There’s a noise. It’s a noise I’ve not heard before, not the comforting thuds and deep breaths, not the sounds of breath being pushed from someone’s body or grunts of effort, not the instructor yelling ‘Matte!’ so I can gulp down sweet life giving oxygen before the next drill. No, this noise is new, and this noise comes with two sensations. From above my left knee, there’s the familiar sensation of air against my face as I’m thrown. From my left knee downwards, there’s stillness.
The noise is a clicking.
It’s followed by me screaming.
It’s been a busy month and one I’ll be exploring in an upcoming Judo Diaries because I’ve learnt some really extraordonarily interesting things over the last few weeks. Crucially as well, I also had it suggested that I go in for an upcoming tournament. Note they didn’t tell me to, just that they suggested I do it. This is one of the secrets of learning Judo in Yorkshire; that things are suggested to you, sidle up to you rather than are stated outright. You learn to recognise a suggestion as something more than that, you learn to pick up on cues and hints. You learn to look not at where you’re going but where your instructors want you to go.
I loved this. I loved being told this because, for me, it felt like a validation. Make no mistake, I didn’t go into this wanting to fight. I knew it was a distinct possibility, and I also knew that it wouldn’t be something I could do unless I wanted to or was able. Randori made me nauseous when I started, the idea of fighting someone else still seems anathema and that’s even before you get to the idea of doing it for sport. I don’t fight people, I talk to them, I make people laugh, I’m clever and I know things about stuff.
Like purity for example, and elegance. Let’s talk about purity and elegance. There is something utterly simple, utterly pure, about the iconography of a Judo bout. The landscape is a raised mat, and there is nothing on it apart from you, your opponent and the referee. It’s a blank canvas, a circuit you close by stepping onto the mat. Outside the mat is life, conversations, complexity. On it is someone who is going to do their best to try and throw you, choke you, pin you, submit you and expects you to do the courtesy of doing the same with them. That elegant, pure mat boils down to one thing, to one question;
Can you do this?
I want to find out. I want to step onto the mat, feel the canvas beneath my bare feet, feel my pulse race and then slow, bow, come forward and come to grips. It doesn’t matter whether a bout lasts ten seconds or goes the full four minutes, I want to find out whether or not I can do it. Note I don’t say whether or not I can win, just, whether or not I can do that. That, for me, is the crucial difference; most people’s victory conditions are based on whether or not they win the match. Mine are based on whether I can step onto the mat.
So when the call came, I answered, and I wasn’t the only one. There aren’t many low belt tournaments so a group of the low belts from my club, people who’ve come up, by and large, together, all went in for it. That helped too, by the way, the knowledge that whilst this was going to be my first tournament, it was also everyone else’s first tournament. Fellow travellers, all heading towards the same point, the same spot. A mat with a man standing on the other side of it. A closed circuit. An open question. One I wanted to answer.
It preys on your mind, a decision like that. Mostly it did so because I’m a tall, overweight nerd who’s last serious fight was aged eleven and involved someone yelling ‘By the Gods! He has the strength of an Ox!’ when someone jumped on my back and I didn’t fall over. Some of it though, came from realising the responsibility I was accepting; to do my best, to not damage my opponent in doing so.
The rest of it though, the smallest part, came from the realisation that under the terror, under the overly articulate brain, under the adrenalin, I wanted to walk onto a mat, lock eyes (Well, roughly where their eyes would be, as I train without my glasses) with my opponent and test myself in front of an audience. Here people scream my name in support, here people boo me. Realise I’d won. Realise I’d lost. All those things, all those bright lights of sensation and psychology would test me like nothing before. It’s an awful truism that competing teaches you who you are, but the things about truisms is that they’re true. So it preyed on my mind, and I let it, because that way I’d be ready, that way I’d be focussed, that way I’d step onto the mat. Make no mistake by the way, I was under no illusions that I’d do particularly well, but I’d do. As far as I was concerned, if I could step onto the mat, let alone remember to move, or use a move on an opponent, I’d won. Any and everything else was an added bonus.
Which brings us back to the clicking. And the scream.
I was sparring with a white belt, and I was feeling pretty good. I’d had two sparring matches prior to that, one with a green belt and one with yellow belt Greg. The green belt’s a nice guy, slight, fast and I’d thrown him twice, both using Osoto Otoshi and both pretty solid. The fight with Greg had gone the same way my fights with Greg always go; hard fought, very tiring and inconclusive. So, by the time I got to my third opponent I felt limber, warmed up, confident.
We locked up, we turned and moved one another and looked for throws and nothing was happening, we were too evenly matched, too similar in size. Then he turned into me, threw me with Osoto Otoshi and…it went wrong. This is a throw where you stick your leg and hurl your opponent over it by dragging them from the shoulders and done right it’s amazing. Done wrong, you effectively lock them in place and drag their entire body over their knee. Which happened to me.
Hence the clicking and the screaming.
My instructor appeared next to me. Just appeared, which is the first indication I had of how I sounded. He’d been at the other end of the mat and covered the distance instantly. He asked what happened, I was incoherent, he asked again and I said it was an accident, which it was. I stood up, couldn’t put any weight on my foot, hobbled over to the bench at one side of the mat and felt thoroughly sorry for myself, clamping an ice pack to it for the last fifteen minutes of the session. People kept coming over to check on me, which was really sweet, in an odd, masculine kind of way. Greg looked it over, reassured me and we chatted about the throw he’d tagged me with whilst Phil, the senior instructor came over to point out that Steve, my training partner, had been picked up and thrown by Wes.
The session ended, and I limped over to where Steve was asking what he’d done wrong. Wes smiled and said. ‘A few years ago, I was given the best piece of advice anyone has ever given me; don’t fight like a goddamn guerilla.’ He explained that Steve, and by extension I I suspect, MOVE big, we’re too intense, too used to using our size. Wes suggested relaxed, flowing movements, an upright posture and, well, not fighting like a guerilla. Good advice and when I come back, I’m going to use it.
I won’t talk about the four days I was in denial, convinced I’d be okay. I won’t talk about going through a jar of Tiger Balm in a week, or limping around my work place. I won’t talk about the moment where it was very gently pointed out to me I wouldn’t be. I won’t talk about how much it stung, how unfair it felt, and still feels, to have something I realised I wanted and crucially, was ready for, taken away through sheer bad luck. None of that matters. It was an accident. They happen and they have no sense of timing.
I’m sitting out. I sat out last night, although I went anyway and listened, and watched, and learnt. I’ll do the same on Friday and a week from now, hopefully, I’ll be back. Then my objectives are simple; grade for and get my yellow belt, keep working, keep learning, keep getting better. Because there’ll be other tournaments, other chances. I’ll close that circuit, yet. Not now. But soon.