When I saw a photo of Vladimir Putin executing a judo throw in a newspaper recently, my instinct was to identify his technique. It appears to be Tai Otoshi (body drop), a basic judo throw, which beginners and internationally ranked judokas use in competition. You grip your opponent, spin 180 degrees while pulling in a circular motion, and trip him by blocking his ankle with yours. Done correctly, you slam your training partner to the tatami.
The article noted that judo kept Putin off the streets as a young person and taught him discipline, an experience that numerous serious martial artists share. However, now the International Judo Federation had stripped Putin, a black belt, of all positions with the organization because of the Ukrainian invasion.
But for me, the more insightful element of Putin’s judo is how his behavior on the tatami mimicked his conduct in the war he instigated. Did he make a white belt blunder, reasoning that drilling uchikomisachieved the same as a combative judo match?
An uchikomi is a standard drilling practice done by judokas worldwide. THE tori (the aggressor) faces to uke (target of the throw), starting in a shizentai (neutral) gripping position. The tori initiates stopping movement just short of toppling the uke.
Judokas use uchikomi drills to develop hand and foot placement, speed and muscle memory. Most importantly, they also learn how even an inch or two of difference in gripping positioning affects the ultimate success of a throw.
Visit any warmup pen during a judo tournament, including those at the highest international level, and you’ll see judokas warming up with uchikomis.
Uchikomis are practical because they save on the wear and tear of the uke. If you throw a uke 50 (or more) times in a practice session, whether novice or expert, they will leave the training session feeling physically punished. Forcefully throwing someone, especially with amplitude, shocks the body.
However, relying only on uchikomi drills as a substitute for actual combat creates a fallacious sense of invincibility. Nothing shatters a newbie judoka’s confidence more than learning, despite hundreds of uchikomis, that you’ve crashed into the wall of a resisting opponent and can’t even get close to throwing. It’s like being a superstar at hitting baskets on your driveway, then facing a skilled opponent who blocks all your shots on the playground. Experienced judokas know dozens of ways to thwart an opponent from closing the distance and executing a throw.
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Watching the conduct of Putin’s invasion caused me to wonder if he had done too many uchikomis, savoring the sweetness of success against a compliant and passive opponent, convincing himself that the drill was the end game. It is an unforgivable error for a black belt, who must have spent years in randori (sparring) or competing at local tournaments as a youth.
Did Putin really think he could line up the Russian army and march into Ukraine unhindered? It is a grand example of a self-fulfilling prophecy gone awry. It certainly suggests an emotional and intellectual disconnect that affects every competitor. I remember stopping at a rest area on the way to my first jiu-jitsu world championships and walking directly into the ladies’ room because of my mental fog. Humorous story for me, but Putin’s misjudgment is a catastrophe for Ukraine.
Putin’s failure to assess Ukraine’s willingness to fight is a staggering error. Putin also breached the code of conduct that every martial art preaches. Its philosophical underpinnings espouse discipline, respect, confidence, focus, character and honor, all desirable attributes.
His conduct, unbecoming a black belt, mocks the spirit of judo that he claims to love.
In judo dojos worldwide, there is a photo or rendering of Jigoro Kano, judo’s founder. Kano captured the essence of the art when he wrote: “Through training and practicing techniques, one cultivates the body and spirit, and thereby masters the essence of the way. Thus, the ultimate goal of judo is to strive for personal perfection by means of this and to benefit the world.”
A lovely sentiment wrapped in a sense of idealism to which we aspire and one that Putin has disgraced.
Perić is a world-ranked master’s Jiu-jitsu competitor. His latest book is “Martial Arts: The Lessons.”