There’s a motion that lies at the heart of a lot of Judo. It looks, for all the world, like ballroom dancing, both of you holding on with both hands as you turn and turn, pull and push, each leading and following. It looks completely graceful and easy, right up until the point where one of the two people dancing picks the other one up and throws them into the ground. Which, let’s face it, is not the sort of thing you tend to see in a ballroom dancing lesson, at least never more than once.
The interesting thing about this motion is that it’s incredibly adaptable. The first third of the lesson this week focussed on this exact movement, learning to turn and be turned, transitioning your opponent from left to right. The idea is to get used to not only shifting your opponent around but moving and contorlling someone from multiple angles and directions. We built this up step by step, first with one hand, then two, then blocking out a throw, then completing it. This ‘Lego’ style of teaching is something we do a lot and it works beautifully. Get the first motion right and add another, get the second motion right and add a third, get them all right and your opponent’s on the ground before you are. Even better, you learn to throw people on the left and the right, moving forwards and backwards and crucially, you start to learn, physically, about motion points. It is, odd as it sounds, much easier to throw someone backwards if they’re moving forwards, easier to throw someone to the right if they’re already moving to the left. This principle, of applied and refocussed force, is, as near as I can tell, something close to the heart of both Judo and Aikido and it’s fascinating to see it in action. Jamie spent a long time not only walking us through this but also showing us exactly how versatile this looping, circular motion is. You can literally drop an opponent into four forward throws and a couple of backward throws from this motion, provided you’re in control. Most of throws are Goshi variants, or, to put it another way, another triumphant week of the Pussycat Dolls. Hip throws are really smart, very hard techniques because fundamentally what you’re doing is lifting your opponent, turning them through ninety degrees and throwing them at the ground. There is little or no way to do this softly or nicely because you’re basically falling three feet. Throw in the fact that I have a lot of mass and that I’m being thrown by someone with a lot of mass and the end result is a throw which genuine recovery time from. Most throws, at least in class, I can bounce straight back up from but the Pussycat Dolls throws? They take about three seconds to get back up from and, in competition, that’s an eternity. Something to remember for the future, or at least try and defend against.
The interesting thing about this is that all this section of the lesson did was put me in mind of the Judo tree from last week. Thinking about it now, I wonder whether the trunk of the Judo tree I’ve talked about before isn’t a specific technique, but rather, this motion. Move them around, position them, take them down in any one of half a dozen ways.
We moved onto Randori after this, and were given the choice of shifting to Newaza randori, or groundfighting, from Tachiwaza, or standing throws, if we wanted to. This led to three interesting observations, the first of which came just before we were told we’d be sparring. I was getting, focussed, calm. I found myself standing on the edge of the mat, very aware of how my feet were set, where my hands were and how much they weren’t wrapped around the collar of someone else’s gi. Eight weeks ago, hell, six weeks ago, Randori made me want to be sick because it was a fight, it was impolite, it was a physical confrontation. Now, I look forward to it.
I was up against Steve first, and, to be honest, was a tiny bit intimidated. Steve trains twice a week, has two inches on me and is technically a very gifted Judoka. He’s rapidly gaining an instinctive understanding of how to use his mass as a weapon, he’s fast for a big guy and he’s got some really nice techniques. So I was a little nervous, which of course means that being put across the mat from Steve was the perfect thing to happen. The advantage of Judo is you get to face your fears. The advantage of Judo for me is that my fears tend to be out of focus even when I face them.
We locked up, and he pushed me back and went for a throw and I turned him. We went back and forth, each launching attacks and defences and at one point, as I bulled Steve across the mat he looked at me, laughed and said ‘You’ve got BETTER’. We went back across the mat and just like at the top of the lesson, I turned him, let him move to my side, locked myself in tight and pushed, sweeping his legs over my right leg and down to the mat. Osoto Otoshi, one of the two techniques I’m genuinely very comfortable with. It wasn’t pretty, in fact, it was scrappy as hell but that didn’t matter, I got him on the floor. Steve was a syllable into congratulating me when I dropped on him, locked him into a chest hold and pushed down hard. He tapped out.
This doesn’t normally happen. For weeks I’ve been aware that in Randori I’m either passive or content to try something but know that I’m probably going to lose. Here’s the thing; I am. I’m a red belt (Two weeks in now I figure it’s official), I’ve got some time under my belt, know some throws but I’m regularly fighting yellow, green, brown and black belts. It’s very easy to let them use me as a training dummy you can have a conversation with but that’s not what I want to do. The fight with Greg a couple of weeks ago confirmed that, and talking to Steve about this lesson afterwards, I realised something about both the fight with Greg and the fight with Steve. I was absent, mentally, for a lot of them. I remember Greg’s foot being dragged across my face, I remember being kicked, I remember Steve laughing and telling me I’d got better, I remember locking the chest hold in. I remember absolutely nothing else. My brain had taken a step back, my subconscious had taken a step forward and my body just moved, just acted. It wasn’t aggression, although the actions were certainly aggressive, it was focussed, direct. I was going where I was going, doing what I needed to and anyone who got in my way was not going to be there for long. As Steve put it later, the politeness wasn’t there anymore. In fact what Steve said was that ‘I know how to kill the bunny’ but I like the politeness going away better. Besides, I like bunnies
After fighting Steve, as always, we moved up one opponent, which in my case meant fighting Florien. Florien’s a small, polite, softly spoken French black belt who eight weeks ago threw me in a way I didn’t know how to counter and knackered my shoulder. Florien’s a lovely guy, but, again, fighting him had a certain emotional payload to it. Which is probably a good time to talk about Amy Dumas.
Amy Dumas was best known in the 1990s as Lita, and was, along with Trish Stratus, entirely responsible for the legitimizing of World Wrestling Entertainment’s Women’s Division. At least part of the reason for this was her background in Judo and Kickboxing, and I remember reading an interview with her about her Judo background, and how she’d always end up fighting the same woman at regional competitions. Her opponent was always better than her, she was always under no illusions about beating her so she changed her victory conditions; it was no longer about winning, it was about seeing how long you could last, whether it was longer than last time, what you learnt before you got beaten.
This strikes me as a remarkably sensible attitude to fighting higher grades and it’s one I’ve had a lot of success adopting. Florien was almost certainly going to beat me, so it was no longer about beating him, it was about learning. We bowed, I walked out to the centre of the mat and stopped, setting my feet. When I fight smaller opponents, I make a point of doing this now. If I try and match a smaller fighter’s speed, I’m essentially helping them beat me up, so I stand and I wait as they bounce off me, we lock up and someone gets a throw in. This time, of course, it was Florien, who dropped me with a spectacular throw that involved him throwing me over his shoulder as he knelt on the mat. I hit, hard, but not badly, rolled, smiled and thanked him. I think what I actually said was ‘That was really cool, thank you.’ He smiled, stood up and it immediately became apparent he couldn’t put much weight on his ankle. He tried to walk it off, was clearly unable to do so and finally bowed to me and left the mat. Karen came on, after taking a break and we just started sparring when the drill was finished. Two fights, one victory, one new throw that I’ll be faster off the mark with next time. It was my best Randori session so far.
I’m in an oddly confessional mood this week. Not content with telling you that one of my martial role models is a female professional wrestler, I can now reveal something a little awkward; I love strangleholds. We’ve done a couple before and the lesson finished off with Jamie showing us three more. To be fair, the lesson actually finished with Jamie talking us through the chokes as Sandra applied them to him, meaning most sentences started well and ended in wet, gurgling noises. This was just absurd in the best possible way, watching my instructor calmly walk us through how to choke people as he was being choked and the fact Sandra was clearly enjoying it only made it more amusing. Only in a Judo lesson, and I suspect only in a Judo lesson in Yorkshire, could ways to strangle people be funny but it really was.
There are three basic chokes that we were shown, thumbs in, thumbs out and one sided, none of which are the correct names. The basic principle is the same; you’re fighting from your back, your opponent’s between your legs and trying to pin you. You cross your hands and lock them into your opponent’s jacket as high as you can, then pull them down towards you, cutting off the flow of blood in the arteries and closing their throat on the cross of your wrists. Thumbs in means thumbs in, thumbs out means…well you get the idea.
First off, this is a drill which has a healthy dose of the absurd to it. Lying with your legs open whilst your partner ‘menaces’ you is just a little silly and the seriousness of the matter wasn’t helped by Steve yelling ‘Rah! Godzilla!’ as he descended on me. Nonetheless we worked through the chokes, first me, then him and we both got them down.
The one handed choke though, was the stand out. As Jamie pointed out, it’s quite rare for an opponent to obligingly let you get a double sided choke and this works around that problem by putting both hands on side of your opponent’s gi. The bottom hand is fingers in, the top hand, as close to the top of your opponent’s gi as you can get it, is thumb in. You drag your opponent sideways, kick their leg out and thread the thumb in hand over the top of their head, trapping it between your hands. It’s incredibly effective and has a massive effect for relatively little effort. It’s also massively uncomfortable and feels a lot like your head is about to be popped like a balloon. Interestingly though I appear to have a natural defence to it; my enormous noggin.
There’s a moment in So I Married an Axe Murderer which, the first time I saw it, made me laugh so hard that I couldn’t see. Charlie, played by Mike Myers, has gone to his parents for a meal and at one point we see Charlie’s dad, also played by Mike Myers cheerfully berate his cousin. It’s an unending stream of conscious tirade of pseudo-Scottish creative insults, all centred around the size of his head and includes the deathless line ‘THAT’S AN ENORMOUS NOGGIN! IT’S LIKE AN ORANGE ON A TOOTHPICK!’
My name is Alasdair Stuart, I have an enormous noggin and I am proud of it.
We worked through the chokes last and when the lesson finished, Steve talked about how the politeness has gone. He said that a few weeks ago, when I fought Greg in what Steve calls ‘The Battle of the Ages’, he kept yelling ‘CRUSH HIM!’ every time I got him on the mat and that tonight, for the first time, I did.
Polite violence. It’s a ridiculous dichotomy but when you look at it, that’s exactly what Judo is and what I seem to be starting to get. Every week I take a step forward, every week the man on the other side of the mat takes a step back and every week I get a little more comfortable, a little bit more confident, more willing to try, to compete. It’s not about anger or aggression, it’s about focus and determination and, in my case, having an enormous noggin. I always knew it’d come in useful.