At the Rio Olympic Games, two Americans – Travis Stevens and Kayla Harrison – will walk home with medals in judo. Stevens adds a silver medal to his resume while Harrison, who became the first American judoka to earn a gold medal at the London Games in 2012, earned a consecutive gold medal.
The United States may earn more medals aggregately than other countries at the Summer Games, but it has historically not been strong performers in judo. Instead, nations like Russia, Cuba, France and Japan have dominated the sport across both genders and multiple weight classes.
Now, however, the tide might be turning, if perhaps just a little bit. Dave Camarillo – a decorated grappler, black belt in both judo and jiu-jitsu and MMA coach – observed the success of Harrison and Stevens in Brazil and believes their success is not accidental, but the product of more modern, adaptive thinking about grappling success. The Americans, he argues, are winning in judo not by trying to beat the judo world at its game, but thinking about what it means to be well-rounded, borrowing from jiu-jitsu and creating a winning style despite long odds against the American’s program’s chances of success.
Full audio and partial transcript is available below:
If someone asked you describe Travis Stevens’ style of judo and the way he wins matches, what would you say?
He’s kind of a brute, to be honest. He walks forward. He’s very strong on gripping. Especially at that weight category, a lot of those guys are like that. A lot of times when you see judo, the weight category kind of defines the style.
Just underneath his weight category is 73kg, which is what I competed at. Those guys are much faster, more dynamic and then the smaller you get, the faster [they are]. 81kg is a division where guys are imposing their will and kind of grinding grips, bullying their way into throw opportunities.
He’s kind of that guy, but at the same time, he differs because he’s a two-sport animal. He’s two dimensional, he’s not one dimensional. Most judoka, even today, are one dimensional.
He was able to win in a number of ways. One way was with a yuko into what appeared to be an over-under pass. How often do you see something like that at the elite level?
I don’t think it happens much in terms of the outcome. You might see little spurts of passing, but most people that pass guard in judo don’t do a good enough job controlling the upper body, therefore, allowing their opponent to turn on them. He did an amazing job of controlling the collar, near the neck, as he’s passing; perfect timing to pull him back down to a flat position. There’s no points at all for getting the back.
Again, I’m talking as if most people understand jiu-jitsu rules and MMA, those are very vulnerable positions. In MMA, they’re not. They allow for a halt in the match. If you take my back, I can stall things out.
Well, he’s a really good passer because he doesn’t let you get out that easy. He doesn’t let you turn your body away from the pass, giving all fours. He just pulls you down and pins both shoulders to the mat.
You can say that’s a mixture of his BJJ knowledge and training with jiu-jitsu stylists, but also, using that knowledge to fit the rules of judo. It was brilliant.
One of his wins came from bow and arrow choke, but from turtle in a rolling movement, where judoka seem to have so many attacks. Is that the kind of thing you’re talking about where he’s blending the two arts?
The bow and arrow choke is something I used a lot. You see it in jiu-jitsu, but not as much as in judo. The reason why is there’s a sense of urgency in judo that doesn’t exist in BJJ. It’s not as evident, meaning, I don’t have a lot of time on the ground. Some referees don’t even like ground work. All those variables are kind of the culture that force you to move. You don’t have time. You have a sense of urgency.
If I grab your collar and we’re standing, which is the tachi waza, and then we go on the ground, I’m going to use that initial collar grip to try to choke you. So, your submission setups are actually standing. That wasn’t maybe exactly what happened, I gotta really look at the video, but your transitions are from what happened previously, which is the standing technique.
He avoided a throw on that no.1-ranked judoka on the semifinal. He wasn’t supposed to beat that guy. Well, he transitioned from the grip into the choke. So, the guy didn’t have time – and I think this is an ignorance on his part – to understand that tachi waza can easily turn into newaza and those transitions are there.
When you talk about the difference between judo and jiu-jitsu, you don’t see the bow and arrow a whole lot in jiu-jitsu. You see it, but you see it more in judo because I don’t have time to put my hooks in, to score four points because those four points don’t exist in judo. The way we approach attacking the back differs depending on what rule sets we’re up against, IBJJF or International Judo Federation (IJF).
For example, you’re going to see a lot more clock [choke], bow and arrow and juji-gatame roll, which is cross body where I have your back. I put a belt line hook in, I trap one arm, I flip you over and I armbar you. Those are the three main attacks you’re going to see in judo that you don’t see a whole lot in jiu-jitsu. They still exist, but in terms of ratio, those are the top three you’re going to see in a judo competition because I don’t have time to set up all those nifty back attacks.
We’ve discussed previously the gap on the ground between elite BJJ practitioners and judoka. However, we’ve also noted black belts like Flavio Canto are as good as any on the ground. Why is what Stevens is doing unique and exciting?
Because he understands the full spectrum of ground work, whereas a judoka only understands one side of the spectrum and a BJJ stylist only understands the opposite side of the spectrum. When you’re blending the two and you take the time to be technical, which a lot of judoka don’t. Even the high-level newaza guys, I wouldn’t even call them super technical. They’re definitely good and they’re definitely technical, but they’re not like a Rafa Mendes.
You grab Travis Stevens, who’s got the heart of a lion and he’s very disciplined, and he’s only there to win. You get that kind of student and give him an opportunity to study Brazilian jiu-jitsu, put him in an academy like Renzo Gracie, he’s going to understand the full spectrum.
When you talk about transitional ability, you can transition between tempos, between arts – even though you’re not looking at it that, it’s all grappling – but he moves appropriately for the situation at hand. That’s what makes him so dangerous and that’s why he has blended the two so well and he’s the best in the world at it.
He’s taking advantage of the ignorance that still exists on the ground in judo competitions. For example, I don’t know his name, but there was a judoka ranked 125th in the world, he fought a guy that’s ranked fifth in the world. That’s a 120-degree difference, right? And he pins the guy who was ranked fifth. It was the biggest upset in this year’s Olympics. He pins him. That can happen when you have an art like judo where some people say there’s not a big payoff to spend the energy it takes to learn proper ground work. A lot of people are not very good on the ground, so they ignore it. They just defend on the ground.
Well, this guy got caught in a pin, had no idea how to get out against someone who is ranked way lower than he is and, therefore, you have an upset. That’s a perfect example. That guy took advantage of the ignorance of his opponent and Travis Stevens did that in Rio.
What about Jimmy Pedro, Jr.? He’s a decorated competitor, Ronda Rousey came from his school and now this. What is it about what he’s doing and teaching that is so successful?
There’s a lot of elements to this, but he was a very good competitor, therefore, he understands his…I wouldn’t even call them his students. He’s the coach of the international team, so he gets to work with them on occasion, but he understands the competitor. He understands the competitors mind. On the other end, he’s another guy that had really good ground work. I actually competed against him. He was really good on the ground.
Like with Harrison and the armbar in the final for the Olympic gold, her transitions were amazing. There was a throw that got the girl on the ground, a transition to the bow and arrow then the arm. It was absolutely amazing, but you have someone in your corner that was able to do things like that in his competition career. I think things are shifting and jiu-jitsu is starting change the world. It really influenced MMA and now, hopefully, it’s starting to influence judo.
People are watching YouTube and seeing all of these amazing world champions in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and they’re understanding, ‘Wow, that is possible. It is possible to reach an amazing level on the ground.’ Anyone who is smart, and this is just me talking, understands that if they increase their options, they have more options to win. So, if I’m good at tachi waza, which is the standing throwing of judo, and I ignore newaza, then I better be better than everyone in my category in tachi waza. That’s essentially what I’m saying. If you look at it mathematically, I’m kind of shooting myself in the foot by not increasing my options.
With BJJ, you need good schools. I went to San Jose State [University]. I had a chance to go to the Olympic Training Center of San Jose State. I chose San Jose State because it was near Ralph Gracie jiu-jitsu. Then when I did international competitions, I was flying armbarring people. I understood that I want more options to win and if I got a guy who is better at tachi waza than me, I’m going to threaten my newaza, which is going to get me to throw him because he’s going to be so afraid of me on the ground – and this is the mentality I think Stevens has and Harrison has – that I’m going to disrupt their confidence and force them to make mistakes in the standup. You’re going to start beating people in the standup, which I did in my career, where I should’ve never touched them on the standup. They were far better than me, but they were so afraid to go on the ground with me, that it made them nervous. It made them not react appropriately.
That’s the same thing that’s happening to Travis, the same thing that’s happening with Kayla. They are threatening their opponents everywhere. This is more of a MMA kind of mentality. Before MMA, we thought it was styles versus styles. That’s no longer the case. It’s fighters vs. fighters, who understand that to beat an opponent, they need to be good everywhere and force their opponent where they are better than their opponent.
You can’t do MMA ignoring wrestling sprawls. If I do MMA now, I have to stop a takedown. If I’m the greatest striker in the world, but I can’t stop a takedown, it doesn’t matter. So, my point is, in judo, you have these cultures that develop that are very restrictive. When I was growing up, I was one of the only guys that was mixing the two. People kind of looked down on me. I was not a purist. I was traditional only judo. Well, now you can’t ignore it anymore because it’s in your face every single day. You turn on MMA, you see people who are good everywhere. That mentality was old school, medieval mentality. It’s almost an insult to, ‘There’s only 24 hours in a day, so we better just focus on tachi waza because there’s not enough time for us to focus on newaza.’ No, there’s plenty of time. There’s only a few moves in tachi waza that people use, anyway. There’s plenty of time to be well rounded and I think it’s finally starting to take hold in judo.
Is there anything to the way Americans approaching gripping? Is there an ‘American style’?
Since they changed the rules, the styles are not as definitive as they were before, meaning before you used to be able to grab the legs. In Europe and Russia, people were doing a lot of wrestling in their judo and you can’t do that anymore.
I don’t think there’s a traditional U.S.A. gripping style because many times U.S.A. looks up to other countries that are a little bit further along than they are in terms of influence.
That’s what we did. I went to Japan for three months to train because that was the best training for me. It wasn’t in the United States. Even Travis, he travels everywhere.
This is one thing jiu-jitsu traditionally doesn’t do because it’s very restrictive between academies. We do we call it Brazilian jiu-jitsu. It doesn’t make any sense. If we’re thinking on the world level, it’s jiu-jitsu. It’s not Brazilian jiu-jitsu. It’s not Japanese judo. That mentality restricts you. For example, if I train outside of my academy, I’m a traitor. In judo, you train outside of your country, you’re just doing what you should be doing to elevate your status as an American. A lot of this is cultural, the way things are.
Kayla Harrison has said she doesn’t have ‘beautiful judo’, but that it’s very effective. What does that mean, exactly?
We have the same thing in jiu-jitsu. People say, ‘Oh, but his technique is so beautiful and everyone likes it’ or there’s this smasher who just out paces everybody like Buchehca. Buchecha’s one of the greatest jiu-jitsu fighters ever, but he doesn’t have Rafa Mendes jiu-jitsu. I know they’re different weight categories, but that’s a good example. Buchecha is super athletic whereas Rafa Mendes is small and has to be technical.
What Kayla is saying is she gets the job done. To me, that’s all that matters because, again, it’s cultural. We learn through martial arts, especially jiu-jitsu, to love the beauty of the art. There’s also beauty and grace in being the most powerful individual in your category and smashing people. Don’t forget, even in jiu-jitsu and judo especially, it is a knockdown, drag out martial art. It is probably one of the toughest martial arts in existence. To be super pretty, is one thing and that’s great, but to get the job done, that’s another whole end of the spectrum that a lot of people ignore.
I think that’s her point: ‘I’m not here to be pretty with my judo. I’m not here to do things maybe the way you want me to do them, but I’m a two-time Olympic gold medalist. I get the job done.’
That’s what I see even in her newaza. It’s not the prettiest stuff in the world, but I can appreciate it because some of the stuff I do is not pretty, but I get the job done in my own game.
For the average MMA viewer, what makes Harrison’s achievement so special? In the greater context of world judo, what does her second gold medal mean?
Obviously, she’s the first gold medalist. We’ve had some great talent – Jason Morris, Jimmy Pedro, now Travis Stevens – who have been really, really close. They haven’t really put it together. She was the first and I think it’s actually really cool she’s a female being the first. That’s also pretty amazing.
Doing it two times is another thing. If you look in between the four years, they’re competing all the time. She hasn’t won every single tournament between 2012 and now. Sometimes you show up and you’re the best, but you weren’t the best that day. You got to be the best the day you compete in Rio and that’s what she did.
To the average American, do a little research on it. Now you can’t ignore it, but judo’s always been there. It’s just been ignored because we haven’t done that well and we finally are. I think if you look at it, it’s the greatest combative sport in the Olympics (I’m biased; wrestling’s in there, too). It’s the most dynamic. You have submission holds. You have throws. You have everything you could ever want in a grappling sport, which wrestling doesn’t have. Now, we’re finally finding some success. The average American should pay attention to it, watch it and love it. It’s brutally awesome.
The head of USA judo essentially argued the U.S. would “control world judo” if they had the same budget other countries allocate for their judo programs. Do you agree with that?
Judo, it’s cultural, man. I don’t know if I agree with that. I’m not Russian. I’m not in Russia, maybe part of this is ignorance, but that’s a pretty tough breed of people. Americans are tough, too, but things are kind of changing. More people play soccer than judo. There’s not a lot of judo competitors in the United States versus the European countries or Japan.
Now, if you had the budget, are you going to use that budget to change the culture, meaning more participants? You’re looking at it in terms of ratio. I think it’s a possibility, but it needs to be cultural.
Owning a school, I see some of this where people are allowed to quit. That’s a very foreign concept to me because I was forced into judo and I was never allowed to quit. I wanted to quit maybe over 100 times because it was rough and I didn’t have a good practice and I didn’t perform the way I wanted to. My father just never let me. That’s the culture that needs to exist to get more gold medals.
You have to have a hardcore culture. Not an overbearing culture, but a culture that just doesn’t allow people to quit once you start something. That’s how I feel. Champions, they don’t love going to work everyday. It’s the same with the MMA. That’s not fun. I think you need the mentality of ‘This isn’t fun and that’s not what we’re here for. We’re here to see when you stop talking, show up to practice every single day and give it your all, how far you can go.’
That’s what’s in the mentality of, say, Travis. Every day he wakes up and goes, ‘How far can I go today?’ You have that kind of culture and you raise that bar and you have that crop of individuals to choose from, then you’re going to start getting more gold medals.
Hans van Essen, owner and Editor-in-Chief of Judo Inside, provides context for Harrison’s remarkable success. She is one of only eight judoka to have ever won Olympic gold twice:
“Hitoshi Saito (JPN) – Hitoshi Saito was a greatness and double Olympic Champion in 1984 and 1988. Saito won the Asian Games in 1986 in Seoul.
Peter Seisenbacher (AUT) – Peter Seisenbacher is the most famous Austrian judoka ever who became double Olympic Champion in 1984 and 1988. Seisenbacher was world champion in 1985, coached by George Kerr. He won 8 European medals and the title in 1986. Peter became coach and won the Olympic title with Georgia and world title.
Ayumi Tanimoto (JPN) – Ayumi Tanimoto is the 2004 and 2008 Olympic Champion from Japan. She is coach of the Japanese women. She won the Asian Games in 2002 in Busan and won two world Championships medals in 2001 and 2007 and silver in 2005 in Cairo against Lucie Decosse. World Team champion in 2002 and 2008 with Japan.
Waldemar Legien (POL) – Waldemar Legien is one of the most legendary judoka for Poland and one of the few who won two Olympic title. In won in 1988 in Seoul (U78) and 1992 (U86kg) in Barcelona. He collected three world championships medals was European Champion in 1990.
Masato Uchishiba (JPN) – Masato Uchishiba is 2004 and 2008 Olympic Champion from Japan. He was 2005 World Championships finalist. He won the world team title in 2007 with Japan. From Kokushikan University. He won the 2009 Grand Slam of Paris.
Dongmei Xian (CHN) – Dongmei Xian 2004 and 2008 Olympic Champion from China. She is 2008 Tournoi de Paris winner and former no. 1 in the world in 2009 U52kg. The Chinese judoka won four world cups and multiple Asian championships.
Kayla Harrison (USA) – Kayla Harrison is world and Olympic judo champion. Harrison won the Olympic final in 2012 in London and 2016 in Rio and won the world title in 2010 in Tokyo. She won bronze in 2011 and 2014. Panam Championships and Games Champion in 2011 and 2015.
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