Strikeforce bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey wasn't the first judo player to make the transition from the mat and the judogi to fingerless gloves and the MMA cage. Men like Mitsuyo Maeda and Masahiko Kimura had spent years spreading the art worldwide in challenge matches starting more than a century ago.
In more modern times, Christophe Leininger represented the "gentle way" all the way back at UFC 3 in 1994, becoming the first judoka to enter the Octagon.
One of the "Flying Leininger Brothers," Christophe was among America's best. Despite his status as a former Pan Am silver medalist and Olympic alternate, Leininger found himself outmatched by both Ken Shamrock and Guy Mezger in his only UFC appearances. Trapped underneath the larger Shamrock, Leininger was pounded into submission.
"That was not what I expected," Leininger said years later.
Many followed his lead, but few had enduring success. Eventually, Olympic gold medalists Hidehiko Yoshida and Pawel Nastula found their way into the Pride ring in Japan. With those two on board, there were some wow moments, times when judo shined under the bright lights.
"I remember watching Pawel Nastula fight Antonio Rodrigo Nogeuira and people were shocked that he got a sweep on Nogueira," former Olympian Dr. Rhadi Ferguson said. "Man, he was an Olympic gold medalist. Yes, Nogueira was one of the best in the ground in the world, but that doesn't mean a judo guy can't sweep him. A lot of people, in their mind, have conditioned themselves to believe what they think judo is without having done a day of it.
"You tell me what's harder," Ferguson said. "Winning an MMA championship belt or an Olympic medal? How many Olympic medals does Randy Couture have?"
Ultimately though, even these top players met with mixed results. The two gold medalists have a combined career record of 13-12-1. To some, this was a clear indication that judo had gone too far in the direction of sport, that the art, originally famous for cleaning house in early 20th century no holds barred combat showdowns, had gotten soft.
But to Ferguson, there is a better explanation. Ferguson tells Bleacher Report that there is one key difference separating Ronda and her predecessors—Rousey is still very much in her physical prime.
"Ronda Rousey in exemplary. She could still be doing judo. Yoshida was a 1992 Olympic Gold medalist. That was 20 years ago! His career was over. All these judo players who came into MMA, their careers were over," Ferguson said.
"Most fighters are what I call special population. People who do iron mans and marathons and stuff like that. It means you train hard and compete hard and do well. Then there is the elite population. These are NFL players. Your Olympians. People who walk amongst the gods. Your Daniel Cormiers who can just walk over from the wrestling mat, pick up boxing in six months and whoop everybody. We only have three other people besides Ronda like this in MMA. Daniel Cormier, Mo Lawal, and Jon Jones."
From Flying Armbars to Flying Fists
The most obvious challenge in making the transformation from mat warrior to cage warrior is wardrobe related. For many judoka, the gi is like an old friend. Not only have the worn it daily for decades, they rely on it to complete throws and to secure and defend submissions. In many ways, judo at the top level of the sport is a game of grips. While it takes time to adjust, Ferguson says a top judo player is not necessarily limited by or defined by their gi.
"People believe because you don't have a gi on, you can't do judo. Assuming that judo players don't come with the same background and skills that wrestlers do. It doesn't require a gi. It just requires an understanding of positioning," Ferguson said.
"There are judo players that only understand their sport. And then there are judo players who understand that judo is about applied human movement. When you understand that, the gi doesn't matter. It's like saying Jacare can win the gi worlds, so he can't win the no gi worlds. Of course he can win both. Because he understand the physics. The same goes for judo."
For Rousey, it was a natural transition. While she missed some favored techniques like a hip throw called Sode Tsurikomi Goshi that she had relied on in judo competition, in some instances not having the gi was a huge advantage—because her opponent didn't have one either.
"I knew I was over it when I had to do some gi one day and I realized I really don't like it anymore," Rousey told Bleacher Report in an exclusive interview. "I had to do some ground gi and there was so much more friction and it's so much easier to be defensive when you are wearing a gi. I actually prefer no gi on the ground. With standing takedowns I still feel I'm best with the gi on, but I've been doing this long enough without a gi that it's not intimidating anymore."
The other challenge, the one Leininger found so daunting, was the sudden need to defend against strikes, both standing and on the ground. Although striking is a part of traditional judo training, especially at higher levels, it isn't part of sport judo. For many making an MMA debut, it's like entering into a whole new world.
Rick Hawn, like Rousey a 2004 Olympian, now competes for Bellator. When he decided to try his hand at this new sport, he immersed himself immediately in areas he wasn't familiar with. Like one of those high speed language programs, he wasn't allowed to speak his first language (in this case judo). For Hawn, it was all about striking.
"He sought out a good boxing coach and a good striking coach, knowing he needed to work on his hands for MMA," two time Olympic medalist Jimmy Pedro Jr. said. "Now he's one of the best strikers in his division. He's relied mostly on his striking, using judo only a few times on instinct. And he's 12-1 in his career and his one loss was in a fight many thought he won."
"I chose to focus more on my standing because obviously my grappling game was fairly decent but I didn't want to be just a one dimensional fighter. As soon as I retired from Judo in 2008, the next week I found the best striking school in my area and started training muay thai," Hawn confirmed. "My striking is getting better but I still have a lot to learn and I train hard at it every day. Having powerful hands is all technique, its in the hips. You need to have good hips with judo so I think its just something that carried over from all the years of training."
The Gentle Way
When Jigoro Kano created judo in the 1880's, he differentiated his art from those that came before it. Calling it the "gentle way," Kano prized maximum efficiency. He was creating not just a martial art, but a way of life. It should be clear though, if there were any doubts, that gentle does not always mean "easy."
"Judo is called the 'Gentle Way' because it was modified from the original jiu jitsu. Those Samurai martial arts that they would do to kill each other," Rousey said. "Gentle in comparison is no one dies. 'Judo the gentle way. No one dies!' It's just like MMA that way. It's controlled so no one dies. In that way, MMA is as much the gentle way as judo is."
The truth, according to those who have done both, is that judo is in many ways a much harder physical grind on the body. Like amateur wrestling, the wear on the joints and bones is immeasurable. Not to mention the constant threat of your noggin hitting the canvas.
"I don't know why they called it the gentle way, but judo is anything but gentle. If someone gave me six weeks, I would go fight an MMA fight," Ferguson said. "You couldn't pay me any amount of money to go to a judo camp in Paris or Uzbekistan. MMA is a cakewalk compared to that. I was talking to (MMA coach and grappling wizard) Lloyd Irvin the other day. I said 'If I wrote you a big enough check would you fight MMA?' He said yes. I said 'If I wrote you a check would you go to a camp in Paris?' He said 'Hell no.' In one you might get sore or be hurt. In the other it's guaranteed you're going to get hurt. That you're going to have a near death experience.
"They're better athletes. I can't go to the Olympic Training Center right now with the kids competing in the Olympic Trials and go to practice. Or to a Greco or Freestyle practice and make it out of there with my life. I wouldn't try it. But I could walk into any MMA school in the country and go to practice and be fine."
Judo, to the chagrin of many, is changing. Rapidly. European players dominated with a physical style that minimized the gi and put a priority of physicality. Critics complained that the sport they loved was becoming wrestling in a gi. Rule changes may make purists happy, but as an art judo will naturally become less effective in real world combat application, as demonstrated in a petri dish like the UFC.
"Judo has changed the rules so they no longer allow double legs, single legs, or fireman's carries in competition," Ferguson said. "Judo schools have to make a decision. Do they teach the sport or pure judo? If they teach the sport rules, and they do want to win, that means kids coming up will not be conditioned to defend the double leg."
The judo divide is, and this may be simplifying things to a dangerous degree, a battle of continents. The Japanese, who created and nurtured judo over the years, prefer the art and beauty of traditional techniques. Europeans are more liking to mix in wrestling strategies and moves, creating an effective, but in some minds, ugly style. It's a divide that has also influenced who has found success in MMA and who hasn't.
"It's the Japanese style that relies the most on the use of the gi, which is why I think the Japanese judo players have not been nearly as successful in MMA despite being more decorated in the sport," Rousey said. "Like Karo Parisyan. He wasn't an international judo player, but he did really well with his judo in MMA. Because the style that he had worked so perfectly for nogi. Other judo players, like Ishii from Japan, don't do nearly as well as Karo did despite having an Olympic gold medal. Because his style of Japanese judo doesn't feed into MMA as well."
Of course, judo's effectiveness in mixed martial arts only matters if its athletes are coming over to the new sport in droves. So far, that hasn't been the case at the highest levels.
"First MMA needs to show itself to be a better career choice than judo is," Rousey said. "In a lot of countries, the people doing judo are actually making a decent living at it. First you'd have to make it a more attractive option for them before they would even consider trying it. There are some styles of judo that would do well in MMA. I think the French style would do very well, but they make so much money I can't see anyone transferring over."
Many judo players are funded by their country's judo federation. They can make additional income with seminars and camps. All of that can go away in the blink of an eye if a high level official decides you are persona non grata. It happened with Yoshida in Japan, an Olympic gold medalist who was blackballed after moving into MMA competition.
Pedro Jr. confirmed:
In all of the international countries where Judo is more developed, those athletes are discouraged from competing in MMA. And they are fully funded by their judo federations where they make a good living. Your talking about athletes in France or Brazil making more than $250,000 a year doing judo. They aren't going to jeopardize that to jump into the cage and make a few bucks.So they typically don't even try to do MMA until they are well past their prime. Like Hidehiko Yoshida. He won the Olympics in 1992. That was 20 years ago. And he fought at 172 pounds. He's fighting MMA as a heavyweight or a light heavyweight. He doesn't move like he did as a kid. And even then he was blackballed by the Japanese Judo Federation for many years for competing in MMA.
In America, while Leininger was a pioneer, it was the success of Karo Parisyan that opened eyes. An Olympic threat, Parisyan left judo behind for an MMA career. He electrified fans with his powerful throws and really put judo on the map as he rose to title contention in the UFC's welterweight division. When Parisyan first started training, many in the community questioned why he would leave the mats for the cage. Karo got the last laugh.
"We used to see Karo all the time kicking a bag. And I used to make fun of him," Rousey's mom Dr. AnnMaria DeMars, herself the 1984 Judo World Champion, said. "With his little shorts on. Ronda and (current UFC fighter) Manny (Gamburyan) would be doing judo and I'd tell Karo 'I know your dad has a job. I know he can afford to buy you a judogi.' One time at practice I gave his dad five bucks and told him 'Hey, buy your kid a shirt. He doesn't seem to own one.' I made so much fun of him. Of course, he remembers all that and reminds me. He might have been on to something. He told me this week 'Now you see?'"
Mixed martial arts is still far from a big money sport today, especially as an athlete rises up the ranks. Rousey was working two jobs, spending nights as a bartender and days at 24 Hour Fitness when she was cutting her teeth in the new sport. Her mom was worried that she had made a horrible mistake by choosing fighting over college.
"It just seemed like a really poor decision. Plus Ronda's really smart. She was in science magnate and got really good grades in high school," DeMars said. "Who knows, she could have come up with a cure for AIDS? I thought that was the way to go. She didn't.
"With her recent success, I'm less worried about her making the rent. In the beginning even that was a struggle. There was one girl, they had the fight scheduled, and her manager called Ronda's manager and said 'We looked her up on the internet. There's no way we're going to fight her. She'll be killed.' I thought, what a bunch of wimps. Now the financial side of it seems to be going well. But I hope she has some long range plans to go back to college or go into business. Because it's not a career you have into your 60's."
No one denies Rousey and Hawn's success has had a tremendous impact on judo's marketability in the States. Still, Pedro Jr. is skeptical about how many top athletes judo will push into the ranks of the MMA elite in the near term future.
"The President of the International Judo Federation is not an MMA fan," Pedro Jr. said. "Not one iota. I was in a meeting with him and mentioned the explosion of MMA in America and how it could help judo. But the Olympic movement is about bringing together the best athletes in the world in a peaceful environment where one athlete has respect for another. The image that MMA has overseas—they see athletes in each other's faces, trash talking. It's good for ratings,anf good for the UFC, but they've created this unsportsmanlike image and spectacle. It sells tickets, but it doesn't do the sport justice or uphold the Olympic ideals."
Hawn believes more top ranked judoka are inevitably coming, if only to test themselves against other athletes from different arts. And, while he has rarely had to remind anyone that he is a top grappler, he's sure that day is coming.
"I try and use judo tricks in every fight," Hawn, who's currently competing for a six- figure prize and a title shot in Bellator's lightweight tournament said. "It's just that I take what they give me and lately I haven't had to dig that deep into that bag but its coming I'm sure!
"The training I did going into the Olympics and trials is very comparable to how I train for MMA. Judo is one of the most intense sports in the world as is MMA so you have to train like a beast each and everyday to become successful."
Rousey, who became the first judo player to win a major MMA world title, feels like her game is coming along well. Currently spending some time with Cesar Gracie and his top student Nick Diaz, Rousey feels comfortable sitting atop the 135 pound division after competing at 145 pounds and above for much of her MMA and judo careers.
"I was definitely small before. I was a head shorter than all the girls I was fighting," Rousey said. "The process of making weight in MMA is so much more forgiving. You make weight once every few months the day before, where as in judo you'd have to make weight several times a month on the same day, just an hour and a half before competing. I felt great at the weight. My joints felt better than they ever have. My conditioning was better than ever before. I was faster. This is the weight I'm really supposed to be at. I didn't sauna once. I didn't put plastics on once. I was eating and drinking up until the day of the weigh ins. This is the division for me dude. I'm stoked."
Jonathan Snowden is a Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand.