Martial Bliss

It's late on a Saturday morning at Phoenix Civic Plaza. Downtown is quiet and hot, and there's no sense of violence in the air.

Until I go inside the civic center.
The Grand Canyon State Games are being held here, and the first thing I see is a baton-twirling contest. I watch for a few minutes, then go next door to find what I came for--the judo tournament.

The size of the crowd is disappointing; two of the competitors are world-class athletes, but there are never more than 100 people present, including the competitors. Those not competing are friends or family of those who are. This is a sport with no fan base outside its own community.

This is a pity, because judo would certainly have a following if more people saw it. It does have some things going against it. It's very complex and hard to understand if you're not already familiar with it. A match will end for no obvious reason, and there's no announcement as to who has won. But judo has something in its favor as a spectacle that easily eclipses these problems.

It's shockingly violent.
In Japanese, judo means "gentle way," and its practitioners are typically regarded by outsiders as the pacifists of the martial-arts world, serene souls who use their skill to defend themselves without causing harm.

Christophe Leininger, former national champion and member of the U.S. Olympic reserve team for a decade, laughs at this idea.

"It does mean 'gentle way,'" he says. "But it's the gentle way to be violent. Judo is a Japanese art, and you have to understand the Japanese way of thinking. Their traditional way of being violent is to cut each other up with swords. So if they're just throwing each other and choking each other and breaking things, they think they're being gentle."

When it comes to violence, it's hard to imagine anyone who could speak with more authority than Leininger. Regarded as one of the best judo practitioners of his generation, he's also fought--unsuccessfully--in the Ultimate Fighting Challenge. He weighs more than 200 pounds, but he isn't a huge guy. He's well under six feet tall, and he doesn't have the bulging muscles you see on some rent-a-cops or bouncers. But his build and his fighting style bring to mind the movie The Terminator. He's just solid, unmovable muscle.

He's also very amiable. He speaks softly, with some of the accent he inherited from his French father. He chats easily, and laughs a lot. For a man of such frighteningly destructive abilities, he's remarkably unintimidating.

Most of the time.
He has entered the tournament at the Grand Canyon State Games, as has his younger brother, Bryan, whose judo credentials match Christophe's. As people arrive in the hall and approach Christophe, he stonewalls them.

"Hi," he says to them. "It's good to see you, but I can't talk to you. I have to focus."

He's wearing a gi, the white judo uniform. He paces around, stretching and taking deep breaths. Then he goes to an area of the mat that's not being used, and he lies flat on his stomach, cradling his face in his arms. The soles of his feet are brown and dusty. His toes are taped together. He doesn't move for nearly an hour, and seems to be asleep.

Meanwhile, the tournament goes on.

Judo is not an austere, mystical martial art. It's a tough and brutal combat sport. As fights take place, the spectators don't sit cross-legged and talk in Oriental profundities. They yell advice to their friends--"Watch his choke, Mike! Watch it!"--just like the crowd at a boxing match.

The formalities of judo are used to mask the violence. Boxers are usually referred to as "fighters." In judo, competitors are called "players." Anytime a player gets a cut, the bout is delayed until the blood is removed from his body, his gi and the mat. The emcee announces, "Blood is not allowed to be part of a judo contest."

But, make no mistake, these encounters are fights.
As Christophe Leininger reclines on the mat, I watch a furiously violent match between two teenage girls. Holding each other by the gi, they push and pull, kicking at each other's legs in an attempt to trip. They fall to the mat and struggle furiously. Finally, the time is up and the winner decided.

Another fight lasts three seconds. The guys come out, go for each other, and one of them grabs the other and slams him into the mat with a force I'm surprised doesn't wake Christophe.

He does wake up after a while, and watches as one of his students wins a match. He occasionally calls out advice to the guy.

A bunch of teenage boys sit near me, discussing judo tactics. One of them talks about a hold he always falls for. "But," he says, "that Leininger guy showed me how to get out of it."

A few nights before the Grand Canyon State Games, Christophe is in the dojo (martial-arts school) he owns at 32nd Street and Shea, engaged in conversation with a man who looks like someone's kindly uncle--big, chubby and bald, with a perpetual smile on his face. The guy has a tough workout, then goes into the dressing room to change. When he takes his clothes off, you can see he's not in good shape. Folds of fat become visible as soon as he takes off his gi jacket.

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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