Longform

THE FLYING LEININGER BROTHERS

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"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."

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Michael Kiefer