Back around the turn of the century, bareknuckled boxers competed with very few regulations. There was little in the way of safety equipment, and matches often lasted until someone either was knocked out or passed out from exhaustion.
Then, boxing was transformed into a more viable sport, with rules and an organizing commission which sanctioned bouts. Some of the unnecessary roughness was taken out to protect the competitors and make the sport more understandable for spectators.
In much the same way, judo has become a sport. Over the past decade, judo has been superseded by other more advertised and glamorous forms of self-defense. But, at the same time, it has become an Olympic sport, popular on a worldwide scale. There are standardized rules for national and international tournaments. A judo event in France will have nearly the same regulations as a tournament in the United States. Simply stated: judo is a “sport.”
But is sport judo applicable to street self-defense predicaments? Have the rules tamed it too much? Are judo students learning the sport for self-defense, or purely for competition?
When it comes to martial arts self-defense, kicks and punches are considered essential. Judo flips, chokes and arm bars are not as fascinating or colorful to most observers as karate side kicks, reverse punches and spinning back kicks. So, in a one-on-one situation against the local tough guy, can a judo person subdue the bully? Judo experts from around the United States say yes . . . usually.
“Judo is the foundation of the martial arts,” said Florida-based judo instructor Ed Maley, who was inducted into the BLACK BELT Hall of Fame in 1980. “It teaches balance, coordination, agility, spirit and no fear of body contact.”
No matter what form of self-defense one uses, all the attributes Maley mentioned are needed if a street survival situation arises. But possibly the most important thing Maley cited is body contact. In a streetfight, anything goes. Invariably, the tussle will end up in the dirt or on the concrete, where grappling movements are necessary. Front kicks and reverse punches are as useful there as army boots to a marathon runner. Not surprisingly, one of the most studious practitioners of the martial arts, the legendary Bruce Lee, knew better than to force the issue against a judo player who was on the ground.
“I remember one time I was at Bruce’s house,” said Hayward Nishioka, who was voted into the BLACK BELT Hall of Fame twice for his judo, as both an instructor and a competitor. “I had done a little karate, but I couldn’t hold a candle to him (Lee). He was too fast for me; he would tap my head before I even got set.
“Finally I asked Bruce what he would do if I just sat on the ground and waited for him to attack me,” continued Nishioka. “He said he’d just walk away.”
Lee knew he could not compete on the ground, it was not his area of expertise. That is one advantage a judo player would have over an unsuspecting adversary who wouldn’t have Lee’s forethought. And once the judo man gets his opponent on the pavement, it’s all over.
“You learn to fight from the ground up,” said Maley, who has been involved with judo in Florida for 34 years. “Once a judo guy gets in close and gets you down, he should prevail. Most people can’t stand the grappling. They aren’t trained for it.”
Judo players are trained for using throws, arm bars and chokes. Do not think for a second that these three techniques won’t cause damage.
“Once you get thrown by a judo player, it’s all over,” said Wally Jay, a judo and jujitsu teacher from Northern California and BLACK BELT Hall of Fame member. “Head injuries and broken collarbones will happen. You see, most people don’t know how to fall. I find it hard to see any guy getting up after hitting the concrete, after being thrown by a judo black belt.”
It seems obvious that throws are going to render the average streetfighter helpless. But the types of throws are not really that important, it’s execution that counts. It’s a matter of getting the job done.
“Make a throw fast enough, and they don’t get up,” said 1981 BLACK BELT Hall of Fame judo instructor Jack Williams. “It’s all done on instinct. Afterward you can figure out what type of throw you used.”
Among the more common self-defense throws are the ogoshi (hip throw), morose seoinage (two-arm shoulder throw), osoto-gari (outside major reap), and ippon seoinage (one-arm shoulder throw). Basically, it’s not what move was used, but the final result that counts.
In tournaments players sometimes might ease an opponent down, but on the street do not expect such conduct. “In self-defense judo if you don’t guide them down on a throw, they could get killed,” said Larry Kobayashi of the Seinan Dojo in Los Angeles, pointing out that judo is at least as powerful as karate in self-defense.
Killing someone though, is a real danger that all martial artists face. Even witnesses can only help if they can prove your life was in danger and the conflict could not be avoided.
The choke is one police and judo technique that has become very controversial. Many suspected criminals have died because the delicate technique was not properly accomplished.
“Chokes are used all the time in sport judo,” said Maley. “But instructors are always watching very closely. Remember if they (chokes) aren’t used properly people could be killed. For the most part we haven’t had any problem with chokes, though, because we work with the techniques all of the time. But when police use it, they may not be as well trained.”
According to Nishioka, the best way to choke is to get behind the assailant. The hadaka-jime (bar arm) can be used against tall, short, heavy, or light opponents. The biggest problem with self-defense chokes is that the choker might not know when to let up.
“In tournaments, we’ve never had trouble with chokes because he (the opponent) can tap twice when he’s had enough and we let go,” said Nishioka. “In police work, they don’t wait for someone to tap twice.”
If you can’t throw them or choke them, a good arm bar will make any tough guy cry uncle-or get a broken arm or shoulder. In tournament competition, arm bars are only allowed by black belts who have enough experience to control the move. Arm bars are applied to the weak elbow joint.
“Arm bars are good in self-defense situations,” said Nishioka. “No matter how big the guy is he will worry more about a broken arm or shoulder than he will about breaking your face.”
Judo has been compared to wrestling when it comes to grappling techniques, but the two main items that separate the pair of sports are chokes and arm bars. Another aspect they both share is physical conditioning. In order to be proficient judo players or wrestlers must be in great shape, not only strength-wise but also in their cardiovascular conditioning.
“Mat work is a great cardiovascular conditioner,” said Maley. “Karate people don’t get this kind of conditioning, where you have to get down on the ground and twist and turn. At my school, we’ve had marathon runners who couldn’t last two minutes. Sometimes the difference between winning and losing a fight is who’s in better shape.”
There are many forms of physical fitness. A distance runner is in good running shape, but probably does not have the muscular strength of a weightlifter. A cyclist is prepared for road races or short sprints, but not for channel swimming. Simply said, every athletic endeavor requires different forms of fitness.
“Basically sport judo is dependent on using a lot of muscle,” said George Kirby, a noted jujitsu and judo veteran from Southern California. “If a judo person gets close in he will have a good advantage, because that’s what he’s trained for.”
One area the average judo player might not be ready for is fighting against weapons. For the most part in a street situation, any martial artist will tell you to give up your money if a robber has a weapon. The odds against disarming someone are usually going to be heavily against you. You would have a better chance winning the pick-six at a racetrack.
“Of course in sport judo you don’t have to worry about weapons,” said Maley. “But in my school, we work against weapons like knives, clubs, guns and baseball bats. My students have been getting this kind of training for years.”
Nishioka feels it might be better to kick or punch someone with a weapon. “In a situation where they start demanding your money or your life, you should give them the money,” said Nishioka.
“But if you have no choice, it’s better to kick or punch than try to contain, unless you’re close enough to wrestle.” If your life is on the line, survival should be your only concern. “You can’t hold back any reserve,” said Nishioka.
Even though fighting someone with a firm grip on a weapon is considered riskier than swimming in shark-infested waters, another area that is controversial for judo people is the ability to handle an attacker that either weighs more or is taller than you.
In judo competition, weight classes are set so that contestants are not physically overmatched. The old, layman’s theory that a 130 pounder can obliterate a 200 pounder is dubious.
“Using any judo techniques would be more difficult against a larger person,” said judo instructor Willy Cahill, who is in the BLACK BELT Hall of Fame. “But, then again sometimes the best martial artist is one who doesn’t look like he can defend himself.”
“It has happened in the past that a lighter person has beaten a heavier one,” noted Nishioka. “You have the element of surprise and some knowledge of judo or other martial arts behind you. There is a certain quickness you attain from the practice of judo. It can be transferable to self-defense situations. You would only need one or two techniques that really work well and that work the majority of the time in any situation.”
Nishioka has in the past, on occasion, put his sport judo techniques to use in public as a nightclub bouncer The results were positive, with the former champion more than holding his own against all sorts of unruly citizens. Nishioka also feels that judo people make better bouncers or doormen than other martial artists, weightlifters or football players.
“There were times when I had to escort people out,” said Nishioka. “Sometimes I wasn’t real nice, I had to use force. In those situations, arm bars came in very handy. I didn’t have to hit a person or knock them out. If you have a good hold of someone they aren’t going to struggle too much.”
“As far as I’m concerned, judo is underrated and underestimated and underpublicized,” said Williams, who is the judo coach at Miami-Dade Community College in Florida. “Not many people are going to continue to fight after they hit the concrete and suffer a separated shoulder.”