Sunday, November 17, 2013

Take the Damn Fall!

A couple of days back I received a pretty cool rant from a pretty cool dude.  Since I like to publish pretty cool stuff here on Mokuren Dojo, I asked if I could copy it over here as a guest post, and here it is...

A Kind Suggestion from a Bewildered Judoka: 
I don't need to tell you that many judoka neglect the study of ukemi. It is too often treated as a beginner subject, which is taught intensively for the first few classes as a white belt and maybe worked on sporadically until green, at which point the student is expected to take falls well enough to survive them. Here, the skill of ukemi plateaus, and it pretty much remains at this level until the judoka decides they are too old / too high rank to take falls any more, after which they forget it almost entirely. I don't like this paradigm, but I can accept it.
What shocked me, and I mean really dropped my jaw, was the realization that some very respected and competent sensei are teaching their competitors, from children upward, to turn out of throws and land on the stomach, or cartwheel out of them by extending a hand. Until a loophole was recently closed by a (for once reasonable) rules change, it was even favored among elite competitors to land in a "bridge" position on the heels and head, thereby avoiding back contact and ippon. Oh boy, where to start? 
If you look at the old film strips of Kano, Mifune, Nagaoka, Fukuda, and the other greats, their ukes always land on the back or side, even in randori. This might be minimally compelling, because the camera was rolling, and who would dare make an insturctor look foolish by carwheeling or turing out of a throw during a filmed demonstration or randori, particularly in Japan and back then? But, if these methods of falling are considered skillful, worth learning, even appropriate to include in the dojo curriculum, why not demonstrate them? 
Even in old films of shiai, and I mean competitive, brutal, win at all costs shiai, no one turns out. Had they just not thought of it? Is it so aesthetically displeasing that the formal Japanese of yesteryear couldn't bring themselves to do it? I would not guess so. Even Fukuda Keiko, until her recent death the final word in American Kata and a beautiful technician, was not above rough, wham slam inelegant randori in her younger days. If you doubt me, take a moment to see for yourself:  The falls aren't kata falls, and certainly no one is "letting herself be thrown" or "jumping". So why was this clever innovation in competitive ukemi not implemented earlier? 
I have some ideas: 
It is tactically unfavorable. Do a quick experiment for me: lay down on your stomach, and let someone sit in a kesa gatame position and hold you. They don't even need to get an arm around your neck, just sit nice and tight in the armpit and apply some pressure. You can't get out. Bridging is impossible from the stomach, as is shrimping, as is getting a leg up to pull guard or attempt a triangle or shove them off. Worse, from a (ghasp) self-defense standpoint, it is impossible to ward off blows with the hands, or mule kick, or gouge the eyes. You can't even curl up to avoid being pummeled. There is a reason the (sadly often more practical than us) bjj folks value taking the opponent's back so highly. Why on earth, when you've been knocked down by a throw, would you ever, EVER, roll to your stomach? If you say, "this is just for shiai, we wouldn't do this in a fight", I ask you to reconsider this sentiment. Shiai is a test of one's skill in the martial art of Judo. If you want to come out and say it's an end in itself, a sport done for sport's sake, that's a resaonble stance. But don't call it Judo. "Wrestling in pajamas with all the good leg throws taken out" might be a more appropriate name.
It risks injury. This is the obvious one. Falling on your front is bad news. Anyone who has worked with me knows that I love ukemi, and I take as much of it as possible, from all kinds of throws at full force and height. I will gladly take kata guruma from a six foot tori, and only bother with a crash pad if we're going to be doing it many many times. I'll take uchi mata makikomi all day, but I hate flat front falls. The back is just better engineered for taking a fall, period. When you fall on your face, there is no safe way except to eat more of the energy with your arms, because you can' exploit a slight curve to dissipate force as you can with a fall to the back. 
It is athletically exclusive. I'm probably going to catch the most flack for this, but I belive Judo is for everyone. While any able bodied person can learn ukemi, many are just not athletic enough to cartwheel or spin out of throws midair without serious and immediate injury. This is just an opinion, but I prefer randori and shiai to favor the player who does more skillful judo, not the player with the most gymnastic skill. By teaching your players to avoid a score when they have been legitimately thrown, your are teaching exploitation of what should be an irrelevant physical advantage. I've said this many times and I'll say it again, shiai can be a sport, but Judo is not. So, should players just accept that as soon as kuzushi has been done to, they are going to land on theirs backs and lose? No. I am not advocating "jumping" into throws, or taking kata style formal ukemi in shiai. There are many ways to block a throw before being launched and rotated. Everyone knows how to hip in and stuff a forward throw, but what about relaxing at a key moment and becoming unthrowably grounded, or better yet, accepting the kuzushi with so little resistance that you can step through it back to a favorable position? Mifune is the cannonical example of these skills, which are largely going untaught. Since I became intersted in Mifune's groudning ability, partly due to my Aikido crosstraining, I have developed the ability to "go dead weight" very briefuly and successfully stop larger, stronger, higher ranked players from throwing me. I'm not saying it's a magic bullet, but I am saying there are many defensive skills applicable before the opponent has exectued a throw. How about we teach defenses that apply while defense is safe and in the spirit of Judo, not attempts to dangerously snatch back a victory after the opponent has earned it? 
Finally, let me just say that proper Ukemi is offensively useful. I'm not talking about judo shiai, which of course ends at ippon, but in bjj, taking a clean, beautiful fall is advantageous. It some cases it creates separation between uke and tori which allows the recently thrown player to maneuver before the opponent is on top, and apart from falling into the fatal trap of being pinned on your stomach (see above), a good fall also insures that a player does not land injured, stunned, or with his breath knocked out. In a fight, a person on their back can mule kick with the full force of their legs and torso using the brace of the ground behind them, or post up and stand while maintaining their defense against kicks and blows.
So please, take another look at ukemi as the old-timers did it. They knew what they were doing, really.

Andre Goran is an enthusiastic martial arts nerd. He has studied Tracy lineage Kenpo, Judo, and Shodokan Aikido, and holds the rank of shodan in the latter two with Kaze Uta Budokai, as well as shodan in judo with the USJI. He currently lives in Philadelphia, where he trains at Osagame Martial arts under Ray Huxen Sensei and Alma Qualli Sensei.

[top photo courtesy of Isa Walde]

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Patrick Parker


  1. Amen brother! While my training is mostly in aikido, I have seen so many players that just absolutely refuse to fall. To some it happens after they reach a certain rank, and for some, it seems like they have never fallen down. I came a realization myself a few weeks ago in class. I realized that I had not fallen in months. I am now making a conscious effort to take as much ukemi as I can without killing myself. I am having to get back into falling shape and it sucks, but it has to happen.

  2. Really nice I love to see the whole post here. impressed with the work.Judo

  3. Good Stuff, Andre. The turning out of everything is a good way to get hurt. And it takes a lot of fun from our training partners. Unless you're playing for money all in all a bad idea.


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