AN EXPLANATION OF FREESTYLE JUDO: “THE WAY JUDO OUGHT TO BE!”
By Steve Scott
When it gets down to it, good judo is good judo and what freestyle judo is simply allowing for the full range of judo skills and tactics to be used in a contest. Although many adaptations of judo have emerged since its inception in 1882, there is only one judo and that is the Kodokan Judo of Jigoro Kano. Kodokan Judo is more than simply a sporting event, but, without any doubt, the sport aspect of judo is what has made it an activity that is popular in every corner of the world. Freestyle judo is an outgrowth or continuation of judo as a sporting activity with adaptations in how a judo match is scored making it an uncompromising approach to judo competition. It’s most definitely not my intention to invent a new “style” of judo or in any way replace the Kodokan Judo of Jigoro Kano. Judo, as a combat sport, has stood the test of time and whether people realize it or not, has been the technical and theoretical basis for many other combat sports as well.
When judo was accepted as a demonstration sport for male athletes at the 1964 Olympic Games, and then later accepted as a full Olympic sport in 1972, the dye was cast and judo became an international sport. As time passed, women’s judo was added as a demonstration sport in the 1988 Olympics and accepted as a full sport on the Olympic calendar in 1992. I’m not the first person to recognize that judo’s enduring strength has been its ability to absorb and incorporate anything that it has encountered in its long history. Sambo from the former Soviet Union is a good example of what I mean.
In 1962, the Soviets entered the European Judo Championships with a team of sambo wrestlers in judo uniforms and were decidedly successful. Two years later, at judo’s inaugural appearance in the Olympic Games in Tokyo, the sambo men again displayed their unorthodox throwing and grappling techniques and won four bronze medals in the process. Initially, the judo world responded with “that’s not judo” but when it was obvious these Soviet athletes with their weird gripping, unusual throws and aggressive groundfighting weren’t going away, anyone with common sense and a desire to win adapted. As a result, more and more “unusual” (but certainly innovative and effective) techniques were seen in international judo tournaments, and the activity of judo absorbed these new techniques and made them distinctly part of the sport of judo.
These innovations made judo, from a technical point of view, more varied and vibrant. From a sporting point of view, the inclusion of these new techniques made judo more exciting and competitive.
Either by design or good fortune, the contest rules of judo used from the early 1970s through the mid-1990s allowed for an open-ended, competitive and technically sound style of judo to be contested. If you were a specialist in standing or a specialist in groundfighting, it didn’t matter. The rules allowed for a wide range of techniques and this period of time was, in my view, the “golden age” of competitive judo when exciting, new and highly effective techniques were introduced to the world of judo. It was a tremendous period of technical development. However, as the 21st Century appeared, the international contest rules began to favor the standing aspect of the sport. We were told that this made for better television viewing. Maybe it did, but it didn’t do anything good for the technical development of judo and it’s my belief that judo lost a good deal of its combat realism that made it so effective. Athletes began to crouch over in an effort to avoid getting thrown, and while there were specific rules that prohibited such passive and defensive judo, the officials didn’t seem to enforce them. Judo athletes resorted to “negative” or “safe” attacks with an emphasis on leg grabs and dropping low to avoid being countered. In 2009, the contest rules of judo were re-written and limited specific attacks to the legs and lower body. By now, judo had lost its original combat flavor and was so refined it became a type of standing wrestling in jackets. A number of people observed that it resembled Greco-Roman wrestling in a judogi.
In 1998, I hosted the National Shingitai Jujitsu Championships in Kansas City, Missouri. The rules of that tournament were based on both judo and sambo and it proved to be an exciting, competitive event that placed emphasis on fighting heart, effective skill and a high degree of physical fitness. Everyone who attended the tournament agreed that the rules we used provided for one of the best grappling events they ever attended. That was the initial development of what eventually become the rules of freestyle judo. In 2008, I began experimenting with our AAU judo tournaments and, as an additional event at that year’s Missouri State AAU Judo Championships hosted by Mike Thomas in Lee’s Summit, we included a freestyle judo category for the first time. The freestyle rules proved to be more popular than the established judo rules and we knew that we were onto something that would be beneficial for the sport of judo. All through 2008 and 2009, we held local and regional freestyle judo tournaments, making adaptations to the rules as needed. In November, 2009, Ken Brink hosted the first AAU Freestyle Judo Nationals in Kearney, Missouri (near Kansas City). That initial tournament was a real success. Freestyle judo proved to be an excellent addition to the judo community, as well as a viable alternative to those who believed the prevailing contest judo rules were too restrictive.
As mentioned before, it would be presumptuous for me, or anyone, to imply that freestyle judo is a “new” style of judo or an improvement on what judo is. What has been done is to format the rules of judo so that as many aspects of the sport can be used by as many different athletes as possible. The Ippon has been retained but other changes were made in how the match is scored so that it’s as complete a stage as possible for athletes to compete in from a sporting context. The goal was to bring back the original “combat sport” element of judo, allowing for the athletes to use as many of the skills and techniques (both standing and in groundfighting) of judo possible. My good friend John Saylor was the first to comment that freestyle judo is “the way judo ought to be!”
How we view a sporting event is directly affected by the rules of the game. Judo is no different. The rules of the sport of judo have changed through the years, and as is the case with any physical activity, these changes in the contest rules affect how people teach, learn and train in judo. The early rules of judo made for a rough and tumble form of fighting and for the safety of the combatants, the rules of judo underwent numerous changes over the years. Freestyle judo reflects an open-ended, technically sound and combat-effective approach to sport judo and the contest rules of freestyle judo encourage this approach.