Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A BJJ guy in Judo: My Airborne Adventures.

There were a number of factors that lead me to get involved with Judo earlier this year. Similar to what happened with my discovery and growth in BJJ, it’s been an adventure rich in learning.

I had been aware of the fact that my “Game” lacked substantially in the standing component for quite some time. Prior to my start in judo, I had gotten a grand total of 1 take-down (yes, one) in competition. Other than this I either used a flying attack, jumped guard, or had guard pulled on me.

Neither of these other options were all that bad, to be honest. My flying attacks were tailored such that they either resulted directly in the win, or that I at least landed in an advantageous manner. Jumping guard was advantageous, but less so (I found that you would need to set up every step towards a sub, where as a flying attack you would land partially in one, with the initial sub, and many counters to work with.) The third option, having someone jump on me was never that bad. I am a reasonably capable passer. Breaking someones guard down is usually exhausting for the breakee. If closed is where they want to be, they will kill their legs in an effort to stay there.

I was fortunate enough to be exposed to some Judo in my last few months with Joslin MMA. They began a Tuesday night Judo class a few months before I left. It was taught by a guy named Roman. Roman will have to accept my apologies for not being able to pronounce or spell his last name. Roman was your archetypal USSR Judo ass kicker. He was huge. He might just look enormous to me (as people tend to) due to the fact that I am quite small. Regardless, Roman looked like the result of a Soviet genetics program that aimed to combine humanity with surplus industrial machinery.

I dug Romans style. Despite the fact that he was an enormous cross of human and open-pit mining equipment, he was quite capable at giving people advice that was very particular to them. He would go around the class to the various groups of people and give them material to work that was tailored to their skill level, moves that would have the most applicability to a game they could develop. Fascinating stuff, really.  

Despite our obvious bodily differences (as I state, I remain unconvinced we share the same species classification) Roman was very capable at this. He would come over and show my taller partner Uchi Mata, and then teach me Tai Otoshi. “This is good for the little men.” He would say. I feel compelled to both bold and Italicise his speech.

I came to Ottawa and began to train with RoninMMA (for the second time) in January. One of the instructors had a Blue belt in Judo, and a few of the other high belts had very solid standing work. Despite this, we spent as little as 10 to 20 minutes per week learning take-downs.

There’s a parallel here about how Judo teaches the ground, and about how BJJ teaches standing. They both look at these items in isolation. In a vacuum, essentially. At BJJ they will teach a Seoi Nage and neglect the Kasushi, the off-balancing required prior to the throw, and at Judo they will teach you a sweep with out teaching how to grip for that sweep, or why you are in that position to begin with.

I’m very happy that I am now in a position to recognise these short comings. Now, when I do ground technique in Judo, I will use the appropriate set up, and teach this, (along with some thoughts on the position) to my partner, if appropriate. When I stand at The Jiu Jits club, I show my partner the Kasushi, and when the move is applicable (as best an Orange belt can.)

Although I had caught the Judo bug in Hamilton, I hadn’t found a good place to do Judo in Ottawa when I returned there. While sparring standing, I still felt, even when working with guys who were significantly lower ranked than me, that I was almost in a panic.

Despite the fact that I had only a few actual useful take-downs. I was completely exhausted mentally and physically by standing and fighting. I would avoid standing. Any practice of it that I could dodge, I did. I was uninterested in training it, and loathed the sparring.

Gradually, it dawned on me that this was all an extension of the Ego. I didn’t want to do it because I was still bad at it. I will be the first guy to admit that regardless of the advances I have made, in some situations I still struggle with my ego. BJJ is said to completely beat it out of you. It’s been a slow work in my case.

I could not, for the life of me, find a Judo club that had good training on Monday and Wednesday. This would be ideal for me, as the big nights at Ronin were Tuesday/Thursday, and I badly wanted to keep attending these.

I asked around, and found out from an instructor at our club about a club that had formed in Gatineau. These Judoka were apparently an offshoot group from a club in Ottawa. I dug them up on the internet. They organised themselves through a blog. An entirely French blog.

I don’t speak much French. If I needed to, I could communicate urgent matters to a French person. Certainly not eloquently. When 2 french people speak to each other (depending on speakers voice) I can pick up between 1 out of every 3 words and 1 out of 10 words they speak. My comprehension is remarkably poor, for a guy who works in Quebec.

Regardless, I went to the Dojo, which had it’s mat space in a CEGEP (sort of a Quebec High school/College.) At that time, the main person teaching was Alim. Alim is Ukranian, not physically imposing, but sort of the Old School coach. A little bit like Roman was. Alim also has two enormous sons (again, relative) who I’ve come to respect a lot. They are both technically very good, but more over, they have a work ethic that is very remarkable.

Everyone was super friendly and the material looked like exactly what I wanted to see. Highly technical, with an appropriate respect for strength training. There is less BS talk about not using strength in Judo. (See previous post about my thoughts on Strength in BJJ.) The Judoka know when to use it, is all. I’ve been there two days a week since then.

Since I began there, a few things changed. Alim left to teach elsewhere and Rene, who was the head of the club now teaches along with Diogo. The training is very good. Rene and Diogo are both very technical, and good at imparting things to me. Rene speaks English (as most of the guys do) but Diogo does not. Diogo however, is nice to the point that you don’t feel bad trying to speak hack french to him, with him trying to speak hack English back. He’s very patient through the misunderstandings. Oddly, he is from Brazil and has the easiest french for me to understand. He is also the best Judoka on the ground that I have met so far. He actually knows what Half Guard is!

I should have recorded the exasperation that resulted from me trying to speak to him about the Omoplata (shoulder lock.) I was trying to determine if it was allowed. Diogo thought that I meant “Omoplates” which is French for shoulder blade. He said no, probably thinking that I wanted to fold someones shoulder blade in half. We both had a good laugh once we figured out the misunderstanding. (Omoplatas are legal, BTW.)

Training Judo has done a number of things for me. The big thing (biggest) is confidence. Another way that Judo and BJJ are similar is the way the fighting feels and its relation to skill. Judo guys feel tense and unrelaxed on the ground. BJJ guys feel tense and aggressive standing. This all comes from a lack of confidence related to the skill of the particular practioner; where one is good, he is relaxed. I’ve gained a decent level of skill standing. I have no illusions that I am much good at it yet, but I’ve certainly grown by leaps and bounds. When I spar standing at Ronin, I feel more confident. My randori is less tense, and more capable as a result. I recall throwing some people at Ronin. Particularly people who are good on their feet. I know that at the moment of success, the take-down came from a calm understanding of the position and the circumstance. A good execution of a technique came as a result, and I managed the win in that moment. It’s not something to get all self congratulatory about, but it’s progress.

Judo might have a questionable end result for me. If I was to look at it as a purely ROI type of thing, I’ve essentially taken two (sometimes three) nights away from training BJJ, and applied them to Judo. I’ve been doing it for nine months now. As a result, I have added three additional successful throws at BJJ tournaments, for a grand total of six points. If it’s purely a numbers game, I guess it’s a bit of a wash. I’ve also lost 2 points for attempting to stand with someone who was a bit more capable a seoi nage than I was at defending it, but I also got third at a Judo tournament.

What is it like to train Judo? This is a question I get every now and then. Judo, in my experiences has been a lot like training BJJ:
  • The warm ups are nearly the same (remember, we borrowed these from judo,)
  • The method of class structure, although it’s a little more fluid at my Judo club, is very typical of what you’d see at most BJJ clubs: Warm-up, reps of common moves, technique, then sparring.
  • As I’ve alluded above, the Judoka are good standing, and are quite relaxed as a result (Like BJJ’ers are with BJJ)

There are obvious differences between these arts.  The obvious being technical ones. It was difficult to quantify at first why it was (is) more difficult to learn at the very face of it. Gradually the difference dawned on me.

In BJJ, we could number the steps in our techniques... “You do this, THEN this, THEN this.” It’s sequential. We have individual steps where one (maybe two, connected movements) are done in proceeding to the end goal.

Judo seems to not quite work this way. A typical technique will have the judoka performing the move in stages. there might be one or two, maybe three stages. At these points, you’re doing multiple movements. It’s more like “Do this AS you do this, WHILE this other thing is happening, DURING WHICH...” It’s craziness to me. Sometimes you end up trying to do 12 things at once, half of which appear counter to the other half. It takes a great deal of time for me to make a move useful for me. In Judo, I become the “Calf-on-Ice.”

If you are intimidated by learning Judo: you should be, frankly. It is normal to feel odd about breaching into another sport, to learn different things, with a different attitude applied to it. There are a number of differences. I had the additional challenge of being strictly anglophone, and going to a school where most the people speak French.

Some tips for the curious BJJ’ers:
  • Go check out a class. You might like it. It might be hard to find a club that has solid classes that are on nights when you don’t already have your best BJJ classes. Fact of life. Seems like every club wants to fight Tuesday/Thursday.
  • Be up front about previous BJJ experience. Depending on your level, you may be well in advance of the Judoka on the ground. Tell them that you train. Don’t be smug, just mention it so they know to expect a certain level of knowledge on the ground.
  • Don’t be an asshat. Seriously. Judoka might go a little bonkers with you on the ground. You’ve got to keep cool, and never go meathead on them. You are representing Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, your art, my art. If they have to kick you off the mats, then they  will likely treat all proceeding BJJ-folk as morons. We won’t have this. Do not miss-represent us. Keep in mind, if you do act a fool on the ground, you’re going to find everyone there will want to throw you into the basement. This would be fair. Keep in mind that the Judoka may already be sceptical about you and BJJ in general.
  • Don’t be an asshat pt. 2: The rules for sparing on the ground are different. A closed guard will not get you far (it will get you stood up, in fact.) Accept the rules as presented, and play by them. It may open up your game. Judoka are especially confused by X-Guard, fyi.
  • Don’t be an asshat pt.3: You are not there to convert people. This is not the crusades. No one will accept this attitude. Any mention of superiority (there are equal arguments from both sides about it; don’t breath this.) will be met with some sort of debilitating rib injury.
  • Make commentary on ground techniques sparingly. I don’t get worked up whenever I see the instructor perform a technique in a way that I would not. You are not there to provide advice on this, unless asked. If you want, when you pair up to practise it, you could mention it as a thing to consider. Your partner might have no interest in it. I have learned a few interesting things from Judo guys on the ground. They have a proclivity to turtle at inappropriate times, dealing with this has taught me things that I take back to BJJ.
  • Commentary may also be appropriate at times. Depending on the school (and individuals within the school) skill on the ground varies widely. I’ve worked with Browns who feel like they could get their BJJ Blues with an afternoons work, and Black belts who roll like a fresh BJJ white. That being said, If you are working with someone high-up, who you sense is legitimately trying to develop ground skills, show him how to pass “those infuriating legs.”
  • Accept Judo for Judo. Don’t show up and say “I only want to see things that are relative to BJJ tournaments.” People won’t accept that. They will suspect you are there to do this. I was asked this my second week, once I made it clear i was going to stick around. I told them that I was there to learn Judo. Simply, Judo. No ulterior motives. I didn’t want to try to walk away with a piece of it and ignore the rest. If I competed in X-arm (ha) and showed up to your BJJ club and said I only wanted to learn armbars, what level of cooperation would I receive? how would you feel about it? Exactly. There are a lot of rules for Olympic Judo that numerous people don’t agree with. Not touching the legs is a big one. Regardless of how you or I feel about it, it’s unlikely that throws that utilise a pants grip will be shown. Practice that some other time. You’ve got to accept judo for how it is.
  • Judo...ain’t that a B? It’s difficult. I struggle with it, go ask my girlfriend, I come home and pine about how I can’t seem to throw a fit. Don’t be in a rush to find the utility of it. Someday, you’ll be able to make legitimate throws on people. You will quickly find progress as compared with BJJ guys who don’t train it, but the Judoka are going to be cleaning your clock for a long time.
  • Breakfalls. You’ll get good at these if you get anywhere in Judo. Trust me.


  1. Judo is scary, as are takedowns: I've yet to overcome my discomfort with that feeling of not being in control, particularly because I got that injury in my third ever judo class, which has really put me off. Still, if I ever get to competing regularly, definitely something I should try again.

    Am I right in thinking that 'omoplata' also means shoulder blade in Portuguese? Google Translate seems to agree, thought that isn't always reliable.

  2. Yeah, omaplata, omoplates. This all furthered the confusion I suppose. I suspect though that he thought I was trying to talk to him in French and not portuguese.

    I wish I knew Brazilian Portuguese. It sounds so smooth and lyrical...it's the language equivalent of Sunday afternoon hammock napping.

    I digress. Judo can be horrifying. Just monday I had a 6'5 dude practising Hane Goshi (sp?) on me. Eff sakes. Upside down, 6 feet in the air, propelled towards the floor. Judo! Good times!

    I hear people talk about the highrates of Judo injury and I wonder about it...are they talking about BJJ guys trying to do Judo? That would definitely have injuries. BJJ guys can be nutters on their feet. Experienced guys doing judo though? I've mentioned above, but the experience level at a Judo club seems to quell the over-aggressiveness that can lead to injuries.

    On the other hand, I see high level 18 year olds with Bad knees and stuff. I don't think there is a way to determine if this is specific to the sport, or if it's just a volume of training thing. Some of these kids are 3x a day. If I trained BJJ hard, 3x a day. I'd be injured more.

    What would be the thing about Judo that makes it worse? I've heard people say that impact is the big thing. I disagree. Seems to me that Judo guys all have bad knees. You could hurt your knees with poor breakfalls, but I'm sceptical. These have been well trained, typically. If it's anything, I'd say it's all the twisting against resisting opponents.

    May I ask what happened in your case Slidey?

  3. Sure - it was a pretty silly injury, considering it happened during drilling. Over-enthusiastic noob, basically: write-up, as ever. Re-reading that, apparently I wasn't quite so diplomatic five years ago. ;)

  4. yeah, your struggle with the judo learning curve makes me think you forgot what it was like to be a bjj whitebelt!

    cute title, btw.

  5. @Slidey: I'd have likely been less kind to the person, considering the injury. Thats a crappy injury...7 months! Bummer. Any experience with Sambo? I'd like to try that at some point.

    @Ash: Shush! I was actually very spoiled as a white belt...I admit.