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.

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Barry Graham