The Need for Alternative Competition Styles
(Originally published in USJA Growing Judo, June 2014)
Judo is first and foremost a martial art. It is a form of self defense. It is a style of grappling that, when practiced correctly, allows the defender to utilize an aggressor’s strength and momentum against him. Moreover, for its first 43 years, Judo was viewed primarily as Professor Kano’s style of Jiu-Jitsu. So why does the martial arts world and the Judo community often get wrapped up in defining Judo by its competition rules?
The truth is Judo has had many different competition rule sets since its inception. Being a style of Jiu-Jitsu, the original inter-dojo competitions had to take into account many different fighting styles and combat techniques. There were no restrictions on the type of gripping used. There were no restrictions on gi length, color, or style. Fighting until submission was common. Fighting without time limits was common. Numerical scoring was often used. “Ippon” (one victory) was not necessarily the end of the match. Often, competitors would continue to fight until a “Nihon” (second victory) was achieved.
Today, as a whole, the Judo community has been placing too much emphasis on one’s experience in IJF Judo competition rather than practical application of the martial art. Let’s face it, we live in a Mixed Martial Arts world. The popularity of MMA in the United States has eclipsed any single martial art. To keep students’ interest, we must teach a more multi-faceted curriculum. Often, when my experienced adult students randori, they play “Fewer Holds Barred Judo” where we allow leg-locks and other non-competition Judo techniques with the understanding that we all tap-out early.
Fortunately, I am old enough to remember Judo when it was still a combat sport with equal emphasis on both newaza and nagewaza. I began Judo as a child in New Orleans during the late 1970s as a student of the late “Coach” Jacques Legrand, USJA 10th Dan. I was fortunate to be surrounded by many of Jacques’ black belts who were also great wrestlers. Outside of “Coach’s” club, there was not that much Judo that was easily accessible to a young kid. Consequently, when I reached high school age, I immediately joined the Wrestling team. I was quickly introduced to the team captain, another one of Jacques’ brown belt Judo students. During this time, there were far more Wrestling tournaments than Judo tournaments in which to participate. Access to Wrestling was cheap, easy, and plentiful. Does that make me not a judoka?
Over the past few years, many changes were implemented in Olympic Judo rules that have passed down to the national and local levels. Some of these changes were for safety; however, many of these changes were admittedly for TV viewing purposes. Almost all of these changes have been met with sharp criticism by coaches and players.
When you look at statistics, less than 1% of the judoka in the world make it to the Olympics. That means approximately 99% of the judoka in the world either did not qualify for the Olympics or did not aspire for the Olympics. Does that make the other 99% bad judoka? Of course not. Especially when you consider that on any given day, any competitor can defeat any other competitor at a whim or even by a questionable ruling. Moreover, champions are not made alone. It takes a large skilled team of judoka from the other 99% to make a single Olympic Judo champion.
So should we all compete using the same rule set? Why? Other sports have different rules for different types of competition. Football rules vary widely from the Pee-Wee leagues to the NFL. Wrestling has Folk Style, Freestyle, Greco-Roman, etc. Why not Judo?
A skilled grappling coach once told me that he and the experienced members of his team could compete in any grappling event as long as they had about two weeks to train and adjust to the rule set. While this may be an exaggeration and may not immediately produce the best competitors, it emphasizes the point that all grappling arts are similar. In my dojo, we jokingly say “It doesn’t matter if you prefer to fight in your pajamas or panty hose, grappling is grappling.”
The truth is there are alternatives to Olympic Judo rules. The USJA, USJF, and USA Judo offers scrimmage sanctions so clubs can compete with modified IJF or Classic Judo rules, but under strict limitations of their Triad Agreement. Freestyle Judo is now an alternative that is supported at the national level by AAU Judo, and is growing at the international level. Kosen Judo competitions are still held in Japan. NAGA and BJJ tournaments are extremely popular with the Jiu-Jitsu and MMA crowd. Of course, Wrestling is always a popular alternative–it worked for Jason Morris, Jimmy Pedro, and others. Crossovers from Russian Sambo have contributed a great deal to the world of Judo. Just because you train in Judo, your competition choices should not be limited to only one specific rule set.
What about MMA and professional competition? For many years, professional fighting was looked down upon by the traditional Judo establishment due to Judo’s Olympic status. But we often forget that the original Tokyo Police competition that defined our sport in 1886 was a competition between Professor Kano’s Kodokan Judo school and other Jiu-Jitsu schools. The rules they used were nothing like today’s Olympic Judo. Moreover, when you look throughout the history of Judo, many judoka competed in professional fighting. Mitsuyo Maeda was said to have won more than 2000 professional fights. Masahiko Kimura changed the history of martial arts when he fought Helio Gracie in a professional fight. AAU Judo champion Gene LeBell gets credit for the first professional MMA match in the US. Most notably, Judo Olympian Ronda Rousey has brought Judo to forefront of the modern MMA world so much so that one time critics are now sponsoring her. Moreover, it is now common for upper level amateur Judo competitions to offer prize money to the winners.
My message to Judo coaches everywhere is to embrace these new alternative competition styles. Some are older than Judo itself, while others are very new to the martial arts world. The reality is all of these competition styles are here to stay, and new ones will come every few years. Let’s all adapt for the sake of Judo to stay relevant. So the next time a new student shows up at your dojo asking for instruction because he wants to fight in MMA, Freestyle Judo, Wrestling, Sambo, BJJ, NAGA, etc., welcome him with open arms. Train him like the competitor he wants to be, but teach him Judo–all of it.
For more background on the evolution of Judo competition rules, please read “Development of Judo Competition Rules” by Syd Hoare.