Black Belt


The first installmen­t of Antonio Grace ff o’ s reflection son practicing judo in Asia and the West ran in our December 2017/ January 2018 issue. Part two was in our February/ March 2018 issue. This is the conclusion.—Editors


Antonio Graceffo, Ph.'., concludes his ´-udo Randori in Five Countries” series with this account that starts in Thailand and then jumps to Cambodia before circling back to his home in China.

When my judo journey took me to Bangkok, I located a bunch of guys who aimed to form a competitiv­e judo team. However, when I spoke with their instructor, he confided that he was forced to add MMA-style grappling to the curriculum — or he’d have no students! Personally, I thought the training looked more like Brazilian jiu-jitsu, with one or two throws practiced each evening, followed by long sessions of ground fighting.

With grappling rules in force, it felt like we were doing submission grap- pling in pajamas. Given the sweltering heat of Bangkok, I wondered why I was wearing a gi at all. The reason soon became obvious: In addition to honing their MMA skills, these guys were training to compete in traditiona­l judo. Thailand has such a shortage of judoka that this arrangemen­t is the only way to fill tournament­s.

AFTER THAILAND, I moved on to Cambodia — actually, I go there at least twice a year to train with the national wrestling team. Each time, I get invited to the set of Khmer Warrior Champion, Cambodia’s answer to The Ultimate Fighter. On the local show, they always have me teach wrestling and MMA. The primary grappling instructor for the athletes is the nation’s leading judo teacher, a man named Lach Vuthy. We have always been friends, but when I visited the set this time and told him I was exploring judo around the world, he invited me to train with the national team.

What I love about Vuthy’s training is that while he clearly respects Japanese traditions, he never forgets that he’s in Cambodia. Training there, no matter the martial art, is always a bit more aggressive and a bit more brutal. The mats and the uniforms are dirty, and when people get injured, they simply “cowboy up” and continue.

I outweighed most of the other people by 70 pounds, yet Vuthy didn’t think twice about having me spar with them. In a normal session, that entailed doing up to five rounds of randori and newaza. Half the group took up positions on the outside of the circle, and the rest of us picked out opponents.

We rolled for three minutes, at which point Vuthy blew the whistle to signal the people in the inner group to shift to their next adversary. Meanwhile, the outer group remained stationary. Some of the guys I wrestled were national team members who’d competed in the Southeast Asian Games, the Asian Games and the Olympic trials. Others were fighters I recognized from KWC.

WHENEVER I was matched with one of the KWC guys, Vuthy would give us permission to include single- and double-leg takedowns, as well as bear hugs. On the ground, we also were allowed to use neck-compressio­n submission­s and to grab our opponent’s legs for control.

Then the whistle would blow again, and I’d find myself matched with a pure judo competitor. My brain was forced to switch back to standard judo rules. And so it continued.

I found out that in Cambodia, economic factors play heavily in how judo is practiced. The average wage in Cambodia is $110 a month, but this statistic is a bit misleading because the lowest earners — the 60 percent

of the people who have had minimal access to education and are only marginally literate — often say it’s nearly impossible to find work that pays a regular wage at all. Many make a living with a combinatio­n of itinerant labor, casual sales of produce or other products, and stints as a motorcycle­taxi driver.

In contrast, the winner of KWC might walk away with several thousand dollars in prize money, plus a chance to compete in an internatio­nal MMA event that could pay an additional year’s salary. That explains why many of the national judo team members train in MMA, too.

In Cambodia, the life of some judoka also is motivated by financial reward. The government and other sponsors bestow generous awards on Cambodians who medal at internatio­nal competitio­ns. As a result, Vuthy faced the challenge of teaching pure Japanese judo to his entire team while also polishing the MMA skills of those who wished to do both.

AFTER I returned to Shanghai, I began reflecting on the similariti­es in the way judo is practiced in other countries. I also noted the difference­s, many of which were geopolitic­al — for example, the Thais were happy to use Japanese terminolog­y but the Chinese were not.

Other difference­s were socioecono­mic in nature. Many judo instructor­s in Thailand, Malaysia and America told me they’d added no-gi, wrestling-style leg attacks and some of the more dangerous submission­s to their classes in an effort to keep students from leaving for MMA and BJJ schools. Because most of these students are training for fun and will participat­e only in a limited number of judo competitio­ns, this compromise works.

In China, on the other hand, martial artists have kept a more pure form of judo because no commercial schools compete for students. Facilities are mostly government-sponsored sports schools where tuition and training are free and where students are expected to compete in judo only and to represent their country to the best of their ability.

AFTER CHINESE NEW YEAR, I resumed judo training with Lukai and shared my experience­s and observatio­ns from those other countries. That was when he confided that after 12 years of full- time training, he’d finally accepted that he would never win Olympic gold or stand atop the podium at a world championsh­ip. He was moving on. Where, I asked. He said that operating a judo school in China would never pay a livable wage, so he’d decided to compete in MMA. Apparently a Korean promoter, having heard about Lukai’s national judo titles, offered him $1,500 each for his first two fights.

And so our roles were reversed: I became Lukai’s MMA trainer. He also saw the need to cross-train and began working with other martial artists on campus, learning kicks from the san da team and hand work from the boxing team.

Having withdrawn from the profession­al judo team, Lukai had to move out of the athlete’s dorm and into the general accommodat­ions that were provided for regular students. For the first time ever, he also had to attend class — while he was learning new martial arts skills.

Further complicati­ng his life was the fact that although he was off the judo team, his official major was still judo. For larger sports like san da, which has hundreds of students, there are multiple levels of training that depend on whether the student is on the profession­al team or just majoring in the art. But because judo is so small, the only place Lukai could continue to train and satisfy the sport component of his studies was with the very coach and team he’d just left. In the end, resigning from the team meant he had to attend academic classes and do judo twice a day. Whenever I met him for MMA lessons, he looked exhausted.

LUKAI ENDED UP losing his MMA matches in Korea. Yes, fatigue played a role, but after studying the tape, it dawned on me why jiu-jitsu and wrestling (rather than judo) had become the dominant grappling arts in MMA. Whenever I helped prep wrestlers with no striking back- ground for MMA, I would tell them to instantly clinch because bearhuggin­g an opponent can neutralize his ability to strike. Judoka, however, lack a clinch culture and a powerful bear hug. Their greatest strength is throwing. I’ve seen Lukai and other judoka execute beautiful throws in MMA fights, but then it’s always “now what?”

On the ground, a wrestler can take top position and win with ground and pound, a head crank, a simple headand-arm triangle or a cat’s cradle, but judoka lack all those moves. A BJJ guy can wind up on the bottom, but he’s a specialist in fighting on his back for extended periods. Judoka, in contrast, are generally limited to 20 or 30 seconds of ground fighting in their matches — of course, with no one punching them. That leaves them at a disadvanta­ge in a five-minute MMA round.

Lukai’s story did have a happy ending, however. Although he didn’t succeed in MMA, he did earn an appearance fee. He used the money to open an MMA gym.

THE LESSONS I learned in China and while traveling to survey the judo world helped me draw a few conclusion­s. First, judo is a wonderful art. Second, judo should be practiced for the sake of judo. There’s no point in comparing it to wrestling, MMA or BJJ to see which is better.

Third — and this one is personal — I find it extremely motivation­al to do judo when I think about how it links me to the legacy of Jigoro Kano. A man of great learning, Kano developed a self-defense art that works for everyone. He had a master’s degree and spoke fluent English, and those accomplish­ments are part of the reason he became recognized as the father of physical education in Japan.

My final lesson: If you wish to learn judo, you must practice judo. And as Gary Rasanen said in Part 2 of this story, you need to be prepared to get thrown 300 times a night. But the good thing is, you can choose to get thrown in just about any country on earth.

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