Longform

THE FLYING LEININGER BROTHERS

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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.

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Michael Kiefer