Friday, April 29, 2011


I was repeatedly slammed during Judo practice at the Jiu-Jitsu school last night. The school is a group of grapplers, muy-thai fighters, and Judo fighters that come together to trade styles and moves and spar. Instruction comes in the form of short bursts and corrections during sessions. The school had a party on Thursday, and I was drinking with the Judo teacher—who’s a black belt and looks like an old Army sergeant with a flattop haircut and diamond cutter jaw. I told him I would try out Judo, it couldn’t be much different from wrestling.
 I flew and thumped like a sack of rocks shifting as it crashed into the mat. My partner was a twenty-one tall and lanky with arms and legs that are like long bundles of wire, he had the build and demeanor of a farm boy. After a short session of sparring in which I lunged for double leg takedowns, and ignored the use of the gi, we had a short session of throw practice. My partner grabbed my shirt sleeve and collar and hoisted me over his back like a sack of mulch and then slammed me onto the mat. He swung me like an axe and I fell in splinters with each throw.
“Brian, are you okay?” he asked after I stood up holding my ribs.
“I’m fine, fine,” I wheezed extending my arm and trying to look tough while I bit my lip and held in a short, painful puddle of tears.
 In Judo you are supposed to land in one solid, heavy motion, with proper posture: you brace yourself with one leg wrapped around the other which is planted to absorb the impact; your arm falls straight out and slaps the ground and you land along your ribs and not your back. I was bouncing, flailing, clutching the man’s gi as I flew over, still ignorant as how to fall. My ribcage quickly let me know that this was ridiculous. It surged with pain, howled, and pressed into my flesh as if it wanted a new set of organs to hold.
                I snorted and wheezed as I was pulled off the mat, the other man, smiling, still clutched my sleeve. His fingers were dug in and coiled the cloth into a fist as if he were worried I might try to escape. He kept smiling like a sadist or a torturer enjoying the practice of his craft.
                “Are you all right?” Nate, another American, called from outside the cage.
                “I don’t think I’m falling right,” I admitted. The conversations inside the school resemble the world after the fall of the tower of Babel. Korean and English are spoken over each other, and often translated by someone sitting nearby. If something needs to be explained it’s done with the hands and the legs and the twirling and pointing of the eyes.
                After ten throws, the man, twenty-one-years old and wearing glasses with the constant smile of someone who’s never had to pay rent, held out his sleeve. “Your turn,” he said.
                I grabbed the sleeve and slumped him onto my back like a load of laundry and then tumbled him over my shoulder almost falling to the ground.
                “Brian,” said the master fumbling over my name as if there were greased ball bearings in the consonants and vowels. “No,” he said strutting over with his hands locked over the knot of his black belt.
                He nodded and kept his eyes wide looking at me while he grabbed the young man’s collar and sleeve like a scolding father. The master jerked him towards him stabbing his ass into his torso and then in one, smooth graceful motion slammed him into the mat. The long limbed man fanned out above him like a peacock displaying its feathers. The young man fell in a solid, reclined position with the same expertise as the master had shown in the throw. Both were done as if part of some long practiced dance.
 He took him again, and instead of showing me the same move twice, pointed at me and said, “You…you.” He then wobbled and grabbed the sleeve wrong and pattered his feet as if he were drunk, he didn’t lock his elbow under the man’s armpit or stab his ass into his stomach or pick him up in one smooth motion. He dropped him onto the floor and then picked him up. He showed me the wrong move several more times, and then showed the correct move and walked away. Like most explanations in Korea it focused on what not to do adding in at the end, very quickly and with no explanation, what to do.
                “You go,” the master said as he walked back among the heavy bags at the head of the room.
                I fumbled through the move, working in a one, two, three and four manner trying to teach my body the correct movements. In the demonstration the throw looked simple: you ball the collar of the gi in your fist while holding their sleeve at the wrist; you then slide your right foot across your body and twist into them throwing them over your shoulder and onto the ground; at the end you remain standing while they are lying on the ground. Put together it looked like a simple wrestling throw—throws which I practiced as a child until they became rote and unconscious. But, as with most things in martial arts, there is more than just the one motion, there are the little motions that come together to make it happen.
                After a few more slow, staccato throws, where my feet patted around trying to keep balance as the man went over, my turn was done. My ribcage and back pleaded for me to sit down, but I offered my sleeve. They were throwing and slamming each other into the mat as if the floor were made of cushions. I couldn’t give up now and let them whisper and point at me behind my back, could I? I offered my sleeve and took a deep breath. As he grabbed me I saw the landing in my mind, but I was stuck at his ass because my left leg and left arm were snaked around his gi.
                “Sorry, my fault,” I said as he plunked me back on the ground confused.
                “Okay,” he said patting my shoulder. I told my body not to be rude, and that this man needed to practice just as much as me. I tried to distract my limbs and torso while he grabbed my collar and sleeve, but halfway up his back they realized they were in the air. My arm slid across his back as I crested over his shoulder, and then, coiled with force, I slammed into the mat like an axe falling on a block of wood. I bounced and bit my lip like a pro wrestler selling a slam. If the WWF has mats as hard and solid as the ones we practice Judo on, I understand why those big men hold their backs like pregnant women collecting the mail. He pulled me back, patted my shoulder, and then slammed me back onto the mat. The two Americans standing beyond the cage snickered and oohed; I could hear their cringes as I crashed again and again onto the mat.
                “Your turn,” the man finally said. I did five more throws, gaining confidence with each throw, the master even told me I was doing well. I tucked my elbow under his armpit, turned my feet and threw him over my shoulder. Besides my feet patting a little after he hit the ground, I had the fundamentals correct. Then he went five more times. I crawled up, hoping the torture was over. The rest of the group smiled and we formed a circle to finish the practice with some calisthenics. As we went through the jumping jacks I made a note to remember to show up at ten and not nine thirty on Tuesdays. My back, like a preacher bloodied and bruised, reminded me of the old cliché: Pride comes before the fall. Or in this case, pride continues the fall over and over and over and over…..

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