karen, one of the club brown belts. Karen’s huge fun to fight, because she’s small and relentless and throws something interesting into the ground work every time. This week it was an armbar and this week? I tapped out, like always. But this week, I was paying attention too. After all, I’m a EVENTUALLY WE’LL FIND OUT WHAT COLOR WE ARE belt.
Having been well and truly bounced around, and done a reasonable amount of it myself, including a hugely fun match with Steve which he won, Jamie called us over to one side of the balcony for some final exercises. These started with duck walking, where you bounce from your knees and swing your arms whilst walking in a straight line, sort of like Chuck Berry but without the decades of rock and roll and slight sense of being trapped by ‘Johnny B Goode’. This hurts, and being honest is the reason why my knee was creaking a full week after the last session but I did it anyway.
Something odd happened during this too. Three quarters of the way across the mat, my knees yelling at me, I was aware that Jamie and a couple of other people were cheering me on. This…bothered me. I’m used to the ‘Let’s cheer the fat kid who’s last home because otherwise he might die’ response in physical activity and I hate it. I don’t go at anyone else’s speed, I go at mine and I’ll damn well get it done if you give me the time to do it. On the other hand, though, this time it was…genuine. Or at least felt genuine, as people who were working as hard as I was and saw I was doing my best decided to cheer me on.
Knees still screaming, we then did this backwards. I fell over. I did it anyway, at least three quarters of the way across the mat. Then, we did bunny hops back across the mat, and then, around the time my legs were telling me that it wasn’t that they didn’t like me it was that seeing other people might be healthy, Jamie unleashed the final punishment for the night. Bunny hops back across the mat, but pushing with our legs as much as we could and using our legs to push us over into a forward roll. It was beautiful to see, using the largest muscles in the body to push the rest of the body neatly through the air in a perfect circle, heads never touching the ground.
Let’s do some maths; that sort of move plus six foot one 22 stone tired nerd who doesn’t want to quit and whose instructor is yelling ‘Come on, Alasdair! Big effort!’ equals…
The feeling of my entire body resting on the top of my head. A crackling noise from my neck. Two points of light and heat and pain on either side of my tongue. Me actually, swear to God, completing the damn roll, and sitting, legs wide, very still for a couple of seconds and wondering if I’d broken my neck.
I hadn’t. I stood, walked over to Steve and we sat out the next exercise because I was feeling a little dazed. Also, I’d bitten my tongue, very hard, with both incisors, and spent the rest of the night swallowing blood. I also spent the rest of the week talking oddly as my tongue briefly became diamond shaped.
It didn’t matter. Heading off the mat when we were done, a couple of people chatted to us. Greg gently mocked us about being red belts, technically a children’s rank, in the changing rooms (The a actual phrase was ‘Congratulations, lads, you are exactly as good at Judo as a nine year old.’) and then turned it on its head in a really interesting way. He showed us his syllabus, which made no mention of red belts for adults, assured us he’d never had to wear one and suggested we speak to the instructors about it. He…made us feel welcome, something which was only accentuated by seeing Ollie, one of the other white belts, who’d also successfully graded. We felt, the four of us in particular, like contemporaries, colleagues, a tiny little bit like a pack. We, I, appear to have been accepted. I’m not a tourist anymore, not a rookie. I’m a WHAT COLOR DO I ACTUALLY HAVE? Belt and it feels great.