Martial Bliss

This is Bryan Leininger, Christophe's brother. And, in spite of his physical condition, he's entered the Grand Canyon State Games. It'll be his first tournament in more than two years.

Christophe and Bryan have been martial artists since early childhood. Their father, Maurice, is a former French judo champion who came to Phoenix in the 1950s. As they grew up, their lives revolved around judo. They were regimented in the way that the lives of soldiers are. Get on a bus or plane, get off, go to the venue, fight, get back on a bus or plane, go home, train at the dojo, repeat the process.

But now Christophe is 38. Bryan is three years younger, though he looks older than his brother. You can't be an athlete forever. And neither of them wants to. Bryan, however, seems to have found it easier to walk away than Christophe.

When Christophe talks about judo, he does so thoughtfully, but without enthusiasm. When he talks about music, he becomes animated. He's a singer and songwriter, and is well-respected by his peers on the local folk-music scene. It's what he wants to do with the rest of his life.

But his context, his daytime reality, is still judo. He runs his dojo. He teaches judo and jujitsu. He competes, and, even at his advanced age, he usually wins.

Bryan estranged himself from judo. He quit after injuring an ankle, and realized he wanted other things, a more ordinary life. He recently got married, and he works at Phoenix Memorial Hospital, delivering patients, drugs and equipment around the facility. He seems able to live without judo, and has entered the Grand Canyon State Games for fun as much as anything else.

"I was getting out of condition, and I missed training," he says. "I started training again about a month before the Grand Canyon Games."

This casualness is reflected in Bryan's attitude when he arrives at the tournament. He doesn't have Christophe's intensity. He wanders around in his gi, greeting friends. Christophe seems to lighten up a little when he sees Bryan. He greets him warmly, and slaps him on the back.

Bryan has a bye to the semifinal. Christophe, in contrast, will have to fight five times today. And the sight of Christophe fighting is the stuff of nightmares.

Judo matches are so tough because both fighters know what's going on. In a street fight, the martial artist will supposedly throw his foe all over the place. But, in a tournament, that's not going to happen. Each knows what the other knows, and so there's not much defense involved. It's all attack.

And attack is what Christophe's style is all about. Face pinched with intensity, he goes after each opponent--most of whom are far bigger than he--and stalks them, forcing them off balance, disrupting their rhythm, searching for the mistake he can exploit and use to take them down. And, today, he's finding it. Watching him win becomes a matter of routine.

Bryan's opponent in the semifinal is Wayne Miller, one of Canada's top five judo players and a prospect for the Canadian Olympic team. He's an old friend of Bryan's, and they stand laughing as their fight is introduced.

Miller is in far better shape than Bryan. But the match is Bryan's. He controls the fight from the start, and always looks like the winner.

"Who are you fighting next?" I ask him.
He grins. "Christophe," he says.

This looks like it's going to be an ugly one, but it isn't. Two fighters of such caliber facing each other should be like a bomb going off, but the explosion never happens. Christophe doesn't attack with his usual ferocity. The brothers tussle for a moment, then Bryan throws Christophe. It's over.

"That was strange," Bryan tells me. "When I work out with Christophe in the dojo, he really goes at it--head-butts me, everything. But he didn't fight me that hard today." He laughs. "But I fought him as hard as usual."

I go and find Christophe. "Did you give Bryan that fight?" I ask.
"No. I didn't give it to him. He fought me good. I've fought this whole tournament in my sleep, and you can't fight Bryan that way. If you don't fight your best, he'll beat you." He stretches, shaking his head. "I'm just tired."

But not too tired to fight another match for second place. As Christophe and his opponent come onto the mat, he does look weary. But, as the referee gives the signal to start, Christophe goes in as though there's a world title at stake. He beats the guy so easily it's undramatic. As Bryan watches the fight, he chats to a friend about something else. I tell Christophe he doesn't seem very tired now, and he laughs.

Contact Barry Graham at his online address: bgraham@newtimes.com

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