From time to time, Judo gets a bad rap. It doesn’t have the flashy strikes of Karate or Taekwondo, lacks the apparent chaos of mixed martial arts and has been eclipsed in grappling and wrestling circles by it’s own children, the Judo-derived martial arts of Brazilian Jujitsu and Sambo. Judo’s like the Beatles, one of those bands which is utterly influential, lies at the heart of almost everything and yet is distanced, not relevant, safe.
My adam’s apple begs to differ.
Chokes in Judo are a cheerful combination of politeness and savagery. You lie down, your opponent lies down behind you. They close their hands around your throat, you struggle, you fail, you tap out. If you don’t, and in competition you have the option not to, you will be rendered unconscious in a little over ten seconds. When you wake up you’ll have a headache from the pressure, your throat will be bruised and swollen, your voice will be shot and you’ll be disoriented. Oh and also? You might have urinated on yourself whilst you were unconscious.
Judo. It may not have knockouts but it does have moves you’ll still be feeling weeks later.
I like chokes. Actually I love them, they’re one of my favourite elements of Judo and I’ve spent some time thinking about why recently. I’m polite, I’m softly spoken, I’m self-deprecating. I like jamming my forearm under my opponent’s throat, gripping my hands together and dragging my hand back and up until they gurgle and submit. Who needs fancy kicks and knockouts when yu can take away your opponent’s capacity to breathe?
That’s the first reason why I’m attracted to chokes; they’re endgames. Literally one of the first things I was told when I started learning was ‘fuck them up first.’ I’m a big man, and as I’ve said before, I’m out of shape. That causes problems with breath, specifically how much I have and how I use it.
By the way, this is a common problem amongst fighters of any discipline, size or skill level. Watch any boxing match and look at how the fighters clinch more often as the fight goes on. Look at any wrestling form or MMA bout and look at how many times someone leans on the fence of the cage, or puts their opponent in a hold that doesn’t hurt them, but does immobilise them. It’s catching your breath, taking a moment to gather your strength. Fighting, of any stripe and any level, is tough and you have to get your rests where and when you can. Or to put it another way, you can go down the Rocky route and throw everything at your opponent constantly but two things will happen. You’ll get very tired very fast and your opponent will see you coming and get out of the way. Or, more likely, see you coming, use your own speed and size against you and put you down, hard. Then, because it’s suitably ironic, chances are you’ll get choked out. So you don’t do that, you put them down fast and hard and you strangle them out because that way you’ve got gas in the tank for the next fight. Or at least that’s the theory. Fast I’m working on, hard I can do and the chokes are getting there.
The second reason I like them is that they’re one of the few areas where my size works for me. I’ve learnt in the last two months, that my size has been my crutch and it’s all too easy to lean on it. When you’re built like this it’s very easy to get a technique good enough and go the rest of the way on brute strength and that’s all well and good, again, right up to the point where you’re too tired to move and your opponent wins. Chokes though, are an area where the heavier you are, the better you’ll do. You hold your opponent down and apply it, or you lock them in place and apply it or you crank a strangle on fast and hard and because you’re bigger than the other guy, you get it on first, he taps out first and you win.
Or at least that’s the theory. The practice is a little different at the moment, thanks to being two and a half months out from my injury. I’m slow on my knees, worthless in randori because when I turn and move I’m guarding my knee and I’m not trusting it to move. Not yet. Soon but not yet.
The third reason I like chokes is simple and a little hard to admit; chokes let the beast out. I’ve prided myself my entire life on being polite and quiet and softly spoken and not getting angry and being fine. Please understand I’m not whittling small balsa dolls of my enemies and crushing them or anything like that.
At least not anymore.
Let’s talk about frustration for a moment. Frustration is something that’s been bubbling up to the top of my life with Judo recently, because of my injury. I’m guarding my leg, I’m not able to kneel properly, or fight from my back and randori is something I both want and don’t because it’s where I got hurt. I want to fight. I can’t fight. I want to train to the best of my ability. I can’t. I want to do something and for now I can’t.
The top of my body’s fine though. In fact, the top of my body’s great, and as a result, chokes are a chance to let some of that frustration out. When I put a strangle on, I put it on like I mean it, not hard but not pulling any punches and when it sinks in, when I feel my opponent give up a split second before they actually tap, a little bit of that frustration’s released. It’s not much but it’s enough. It makes it all worth while, the limping, the rehab, the frustration at seeing everyone else do hat I want to do. It reminds me I’m still there, that te strength and speed and confidence I’ve lost is going to come back. It gives me hope in the flexing of muscle and closing of airways.
Plus chokes are frequently very funny. Something about them simultaneously focusses you and gives you and your partner licence to break the tension as much as you can. This is particularly necessary when you’re driving your elbow into your opponent’s head to shove it out of alignment and lock in a strangle hold or using their jacket, their mass and gravity to close off their airways. This is why Steve and I christened a three stage strangle the gentleman, the cad and the bounder, because each stage becomes progressively less polite and why one strangle will forever be known as Haddocky Jimmy. This name was christened by Karen, one of the club brown belts. Karen remembers the strangle, who’s real name is Hadaka Jime, because you ‘swim’ your hand under your opponent’s chin until it’s in place then crank backwards and upwards. Hence, Haddocky Jimmy.
Chokes aren’t polite. They aren’t nice. They’re brutal, often elaborate manouvers designed to render your opponent unconscious as fast as possible and with as minimum possible effort for you. But they bring out the best in Judoka because in order to do them right you also have to look after your partner. After all, if you put it on too rough, then the only thing that’ll happen is they do the same to you a few minutes later. They’re polite swords, softly spoken and unflashy weapons that will finish a fight in seconds. Strangles are like Judo itself, not flashy, not showy and not to be underestimated, something to aspire to as well as to fear and respect. I rather like that.