In the early days of judo, practitioners would challenge jujitsu stylists to all-out fights to prove which art was superior. Because weight classes were unheard of, there ended up being a lot of small guys fighting a lot of big guys. Judo had to function as a David-vs.-Goliath art if it was to survive. Its adherents quickly discovered that if they had speed and technique, they could nullify their opponent’s strength advantage.
So says Mike Swain, an internationally known judo practitioner who won a bronze medal at the 1988 Olympics. He insists that same mix of speed and technique is just as potent on the mat today, but if you ever need to employ the grappling and throwing art on the street, you may need to spice it up a bit — by avoiding certain techniques and sprinkling in some striking. The following are his favorite fighting philosophies for turning the tables on your opponent no matter where the action takes place.
Control His Body With Judo
In a judo tournament, if you throw your opponent onto his back with force and control, you’ll earn a full point and win the match. “It’s like a knockout,” the Black Belt Hall of Famer says. A similar logic applies to the street because when a person is hurled to the pavement, chances are he’ll be incapacitated.
If the throw doesn’t work quite right and your adversary falls on his side or on his hands and knees, you must use your weight to control him, Mike Swain says. “If you give him any kind of space, he can escape.”
If you happen to be on the wrong end of a throw, once you’re on the ground, you should keep your elbows and knees tucked in, he says. “I call it the ‘beach-ball theory.’ If you jump on a beach ball, you roll off. If an opponent tries to smother you with his body, you can grab him and roll him off you.”
This posture is also useful in self-defense because it protects your vital areas. You don’t want to leave your legs open because your groin will be exposed, and you don’t want your body to be spread out because your torso will be vulnerable, he says. Plus, the defensive position makes it more difficult for your foe to climb on top and immobilize you.
Use Judo to Feel Your Way
Whether you’re rolling in the Olympics or fighting for survival, your consciousness must be uncluttered so you can sense your opponent’s movements, Mike Swain says. Once you’ve freed it of extraneous thoughts, you’ll be better able to expect the unexpected — and react to it.
When you’re in grappling range, your awareness should be more about feeling what your enemy is doing than about seeing him move, he says. He likens this principle to dancing: Instead of looking at your partner’s feet to determine where she’s going, you look directly into her eyes. Judo requires that a slight adjustment be made: Divert your gaze to your opponent’s chest and use your peripheral vision to keep track of what’s going on around you.
A valuable exercise entails practicing randori (free-sparring) with a partner after both of you have donned a blindfold. “Let your body feel which way your opponent is going to move,” Mike Swain says. “When you have a dance partner, you have to know when to step [to avoid crushing] her toes. It’s the same with judo: You have to feel when [your opponent] is off-balance.”
Break His Balance the Judo Way
Disrupting your opponent’s balance is the key to executing nearly every judo throw, says the San Jose, California-based instructor. In competition, you’re restricted to using legal judo moves to destabilize him, but on the street, you’re free to use strikes or even dirty tricks to catch him off-guard and set him up for a finishing technique.
A sleeve grip is the most important grip in tournaments because it also helps you get in the right position to execute a throw, Mike Swain says. While that move can work on an opponent who’s wearing a sturdy shirt or a jacket, it won’t function against a T-shirt. Fortunately, it’s not as serious a problem as it was in the past.
“A lot of the techniques that are done in Olympic competition today don’t rely on a gi,” Swain says. “They rely on wrist grabs and leg kicks. There’s a lot more wrestling influence these days. It comes from the European side of judo, like with the Russians and their sambo.”
(To be continued.)
Text by Sara Fogan and Robert W. Young • Photos by Rick Hustead • Mike Swain’s website is mikeswainjudo.com.
Bonus! Judo Movie Magic
Judo’s tomoe nage is also known as the rear-sacrifice throw. “It’s the one you see in the movies, where the hero falls backward, sticks his foot in the stomach of the bad guy and flips him over,” Mike Swain says.
It works flawlessly on the silver screen, but unless you’re skilled in the art or throwing, you might not want to try it on the street. There are two reasons for this caveat: One, you’re choosing to execute a technique that leaves you on your back, which is not usually a wise move; and two, the weight of a large opponent with a little momentum behind him can buckle your leg if you don’t shove off at just the right moment.
“It’s very difficult to throw a big guy,” Mike Swain says.