I have always liked judo. When I was 12 years old I attended classes at the Catholic recreation centre once a week for two months. We spent a lot of time learning to fall and I learned one throw. It was the days before the children’s classes that now provide much of the income for most karate, judo, tae kwon do, and jiu-Jitsu schools. Children were usually matched by weight rather than age level, and I was one heavy kid. Maybe that is why I gave up on judo before the first competition: I would be fighting grown men in a 140lb class. More likely, that was simply my 12 year old excuses to quit an activity that I found challenging. I was not much for perseverance until much later in my life. Still, the only couple of times that I ever ended up fighting in high school were quickly ended with a well-placed hip throw that seemed to come out of nowhere. Muscle memory is an interesting phenomenon.
Thirty years later I am going to take a judo lesson from a co-worker tonight. He wants to improve his ground game, newaza, in judo and offered to work on one or two throws over a few evenings in exchange for some ways to defend himself from his fellow judoka who are collecting arms and necks once they hit the ground. The only plan in place is that we are going to take it slow and easy with the throws and rolls. Neither of us needs to be limping through another week of work. Regardless, I am kind of excited to see what I can learn from him and to see how our knowledges compare.
The reality of jiu-jitsu classes at most academies is that rolls start from the ground to avoid unnecessary injuries from white belt throwing each other on top of the upper belts. Breakfalls are not usually taught beyond the basics, and despite the fact that all competition starts from standing position, competitors generally focus on one or two options to take down opponents. Some opt for a wrestling takedown, others pull guard and a few aim for the judo throw. Perhaps wrestling is a more sensible option for most players; judo simply takes too long to gain the sensitivity and footwork for takedowns against a grappler whose stance is low and extended back.
What did I learn? How did the session go? The hour spent with a judoka really opened up my understanding of the idea that where judo ends jiu-jitsu begins. We decided that the best way for me to learn would be to focus on one forward and one backward throw per session, so that I could learn the push/pull attack concept. We also decided to roll to see how I might help improve my partner’s game on the ground. His pass was clear and powerful, he went to side control and North/South with immense pressure. I felt I was done for…but then the attack stopped; he had no submission beyond pressure and my frames easily took care of that. Our focus would then become submissions from his strongest position and a few tips for mount, turtle and North/South.
I felt that the best first attack for him would be the Americana or Key Lock from Side Control. His position was so strong, that this felt like the best way into teaching him how to lure his opponent to make mistakes with his arm. While this is not always a high percentage move with jiujitsoka, it might be with judoka, and it was an easy way to teach the concept of attacking the arm so that we could look at the kimura and arm bars from the same position later on. We rolled and drilled the position for about twenty minutes until he felt comfortable. I caught him in a guillotine and collar choke, too, which informed some thoughts on protecting his neck when advancing. We moved on to the judo section.
Tai Otoshi is the first throw he chose to teach. It is an excellent basic throw to teach the footwork and time of judo. I had learned hip throws, but never one where the leg becomes a lever and fulcrum. The throw was powerful. It was simple enough for me to consider the footwork and practice the steps for two weeks. I had a starting place. We also learned a knee reap/footsweep attack forward that could lead me into finding the right moment as the opponent foot counters forward to apply Tai Otoshi. We ended our hour-long session with the teaching of my favourite choke from side control: the Paper Cutter from a loop out of head control. It is a powerful choke and easy enough for him to apply without the struggle of fighting for the collar grip. I never get to use this in no gi, but I find it a strong transition choke to threaten the arm enough to have my opponent make other mistakes if I fail to submit him.
At I write this entry, I am sleep-deprived from two nights of baby restlessness and my body is a little worse for wear from the judo throws. I may have been thrown lightly, but throwing my partner definitely strained my hips and lower back. Regardless, I came away from the hour with a better understanding of the Phases of Combat that Professor John Danaher writes about in his book with Renzo Gracie. I feel a tiny bit more confident in my stand-up, but more confident in that it can improve through judo.
I also went back to class last night. Exhausted, I just felt like I needed to practice and as Kurt Osiander asserts “Go Train!” I let go of the stress of being tapped by the other white belts and just worked on escapes and the concept of push and pull. My first roll had me tap to a body triangle with a rear choke, as a regular partner had learned how to stop my guard pass and take my back, which I let him do so that I could work back escapes. I did well with a triangle on his crossed feet (he did not tap, but admitted it hurt and that he was masking that to lure me to abandon it) and a traditional escape. My second roll had me catch a kimura from my closed guard and make transitions against a white belt who came in after a two year lay-off. I was about to go home, until I was called onto the mats by two blue belts who wanted to roll with me. I wanted to go home and sleep. Duty called.
Both of these rolls taught me two important things: one, I am beginning to be able to defend myself very well from experienced blue belts. Two, if my jiu-jitsu is to develop at this stage, then I need to roll mostly with blue belts to feel the pressure and challenge that will force me to evolve. I think that is what they were trying to show me last night. I felt that they were both giving me the nod and opportunity to advance a tiny step into their realm. The more I reflect on that, the more I feel honored to train with such a great crew. The more I reflect, however, I also feel an overwhelming dread that my jiu-jitsu has a clear ceiling due to my age and ability. I will make it to blue belt. I feel close, and I never give up when I feel that way, even if I am not as close as I feel; I might even be closer than I feel. The only person who knows is my professor, and I simply leave that in his hands. The dread, however, is that I see the longest part of my journey still ahead as a blue belt. Once I reach the next level, how much can I possibly improve as my body grows older? The achievement of a purple belt seems plausible after 4-5 years of continued hard work. I might have that in me, and somehow that leg of my journey feels like the belt becomes background noise in comparison to learning to build my game. But, and it is a giant but, a brown or black belt seems impossible to achieve given my ceiling of being 43 years old. Perhaps the challenge now is for me to put such things out of my head, to focus on each roll and how to improve my foundation, so that I remain in the moment, so that I remain in the game that remains.