By Antonio Graceffo
Sensei Gary Rasanen, an 8th degree grand master of judo grabs my sleeve and my lapel, similar to a grip used in Chinese shuai jiao wrestling. He pulls me into his hip, sits down slightly, while pulling my arm across his chest, and suddenly, I am airborne. I slam, hard on the mat, as his body crashes down on top of me. Careful to maintain control of my arm, he rotates his hip toward me and widens his legs, in order to drop more weight on my chest, making it hard for me to breath. Maintaining his balance, and careful to keep his weight on me, his legs walk around my head. As he goes, I am slowly being choked with my own arm. Because of my MMA training, I can survive the oxygen deprivation without taping. But this is judo. Sensei Gary only needs to hold me in this position for twenty-five seconds. Then he will be declared the winner of the bout.
And this was my introduction to judo.
But why was I here, lying on the mat in Port Jefferson Station, at Long Island Judo & Martial Arts, with an eighth degree master choking me? The answer is, it was part of my school homework.
My PhD dissertation research, at Shanghai University of Sport, where I live and train, is a comparison between Chinese traditional shuai jiao wrestling and modern freestyle wrestling. Additionally, I also study san da, as many of the san da throws come directly from Chinese shuai jiao. Because of obvious similarities between judo and shuai jiao, I am interested in more deeply studying the art of judo. Hopefully, I will continue with this series, as I come to know more about judo.
Grand Master Gary Rasanen started training in 1968, at age 11, in New York’s oldest dojo, in Brooklyn. He once trained with the Korean Olympic team and is versed in jujitsu and shotokan karate. “It was all part of the budokan system of martial arts.” Explained Sensei Gary. “To be proficient in that style, you have to be versed in those three arts.” Keeping with this spirit of being an all-around fighter, sensei Gary’s judo school is located inside of United Studios, Progressive Martial Arts center where students were learning a variety of martial arts under the direction of Renshi Enzo Aliotta.
The reason I sought out a judo master, during one of my brief trips to the United States, was because the Chinese claim that judo and Chinese shuai jiao share a common origin. Not only did I not care if that was true, but as a doctoral candidate at a Chinese university, I wanted to steer as clear of that sensitive issue as I could. As both, a martial artist, and a guy from Brooklyn, however, it was obvious to see that there were some clear similarities between the arts. First off, we both wore heavy white jackets and belts around our waist, which could be used for gripping, controlling and throwing.
As an MMA fighter I had been exposed to Brazilian Jujitsu and was always fascinated to research the Japanese origins of that art. As jujitsu and judo are related, I was also very curious to find out about the ground fighting aspects of judo. If you ask the average person on the streets, they have most likely heard of judo. But if you asked them what it was, they would most likely say something about takedowns and throws, rather than joint locks and submissions.
“Judo has grappling, submissions, choking, arm-bars, joint manipulations… There’s a lot more to it than throwing someone to the ground.” Explained Sensei Gary. “A few years ago, 70% of fights were won on the ground.” I was wondering how it worked that some fights were won by throwing and some by submission. “If I take you down in half throw, wazari, I have to hold you on the ground for 25 seconds to get the win.”
Apparently, a Wazari is a half a point throw, which differs from an Ippon, which is a full throw, which ends a match. To end a judo match with a throw, the opponent must land flat on his back. If not, you have to go to the ground and control him for 25 seconds. Or, after the wazari, the match can end on the ground, by choke or submission, like in jujitsu or MMA.
In MMA and in freestyle wrestling, you are generally just looking for a win, by any legal means. But when you start practicing a specific art, such as judo or shuai jiao, the question always arises “Do you just want to win? Or do you want to use the art?” For example, my shuai jiao team at the university is complete made up of former Greco Roman competitor, except me, I come from an MMA background. If we wrestle just for the win or just or the takedown, I would generally put my money on my teammates vs. nearly any club team in Shanghai. But, having said that, this year, 2014, my team pulled out of the national shuai jiao championships, because they were afraid they would be disqualified or penalized for not using proper shuai jiao techniques.
I asked Sensei Gary if there was some similar situation in judo. He explained, “There are three types of judo instructors: technically sound, but no competition, or someone who loves competition, but whose techniques are not on par with a technically sound black belt, or others who can teach you to compete on Olympic level.”
There are a number of high profile MMA fighters who come from a judo background, but apart from: Ronda Rousey, Karo Parisyan, Fedor Emelianenko, and Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou, most are from Japan and Korea: Yoshihiro Akiyama, Dong Hyun Kim, Satoshi Ishii, Kazuhiro Nakamura. So, that may be one reason why we don’t think as much about judo. If you start digging, however, you find that most of your favorite Japanese fighters and even some American wrestlers and others have studied judo.
Judo is a subject we talk about a lot in MMA gyms, but it is not an art that most MMA people have trained. MMA gyms typically have instructors for Muay Thai, BJJ, and maybe boxing and wrestling, but judo is the least common. While MMA fighting is still illegal in New York, Long Island is an absolute hotbed of high school wrestling and the location of a number of famous MMA schools. So, I asked Sensei Gary if he had any MMA guys coming to train with him.
“We do MMA a lot,” explained the sensei. “But MMA guys don’t like to take judo because they want to learn to throw, but they don’t like to get thrown.”
I laughed, telling Sensei Gary about the first time I ever attended a judo class, about twenty years earlier. “In that one lesson, I got thrown five hundred times. And I decided, learning judo was for the young only.”
“That’s traditional, old school judo.” He said, smiling. “That takes a pounding on your body. I believe it’s the most demanding martial art on your body.”
One of the questions that comes up in the MMA gyms is about the gi. Fighters wonder if an art which wears and throws from a gi would translate well into shirtless MMA.
“When you teach the guys judo-for-MMA how do you modify the techniques?” I asked.
“I try to put them in ring situations.” Said the Sensei. “We don’t have a ring, so I put them against the columns, and I say ‘how would you get out?’ to teach fighting off the cage. I leave the gi on, and they think they can grab it. But when they do, that works in my favor.”
In Chinese wrestling, we also use a jacket, and yet I think it’s good for training. Wrestling with the jacket gives you phenomenal grip strength. And most of the techniques can be modified to work without a jacket.
Sensei Gary concurred, “95% of all judo throws can be done without a gi. With a gi, you grab the sleeve. Without the gi, A guy throws a punch, and he is giving you his body the same as when he grabs you with the gi.”
The same is true of MMA and san da. The throws often come from catching the opponent’s kick, or timing your shot for when he really loads up on that right hand and throws a huge punch. And actually, one of the things I like about the gi vs no gi discussion is that the throws in san da come from Chinese wrestling. So, in a given day at the university, I may walk into practice and find out we are doing the exact same throw in both classes, but one with a jacket and one without.
We had heard a rumor, in the MMA and wrestling world, that it was illegal to touch the legs in judo. Sensei Gary confirmed it. “New rules, cannot grab the legs.” That is a big difference between judo and Chinese shuai jiao. In Shuai jiao you are permitted to grab the legs. But, this also parallels what I said earlier about my team pulling out of the national championships. The guys on my team, myself included, tend to get a lot of our throws by doing body locks or by taking our opponent’s legs. While these techniques are legal in shuai jiao, they are not the true, Chinese jacket techniques.
Because many MMA and san da throws come from catching kicks, I asked if that was something they learned in judo. “Catching kicks would not be something you would practice in judo.” Sensei Gary went n to say that said that they didn’t actually practice catching kicks. But he still won a fight against a karate practitioner, using his judo skills. “The minute the fight started, the guy took off his gi top.” Ostensibly so Sensei Gary couldn’t grab him. But this didn’t stop the experienced judoka. “I did a roll out into him, locked his head and did a hip throw, and went right into an arm-bar.”
Many of the Greco guys on my team do the same thing. They suddenly grab the head, execute a throw, and go straight into a submission. In Greco, they use a variation of an arm triangle, choke, or neck crank as a pin/submission. But the rules say that one arm has to be inside the choke, in other words, you must grab BOTH your opponent’s head and arm to be within the rules.
“What about body locks?” I asked. “Are they legal?”
Sensei made it sound like body locks were hard to achieve in a judo match. “You start apart.” Began Sensei Gary. “When the referee says ‘go’, you step in and grab your opponent’s gi, in the basic hook up position.” So far, this was the same as in Chinese wrestling. There are seven basic grips in Chinese wrestling, but usually, at the beginning of the match, you will try to grab the inside of your opponent’ sleeve and his lapel. The basic judo position was very similar, except that in judo, you were forbidden to reach inside of the sleeve. You had to grab the outside. Another huge difference was when Sensei Gary said, “You can use the jacket to choke, just like in jujitsu.” Chokes and joint submissions are illegal in Chinese shuai jiao wrestling.
Sensei went on to explain some of the basic fundamentals of judo. “There are 8 basic forms of off balancing your opponent. There is no set way of walking during the match. In practice we learn how to walk, but in competition, you move wherever you need to move, naturally.” He added, “You should be able to move in, like in wrestling.”
The sensei told me that his high school finally added wrestling his senior year. So, he only got to be on the team for a single season. “I just threw and threw the opponent, until the coach said, ‘you can’t just throw the guy.’” I guess those judo reflexes were ingrained, because he told another humorous anecdote. “I also did the same thing in a karate tournament. I threw the opponent and got disqualified.”
Sensei took me into the practice room to begin the workout. The warm up was similar to wrestling. The students did rolls, flips, break falls, crawls, and so on. After warm up, the first thing they taught me was the basic hook up position, grabbing the lapel and the sleeve. No sooner had I completed the grip on a senior student, Sensei Pete, when Sensei Gary said to me, “don’t hang on him.” In wrestling, usually when we lock up you want to begin wearing your opponent down by making him carry your weight. So, you hang on him. In judo, Sensei said to stay relaxed and a bit more upright than in wrestling.
Next, Sensei Pete threw me. He controlled my right arm, with his left hand, stepped in sideways, put his right shoulder into my right shoulder, braced my right leg with his right hand and fell into me, taking me down, landing on top of me. We have almost the same technique in both san da and shuai jiao, except that you pull the opponent forward, and he lands face down, rather than this one where he lands on his back. San da also has very similar ones, where he lands on his back, but where you attack from the side. The advantage of this judo technique, where he lands on his back, is that you land on top of him, and you are still controlling his arm. So, you can fall right into side control or a submission. In san da, or shuai jiao, on the other hand, you don’t want to fall with the opponent, or you will lose points.
One of the primary differences between judo and my Chinese arts is that in judo, you can go with your opponent and continue fighting on the ground. In san da or Chinese shuai jiao wrestling we can only throw and stop. And you lose points for falling with the opponent even if you land on top.
Master Gary refined the technique for me. “You’re not just falling into him. You’re driving your hips into him and taking him straight back. Next, the sensei transitioned from the same setup trapping the right arm across his body with his left arm, stepping in with his hips, but then, instead of using his right hand to brace my right leg, he used his right arm to grab my head. Once he had control of the head and one arm, he did a classic judo hip toss, dropping right into a submission on the ground
I told Sensei Pete that this was similar to a Chinese technique. He said, “Yeah, sambo too… because how many ways are there to throw someone?” He was right. While every art has some unique throws, probably the vast majority of throws across all of the grappling arts will be similar, except where the rules specifically forbid them. For example, MMA, san da, shuai jiao, and free style wrestling all use single-leg take down, double-leg takedown, and fireman’s carry. But they look a little different in each of the arts because of the rules. In the Chinese system, you have to squat, rather than kneel, because the rules prevent you from touching your knee to the ground. Judo, on the other hand, doesn’t use these techniques, however, because you aren’t allowed to touch the legs.
Next we moved from the throw to side control. In judo Sensei Gary showed me to grab the opponent’s belt and use it to control him on the ground. In Chinese shuai jiao, we also grab the belt and use it to control and throw the opponent. But there is no ground fighting in shuai jiao. In MMA and freestyle wrestling we fight on the ground, but we don’t wear a belt. So, this was a new concept for me.
Down on the mat, Sensei Pete, let me side control him, to see if I could hold him, or if he could escape. In MMA, once you are on the ground, you have to choke, submit, or pound your opponent for the win. In wrestling, you have to pin him. In judo, you just have to keep him down for 25 seconds to get the win. Obviously, Sensei Pete was fighting really hard. Occasionally he would get one shoulder blade off the ground. I thought maybe that meant the clock stopped. But Sensei Gary said, “The clock is still running. All you have to do is control him.”
Next, Sensei Gary let me throw him and try to control him on the ground. As soon as we hit the ground, he reversed me, and wound up on top. He said, “You have to move quickly once you’re on the ground.”
I asked if you were permitted to fight off your back and use your legs on the ground. Sensei Pete said that you were, and that they had all of the same triangle chokes and arm bars as in Brazilian Jujitsu, except that it wasn’t as refined as BJJ. BJJ, since its inception, has specialized in these techniques. So, naturally, they are very developed.
Sensei Gary showed me a slow smother, from side-control. It was very unpleasant. Even though I could hold out because of MMA training, you only have twenty five seconds to escape. So, I still would have lost. It’s not an easy task, trying to get an eighth degree Grand Master of Judo off of you.
I asked a lot more about ground fighting, prompting the two senseis to point out, that judo is not wrestling. If the opponent lands in a position other than on his back, you only have a very few seconds to put him on his back and pin him, or you have to stand up and restart. It seems that the real art, the preferred win in judo, is that you throw the guy once, and make him land flat on his back. But if that doesn’t happen, you can go down with him, control him, pin him, choke him, or submit him.
“It’ a lot more than throwing.” Said Sensei Gary. “Whatever came from the Gracies came from judo first.”
Back on our feet, Sensei explained, “There are three parts of judo; Off balancing, entry, and execution.”
Some of the standing, judo control positions involved trapping your opponent’s arm in your bicep, while pulling his sleeve with the other arm. In wrestling and san da we have exactly the same position, BUT we would jam our shoulder into the opponent’s underarm for more control. Sensei Gary showed me that you shouldn’t do this in judo, because you were leaving yourself open to getting choked from behind.
Practicing one of the throws I fell on my opponent and Sensei scolded me. “Don’t fall on the guy!”
“But I thought you said we should fall on the opponent and control him.” I protested. Sensei said, “Yeah, but we are just practicing. Don’t fall on the guy in practice.” Sensei Pete laughed and added, “We want the guy to come back.” It made sense. If you do 300 throws a night, it would be really painful and injurious to have the opponent fall on you each time.
Another difference between judo and Chinese wrestling was that in judo you are allowed to do a sacrifice throw, where you throw yourself to the ground, with the opponent. In Chinese wrestling, this is discouraged. In san da it’s not allowed at all anymore. In judo, not only were you allowed to go with the opponent, but it seemed you were allowed to hit the ground first, as long as you rolled over into top position and controlled him.
One of the ways I typically get points in Chinese wrestling is that when the opponent goes for an over the shoulder hip throw, I body lock him, lift and throw. The judo guys had a nice counter to my counter, when I body locked Sensei Pete, he simply drove in with his hip, drove through me, and took me down, exactly like the very first throw they had shown me that day. And true to the spirit of judo, true to the concept of using your opponent’s strength and power against him, the harder I body locked Sensei Pete, the harder I hit the ground, because I was basically pulling him into me, which gave him the momentum for the throw.
The two senseis showed me a whole series of sit-through throws which required little or no energy. The main problem with taking these techniques back to China, however, was that, in a sit-through, you hit the ground first, before you opponent. Then, you rolled your opponent onto his back. For Chinese wrestling, you would already have lost a point by falling on your back. These techniques would be good for wrestling or MMA, but some of them couldn’t be done without a gi. Still, learning as many sit-through techniques as possible is extremely beneficial. That way, when you are fighting, no matter what situation comes up, you have a sit-through ready to go.
It was time for me to go. But, before I left, I asked the two senseis for some final words of wisdom. Sensei Gary said, “Judo is referred to as the gentle art. It’s gentle for me. It just hurts the guy who’s falling.”
Sensei Pete said that in studying judo, “You learn a lot about yourself and your inner strength.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “And sometimes, you get to choke-out the Brooklyn Monk.”
Brooklyn Monk, Antonio Graceffo is a PhD candidate at Shanghai University of sport, writing his dissertation on comparative forms of Chinese wrestling. He is martial arts and adventure author living in Asia, the author of the books, “Warrior Odyssey’ and “The Monk from Brooklyn.” He is also the host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” which traces his ongoing journey through Asia, learning martial arts in various countries.
Warrior Odyssey, the book chronicling Antonio Graceffo’s first six years in Asia is available at amazon.com. The book contains stories about the war in Burma and the Shan State Army. The book is available at http://www.blackbeltmag.com/warrior_odyssey
See Antonio’s Destinations video series and find out about his column on http://www.blackbeltmag.com
Brooklyn Monk fan page
Brooklyn Monk on YOUTUBE
Brooklyn Monk in Asia Podcast (anti-travel humor)