Jigoro Kano, founder of Judo
“In short, resisting a more powerful opponent will result in your defeat, whilst adjusting to and evading your opponent's attack will cause him to lose his balance, his power will be reduced, and you will defeat him. This can apply whatever the relative values of power, thus making it possible for weaker opponents to beat significantly stronger ones.”
Broadly speaking, the original Jujitsu of Japan, the self-defence and philosophical system once practiced by the legendary samurai, broke into four modern martial arts (although still referred to today as “traditional martial arts”) – Karate, Aikido, Kendo, and Judo. While the four share elements, gradually Karate absorbed the striking elements, Judo the throws and submission holds, Kendo the swordsmanship aspects, and Aikido, a bit harder to define, contains elements of redirecting an opponent’s motion, wrist locks, and defence against opponents armed with blades.
Judo, as we know it, originated when its to-be founder Jigoro Kano was introduced to a culture of bullying at an English boarding school in Tokyo in 1874. This lead Kano to seek out Jujitsu to learn a method of defending himself. The Shogunate had been disassembled in 1867 and Japan was pursuing a course of rapid modernization and westernization, making the traditional Japanese martial arts training he sought hard to find. Kano’s quest for martial arts instruction lasted several years and if combat sports is a boom-bust industry, as many speculators claim, then Japan was in the middle of severe martial arts depression
An adorable photo of Kano in his later years
Kano eventually found several instructors in Jujitsu and was even given the scrolls owned by one of his Dojos upon the death of his instructor. In 1882, at age 22, Kano founded a school of martial arts at a Buddhist temple in Tokyo. He expanded the concepts to add a philosophical and a supposedly life-enhancing aspect to the system, at the same time discarding many techniques that did not conform to his concepts of using an opponent’s weight against them. Finally, knowing that traditional martial arts had fallen into disrepute in the rapidly modernizing Japan, he changed the name of his system away from Jujitsu to Judo. Kano’s legacy is the development, refinement and sportification of a then decaying martial arts system.
One of Kano’s students, Yamashita Yoshiaki, was invited by a citizen of Seattle to come and teach Judo to his son in America. The natural next step was, of course, for President Theodore Roosevelt, literal cowboy-president, and combat sports enthusiast (already a practitioner of boxing, wrestling, and having had some jiujitsu lessons from a policeman who studied in Japan), to receive some lessons from Yoshiaki in the White House. This continued a curious tradition of American Presidents being exposed to Judo, Kano having put on a demonstration for Ulysses S. Grant when he visited Japan.
Yoshiaki became a popular teacher of Judo to prominent American women as well. Grappling techniques involving leverage allow a smaller person to use their weight effectively against a larger person and have been popular with women for a long time for obvious reasons. It makes sense then that martial arts became popular with the suffragette movement, activists having encountered violent suppression by police.
A newspaper article run during the sufferagette movement. Women learning to defend themselves from police using Jiu Jitsu and Judo would lead to the unlikely term suffrajitsu
The first rulesets for what would become competitive Judo were made in 1899 and developed over the following decades. There was a demonstration of Judo at the 1932 Olympics but Judo would not be introduced as an Olympic sport until the 1964 games in Tokyo. Competitive Judo takes place on a broad square mat with the competitors competing in a Gi uniform. The scoring system is unique. A competitor can win by Ippon (gaining 1 point). An Ippon is awarded for a fully controlled throw of an opponent. Other successful throws that don’t have full control of the other competitor may result in a lesser award – half-point etc, which if awarded in succession to add up to 1 point will still gain a competitor the win. This means a Judoka who is losing a bout can still come back and win at any point with a controlled throw, similar to the chance for a come from behind knock-out in boxing. Alternate, and much rarer, paths to victory include winning by submission, usually by choke or elbow lock, and pin – holding an opponent’s shoulders to the mat for an extended period of time.
A Judo competitor mid-throw
There is a long history of Judoka travelling the world to display their skills in style vs style match ups. In 1914, Ad Santel, a Catch-as-catch-can wrestler in Britian, even declared himself "world champion of judo" after having beaten several travelling judoka. As can be seen, Judo has had a relationship with mixed martial arts from a time before it was known by that name. In what has been widely considered one of the first mixed martial arts matches American Judoka “Judo” Gene Lebell (future teacher to breakthrough fighter Ronda Rousey) fought the boxer Milo Savage in 1963. The rules were a mish-mash that forbid kicking or grabbing an opponent lower than the waist. Any punch was allowed and the boxer would have to wear a Gi jacket. The match would go for five three minute rounds. In the fourth round Gene Lebell landed a throw and took the back of the downed boxer; he then proceeded to choke him unconscious. Because the crowd had been favouring the boxer, and because no one knew the effect of chokeholds, many thought Gene had killed the boxer and chairs and bottles showered the ring. Even after his opponent was revived a man attempted to stab Gene on his way out of the arena.
This is one of two novel Gene Lebell stories I’ll recount here, the second involves actor, aikido practitioner, bully, and all round hanger-on to celebrity, Steven Seagal. Gene, having worked on many movies as a consultant and stunt coordinator, had run into Steven Seagal who claimed to know a move that would allow him to escape any choke hold. So he allowed Gene to put him in a locked in rear naked choke and promptly went unconscious.
Because mixed martial arts usually does not involve a Gi, Judo suffers more than some other martial arts in its applicability to MMA. However, there have been several notable judoka who have achieved success in MMA. Karo Parisyan was a pioneering judoka in MMA, until his addiction to painkillers ruined an otherwise promising career. Yoshihiro Akiyama is another judoka in modern MMA who is immensely popular in Japan. While an otherwise lackluster fight, some of Akiyama's trips in his match against Jake Shields were absolutely beautiful. Satoshi Ishii is having mixed success as a heavyweight and light-heavy weight talent. One of my personal favourites, Dong Hyun Kim, has been smothering top level fighters for a good portion of the last decade. Sadistic submission master Shinya Aoki had a successful career in Judo, arm-locking everyone in sight, before plying his talents in MMA, but no Judoka has achieved more success or fame in MMA than one, Ronda Rousey
A young Ronda Rousey grip fighting in a Judo match.
Ronda’s mother was a world champion in Judo and of her four children, only Ronda was to pursue Judo competitively. An intensely competitive Judoka, Ronda won a bronze medal at the 2008 Olympic Games. Stories of Ronda's mother putting her in chokes while she was watching T.V. and shouting “always be prepared” leave little to the imagination of how Ronda became such an intense competitor. Following her Olympic medaling, Ronda began her MMA career in 2011 and it was immediately apparent that her game was based heavily around her Judo. According to her, she had developed a style of Judo that relied heavily on quickly arm-locking her opponents. This was developed due to the racism of many referees who would not award points earned and would stand up matches quickly to disadvantage the American competitor. To counter this, Ronda focused on the arm lock to minimise the effect of the referee in her matches as “if you can’t beat someone after they have a broken arm you don’t deserve to win.”
Ronda debuted against Ediane Gomes, a women who you can find on youtube taking on bare-knuckle Vale Tudo matches against men, and arm-barred her in 25 seconds. This was a fore-shadowing of how effective Ronda would be at quickly defeating opponents by chaining together throw and trip attempts from her Judo repertoire and then immediately transitioning into a submission hold. These progressions developed due to the time limits imposed in ground work by Judo competition transitioned perfectly into a Mixed Martial Arts format. Because of the her unique development under the competitive Judo system Ronda would go on to win a series of bouts inside the first round, often under 30 seconds, achieving her mainstream fame and two championships in MMA.
Ronda Rousey after defending her title in 14 seconds. Winning, you guessed it, by arm bar.