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Christophe Leininger and his opponent waltz sideways across the mat, like white-jacketed dancing bears, each one pawing at the sleeves and lapels of the other's judo uniform, searching for a good grip and a moment's imbalance. It's late June, in a run-down, old Mesa gymnasium where the judo event of the Grand Canyon Games is being held.
Christophe is calm and rock-solid rooted as his adversary shuffles and kicks at his feet. With a sudden primal scream, the other turns his back into Christophe, lowering a hip to serve as a fulcrum for the throw. But Christophe merely steps backward and the man falls as if slipping on ice. Then he bounds back up, grabs Christophe again, and the waltz starts anew.
The overriding principle of judo is to use the opponent's force to your own advantage, and in a street fight, this is easy enough: The bad guy charges, but he's not expecting you to turn your hip and slide under his attack. His own momentum carries him up and over your back with little energy expended on your part.
But in judo competition, the "bad guy" knows most every move you'll make, and he's waiting for it. And so the bout becomes a seismic chess match, the judo players human motion sensors, feinting and twisting, pushing and pulling until something gives way. Then, in a heartbeat, they either pull off the throw or fall into a trap and get thrown themselves.
Christophe feints a sweeping kick at his opponent's leg. The opponent flinches in anticipation, and this is all the hesitation Christophe needs to pop the man off his feet, roll him in the air like a turtle, and bounce him off the ground.
Point scored, match over, an easy victory for Christophe Leininger.
Christophe has twice been U.S. national champion, once in his weight class--under 86 kilos--in which he is currently second, and once in the open class, which has no weight limits. He has dominated both divisions in the United States for more than ten years and has been a player of international import. His younger brother Bryan, who is also his training partner and constant companion, has seldom been outside the top five players in his heavier weight class. In 1992, the national championship bout in the open division came down to a battle of brothers. Christophe won, Bryan took second.
But judo is an obscure sport, practically a forgotten martial art, less flashy than karate and a whole lot more physical, gruntingly brutal at times.
By sheer coincidence, within the very small but loosely knit judo community in Phoenix are a number of national and international champions with whom the Leiningers train and teach: Piotr Renik, a former Polish national champion and Olympian, who teaches judo at ASU; Wellington "Megaton" Diaz, former Brazilian national champ, who teaches jujitsu at a west-side boys' club; and Oscar Fuchslocher, a former Chilean national champion, who trains with Megaton. They all have day jobs.
The Leiningers, on the other hand, have never done anything but judo. They were practically born in judo uniforms. Their father, Maurice, was a French judo champ who immigrated to Phoenix in the 1950s and opened a school. Like all world-class athletes, they train obsessively, focused on being the best. But theirs is a sport that offers no remuneration whatsoever. If they were the 100th best players in professional baseball, the 50th best in the NFL, they'd be millionaires. In tennis or skating or basketball or even running, if they were in the top ten, they'd be courted by agents bearing lucrative endorsement contracts. Most of the elite judo athletes drop out by age 30, not because their physical abilities are slipping, but because they start worrying about the future, about the difficulty of being a 30-year-old college freshman, a 40-year-old in an entry-level job. They start thinking about wives and children, and life outside a jock dormitory. "If you don't have to work, you can be a judo player into your 40s," Christophe says. He's 34; Bryan is 31.
"I'm a dinosaur in this sport, but I'm lethal," he says. He also knows he's facing extinction.
As judo tournaments go, the Grand Canyon Games is so modest that it doesn't even make the daily sports pages--which is pitiful considering that even the Games' badminton results get coverage. Judo is complex, however, the scoring unfathomable, the struggle seemingly so brutal to the unaccustomed eye. Since Christophe has devoted his entire life to judo, it's logical that he would see it as a life metaphor. Each bout he likens to a symbolic fight to the death. Indeed, the techniques were originally designed for life-and-death situations, then refined and stylized to turn them into a spectator sport.
"Judo is like kabuki theatre," he says. "It's not just banging heads. In a tournament, you experience every emotion: fear, courage, defeat, victory, pain, discipline. There's a conflict of personalities, villains and good guys, one man stalking another."
As if to illustrate the point, out on the mat, two lightweight fighters take after each other. One, a tall and scraggly redheaded kid, taunts his more restrained opponent, yelling, "Come on, come on," and motioning with his hands as in a remake of West Side Story. They tear into each other, arms and legs flying in adolescent rage.