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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