THE FLYING LEININGER BROTHERS
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.
The word "judo" in Japanese means "the gentle way," and it refers to the grace and effortlessness of the art, not to its effect on its victims.
"Where the other guy lands is none of your concern," Christophe likes to say.
Now, one middleweight drives another to the mat, riding him down and mounting him from behind like a dog. The man on the bottom stops moving, and Christophe, watching from the sidelines, is the first to notice.
"He's choked out!" Christophe screams, and indeed, the fighter is unconscious and turning blue. In judo, choking and certain joint-breaking techniques are perfectly legal, and it's the fighter's good-sense duty to say "uncle" before the bone cracks or the blood stops flowing to the brain. In this case, the referee jumps in, tosses the victor off the inert fighter, rolls the body over and starts thumping on his chest.
To everyone's relief, the man on the mat starts to breathe with a cough, then sits up and shakes his head a few times as if wondering where he is.
A visitor asks if the match will be played over, or if the choker will be penalized for nearly killing his opponent. A knockout in a karate tournament, after all, is seen as loss of control and certain disqualification to the person who inflicted the blow.
Christophe seems startled by the question.
"No," he says with amazement. "He wins."
Fifteen minutes later, the hapless choke victim is back out on the floor fighting another match.
On the mat in his own "dojo," as martial arts workout rooms are called, Christophe sweats his way through class. He wears a blue "gi," or uniform, obviously a keepsake from an international tournament; stitched over the breast are the letters CCCP, the Russian-language initials of the former Soviet Union. Bryan is in traditional white.
The Leininger brothers look like a burly, athletic version of the Smothers Brothers. Christophe has sandy-colored, curly hair, Bryan short, black hair, and both are balding. They top 200 pounds apiece, with arms and necks like tree limbs, oak-hardened from grappling and struggle, not from the kind of cosmetic weightlifting usually practiced in front of health-club mirrors.
They opened the dojo at the beginning of July in a strip-mall storefront at 32nd Street and Shea that once housed a toy-train shop. The decor is minimalist: a mat, a mirror, a dozen folding chairs. They could put a sign out front: "Six Black Belts, No Waiting." The evening's workout seems equally split between white-belt beginners (even if they are advanced students of other martial arts) and black-belt friends and former instructors of the Leiningers.
Like dance-class students, everyone pairs off, and as dance master Christophe calls out the cadence, they practice throws and grabs, then switch partners with a bow.
Etiquette is the rule--as in all martial arts--a yin-and-yang counterpoint to the violence of the techniques. Strong friendships usually form between dojo partners, partly because of the nonthreatening familiarity that comes with constant body contact, partly because you have to trust the person throwing you overhead.
However frightening and painful the throws may look, to be launched by an expert of the Leiningers' ability is surprisingly devoid of sensation. You feel the initial grab, but the throw itself is so smooth and subtle that the next realization is that you've been laid gently on the ground with little idea of how you got there.
If Christophe's classes are friendly, they are also aerobically relentless. He is remembered at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs for going above and beyond the regular workout.
"After the normal training, when everyone else had gone to the dorms, Christophe and Bryan would do extra weight training," says former U.S. team coach John Saylor, "or they would go up to nearby Cheyenne Canyon and the Mount Cutler trail, and they would run to the top of the mountain."
Here in Phoenix, they run up and down Squaw Peak every other day to keep up their aerobic conditioning. "Christophe is what we call 'a lung,'" says Brian Olson, who beat Leininger in the 86-kilo finals at last November's U.S. National Judo Championships. "He's always coming at you. He never gets tired."
Christophe is known as well for his tenacity. "He has tremendous courage," says Phil Porter, president of the National Judo Association, one of the governing bodies of the sport. "Christophe is not that big a man in the open division," he says, referring to the division in which there are no weight limits and in which Christophe finished third last November. "I can run videos in my brain of Chris with a 300-pounder at the World Games, and just going after him like a tiger."
Competition has so overwhelmed their existence that the brothers neglected the usual promotion track of the martial art. Christophe, even as an international champion, only holds a second-degree black belt, Bryan a first-degree. Both have enough competition points and experience to jump two full ranks--if they bother to put through the paperwork with the governing bodies of the art.
They opened their school at their father's urging, because he thinks they should retire from competition to teach and "make champions through them," just as he made the transition from champ to teacher more than 30 years earlier. The sons are two years into a judo supply business--selling mats and uniforms--which they run out of their house. They do everything together, and seem flip sides of one personality. Christophe is charming and outgoing; Bryan is shy. Christophe is absent-minded; Bryan keeps track of the details. Christophe tells the jokes; Bryan laughs at them.
Everything they do has some connection to judo. Every conversation they have leads back to judo. They seem not to exist outside of the sport.
But when they step onto the mat, they suddenly come alive.
The syllable "do" at the end of "judo" can be translated as meaning "art" or "way." It encompasses both concepts, but likely falls closer to the latter: "way" as in "pathway," as in "way of life."
According to legend, martial arts traveled east from India to East Asia with Buddhist missionaries in the sixth century and for hundreds of years was passed down privately from master to student, among monks and feudal warriors, which would explain its themes of chivalry and spirituality.
If the techniques are ancient, the various names for the different martial arts are mostly inventions of the 20th century. Karate did not reach Japan until the 1920s, when it was imported from Okinawa; tae kwon do was created by a unification of Korean schools of martial art after World War II; the man who coined the name and the style of aikido only died in 1969.
To ask an elder Oriental martial artist what his art was called in the past, one is met with a blank stare and a firm reply: "Art." The need to affix a precise name on everything is a decidedly Western notion. And martial art history seldom goes back any further than "my master's master."
Judo was so named and conceived in the 1880s by a Japanese educator named Professor Jigoro Kano, who was a practitioner of jujitsu. Kano wanted to create a sport version of the art; he took out the joint breaks, the kicks and punches and eye gouges, left in the throws and the chokes and the grappling, and invented a system of scoring the matches.
The self-defense elements were still to be taught, but could not be used in competition. Debate still rages today among the various martial disciplines as to whether there should even be any such sparring. One side argues that controlled fighting gives a feel for the moves and emotions of real battle; the other counters that it only teaches to pull punches and shifts attention away from the most effective self-defense techniques, the life-or-death strikes to pressure points, the crippling bone breaks, the knockout kicks and punches. Professor Kano felt that both art and sport could coexist. And if he wanted to impose Western sport and science on the arts, he maintained the philosophic component. Just as the art was to be performed with grace, one, too, should face life itself with equally graceful attitudes.
Kano also represented Japan in the International Olympic Committee. His creation finally became adopted as an Olympic sport in the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
Through Kano's proselytizing, judo was the first of the Asian martial arts to be widely studied outside the Orient, and it saw its biggest growth spurt after World War II when the world became acutely aware of all things Japanese. Judo clubs sprouted up all over Europe and, to a lesser extent, in the United States.
Judo worked its way into military self-defense programs. And especially into TV and movies, which were fixated on Cold War espionage and intrigue. James Bond used judo to disarm and disable evil spies; so did Bill Cosby and Robert Culp on the popular I Spy TV series.
Then two things happened to shift American martial arts away from judo and toward the kicking and punching martial arts styles. The first was Bruce Lee's movie Enter the Dragon, which showcased Lee's spectacular acrobatics and his Chinese martial arts style, and earned him an immediate cult following. It spawned the genre of chop-socky action movies, which in turn had every 12-year-old boy in America fantasizing about kicking down buildings with a mighty grunt. Karate was so topical that it even led to a cheap after-shave lotion called "Hai Karate."
The second big influence was a 1965 change in immigration law that eased restrictions on emigration from Asia. Kung fu and karate schools sprang up on every other street corner, often as not run by low-ranking black belts or out-and-out charlatans. And, of course, just as many skilled Asian martial artists immigrated to America to teach their arts.
Americans were, and still are, awed by the concept of a black belt--which in the Orient merely means that a student has mastered the basics of the art and is ready to begin advanced study. One is usually not considered a master instructor until reaching fourth-degree black belt, which could take 15 to 20 years of intense study. Many Americans, on the other hand, think of the black belt as an end point, a graduation, a college degree of sorts; you get it and quit. Of course, most martial arts students don't last more than six months because of the hard work and sore muscles the arts require.
Whereas karate can be practiced while standing up and with a minimum of strength and physical contact, judo always goes to the mat--faces ground into the mat, shoulders rubbed into the mat, sweaty, grunting bodies constantly straining against one another and the mat. Most people are not eager to fall, especially when someone else is launching them; more than anything, fear of flying steers prospective martial artists away from judo.
Phil Porter, president of the U.S. Judo Association, also points to a difference in business attitude between judo and karate schools. Judo players tend to congregate in clubs, while karate students attend schools. And, as Porter says, "Their schools are better organized because they're businesses. Ninety-nine percent of judo clubs are not businesses, whereas 99 percent of the tae kwon do and karate clubs are businesses."
Porter goes on to point out that there are an estimated 200,000 judo players in the United States--and probably ten times as many karate and tae kwon do students.
But Christophe and Bryan Leininger were born into a judo family. Their father, Maurice, began to study judo in France in the late 1940s when he was 14. When it came time to do his military service, he was assigned to teach self-defense to French shock troops shipping out to Indochina and North Africa, where France was trying to hang onto its imperial possessions.
He also fought his way to the French military judo championship. "There were no weight divisions then," he says, "so you had to fight not only the little guys, but the huge guys."
When Maurice Leininger moved to Arizona in 1958, he knew judo better than anything else. He started teaching at a local gym, then added clubs at local schools and gyms as far as Prescott, shuttling from one club to the other, even after he opened his own dojo in Scottsdale.
"I was in a judo gi all day," he says. "That's all I did for five years." There were already judo clubs at the downtown YMCA, at a local boys' club and at Luke Air Force Base when Maurice arrived in Phoenix, and their approach was decidedly more Wild West than he was familiar with.
"Black belts who were curious about this Frenchman trying to take over the judo in the state" would appear uninvited at the door of his dojo and challenge him to a fight--something unheard of in martial arts etiquette. When Christophe and Bryan were toddlers, they would accompany Maurice on his rounds from club to club. When they were big enough to wear gis, they would roll around and play on the mats. When they were 7 years old, they started to train in earnest. Both boys earned their first-degree black belts in their father's dojo.
After Christophe graduated from high school, his father sent him to Los Angeles City College to study under one of his friends, Hayward Nishioka, a former U.S. champ. A year and a half later, Maurice arranged for Christophe and Bryan to train and compete with the French national judo team. Then, in 1984, they were both invited to live and train at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, where they spent much of their adult lives.
They won event after event: Bryan won the Colorado state championships, the National Collegiate championships, the French College championships; he won a gold medal at the U.S. Olympic Festival, traveled to Mexico and France to compete, medaled six times in the U.S. championships.
Christophe medaled 13 times in the national championships, including two gold medals. He traveled with the U.S. Judo Team to Belgrade, Barcelona, Canada, Argentina. He won a silver medal at the Pan Am Games in Cuba. The only event that has consistently eluded him is the Olympics--he has been an alternate Olympic team member for the last three Games.
World-level athletics is a cloistered life: training with the team, traveling with the team, eating and breathing with the team with little more distraction than an occasional freelance scuffle in a roadhouse where the team had gone to pass the hours between training and competing.
Tired of the routine, looking to make a life on their own, the brothers moved back to Phoenix in 1992. Like their father 30 years earlier, all they knew was judo.
Bryan and Christophe live together in a guest house they rent from their father. The living room is decorated in basic bachelor style, a jumble of books and papers and videotapes on a long dining-room table, hundreds of brand-new judo gis folded into plastic bags and piled high on chairs--no two of which match. They're starting to break even on the judo supply business they've run for a couple of years, representing a French line of uniforms and mats to the U.S. market.
Clearly, this is more warehouse than home, and it feels as if Christophe and Bryan store themselves there when they're not training. They seem to have little time for anything else.
Christophe worries about getting into relationships with women, because of the training time he needs--the Olympic trials in 1996, and an upcoming fall appearance on The Ultimate Challenge, a televised, no-holds-barred battle that crosses martial arts disciplines. Christophe is to fight a kung fu expert until one of them gives up. It will put cash in his pocket and provide publicity for his school, his career and his art.
He thinks judo is about to make a renaissance, and he may be right. Jujitsu, the parent art to judo, is indeed making a strong comeback, bolstered in large part by a pair of Brazilian brothers named Royce and Rorian Gracie (the initial R's in their first names are pronounced as H's, incidentally), who teach jujitsu in the Los Angeles area. Regardless of what art you study, the Gracies argue, a street fight usually ends up on the ground, where chokes and grappling techniques rule and kicks and punches are virtually useless. It is the Gracies, in fact, who organize and sponsor The Ultimate Challenge, just to prove their contentions.
Christophe wants to ride that impetus, help it along and turn it in his direction. That, after all, is the main principle in judo: Follow the lines of force and use them to your advantage.
And that philosophy seems reflected in the personalities of both brothers. They are always easygoing. Judo has little offense to speak of and is mostly defense. Life is like judo; judo is like life. Stay calm and relaxed, take a grip, and see what comes at you.
The conversation turns to those occasional times when the martial arts leak into practical application. Christophe's face lights up. He is not a violent man by any means--quite the contrary--but street fights are always humorous to martial artists, because they seldom occur, and because they are what most of them train for.
Once, he remembers, a visitor threatened him and refused to leave his house after a disagreement.
"In my own house!" he says with mock astonishment. "I grabbed him by the pectoral muscles." To demonstrate, he grabs onto Bryan's bare chest, as if there were handles there. "And I threw him headfirst into the barbecue." Of course, Christophe uses the Japanese judo terms for each move he made.
The man came back for more, and so Christophe ground him into the floor for a bit, and then tossed him out the front door as if emptying a bucket.
A moment later, the man came back to the door, brandishing a golf club he'd taken from his car, inviting Christophe out to be whacked about the head. Christophe picked up a stool to engage in some impromptu fencing.
Just then a police car happened by, and Christophe called out, "Help, he's crazy, he's trying to hit me with a golf club!" The police slammed the other man onto a car, handcuffed him and arrested him. Christophe is smiling broadly when he reaches the end of the story. The judo champ calls a cop to save him from a man he's already beaten the crap out of. Bryan is laughing so hard, he's slapping the table.
Competition, on the other hand, is not funny.
On the mat at the Grand Canyon Games, Bryan is locked in battle with a man built like one of those pineapple-shaped palm trees one sees around the Valley. His opponent weighs in at 454 pounds, more than twice what Bryan weighs, but Bryan attacks relentlessly, nonetheless.
It's a frustrating fight. Every time Bryan wraps a knee around the behemoth's leg, the big man simply leans forward and drives Bryan into the mat. Bryan grimaces in pain, but wriggles free, and attacks over and over until the referees have had enough and throw in the bean bag that signals the end of the match. As luck would have it, at that exact instant, Bryan manages to throw the big man, cartwheeling him off the mat as referees and spectators scatter to avoid being crushed. Bryan is judged the winner.
A friend on the sidelines shouts advice: "Next time, Bryan, throw down a ham sandwich."
Christophe is more circumspect. "He fought you good, Bryan, and he's happy with that," he says, before launching into a critique of Bryan's strategy.
Then it's time for Christophe's rematch against his earlier opponent; in judo competition, you have to beat your man twice in the finals. Christophe seems tired. He gets to the point. In the very first seconds of the match, he reaches around his opponent's back, grabs his belt, and pops him off the ground. As the other man goes into orbit, Christophe jumps. The two men spin as one, hanging forever in the air, then dropping as if an afterthought, landing with a sodden crunch as the opponent's back hits the mat. Christophe rides him down like he's falling into an easy chair, his mind already moving on to the next match.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.