By Joshua Hagen
When MMA first came on the scene, it was truly a clash of styles. You had boxing, sumo, bjj, wrestling, karate, and the list goes on. What slowly happened over time was not an adoption of the “one” perfect style, but rather, the athletes became hybrids. Classic grapplers learned to strike with their hands and feet, and strikers learned grappling. Today, it’s no longer an option in MMA to try to stick to your style, as you won’t stand a chance.
I look at judo in a similar fashion. As much as I might like the idea of imposing my will on my opponent, sometimes that is just not possible. As judoka, we have to be able to adapt and adjust to different judo fighting styles, and there are many. I of course don’t expect my students to master every style of judo, but I would like them to have some level of knowledge in all of the different styles. The ideal is that they have previously seen what they are going to face in tournament, and have a game plan for it. This applies not only to gripping strategies, but to which techniques might best serve them against a particular opponent as well.
There has long been debate about what will make you a more successful judoka: doing something so well that no one can stop it, or being a Swiss Army knife with a whole lot of tricks in your bag. This has been a debate in my own mind for many years, and I never took a strong stance on one side or the other until now. Judo has evolved, athletes have become far better than ever before, and so have the coaches. Today I firmly believe that if you rely too heavily on one technique, you are doing yourself a disservice. You are just too predictable as a one-trick-pony. Of course you’re going to have favourite technique- but what do you do if your opponent can stop that one big technique? Throw in the towel? Not to be sacreligious, but I sometimes wonder if an athlete like Koga would be as successful today as he was in the 80’s and 90’s. (I think he likely would be, but I like to believe that he would have fought differently.)
Looking at this conversation with full confidence as to which side I now choose has forced me to change how I coach, as well. I’ve changed my coaching not as much from a technical throwing stand point, as I’ve always had my students perform a huge number of throws every week, but definitely from a gripping standpoint. I now coach my students to change grips based on the strategies and strengths of opponents. It then naturally follows that they must get comfortable throwing from these different grips, and learn which techniques benefit, or are hindered, from each position.
I guess the final piece to this puzzle is ambidexterity. It’s long been the practice of many dojos that athletes learn an opposite-side throw. In my experience, this requirement most often leads to an athlete’s developing an opposite-side ippon seoi nage. My hang up on this solution is that in the case of a judoka who’s not a great practitioner of ippon seoi nage on his dominant side, it’s going to be even more difficult for him to become capable at it on his non-dominant side. (Also, why is ippon seoi nage such an obvious default?) If an athlete is very good at a technique, even if it is as complex as, say, uchi-mata, I believe it will be much easier for them to transfer that skill to the other side. This proved to be very successful in the case of Lee Won-Hee of Korea. He was a World Champion at -73kg in 2003, and the Olympic Champion in 2004. He was a right-handed fighter with a beautiful tai-otoshi, but when he fought a right-handed opponent who wouldn’t allow him to grip their collar, he would fire across with a left-handed two-on-one tai-otoshi. In the video I’ve posted below, you can see his left tai-otoshi in successful action in the quarter-finals of the Olympics against the World Bronze medalist Gennady Bilodid.
I think that the most important skill in judo, as in MMA, is your ability to adapt to what your opponent gives you. With that concept firmly cemented in my mind, studying opponents and modern uses of techniques has now more than ever become paramount to me as a coach.