“You here for Judo?” Peter Hoang asks chipperly. I am, in fact, here for judo — partly because I am interested in the sport and partly because my editors liked the idea of forcing me into strenuous physical activity. Looking around the room, I see that I have arrived early. Only about seven other people are hanging around on the mat-covered floor.
Sensing that I might have to do some sort of physical warm-up activity if I don’t busy myself, I begin to question Peter. He tells me he has been practicing judo for eight years, ever since his dad unilaterally decided that judo was the best sport for him. Peter’s dad made a good call: Peter is now the president of Texas Judo, UT’s judo club. So, I ask Peter, what makes judo different from other martial arts?
“Judo is Japanese martial art that does not include striking, so no kicking or punching like in karate. It’s full-on grappling. You win a judo match either by throwing, pinning or submitting your opponent for an ippon, which in Japanese means perfect score,” Peter explained.
When he says this, I privately panic. I had imagined this class would in some ways resemble the karate montages in the cartoon “SpongeBob SquarePants,” but I recall SpongeBob mainly waving his arms in slicing motions. I had suspected, coming into this class, that I could wave my arms in slicing motions and would, therefore, be okay. But grapple? The only person I have ever “grappled” with is my little sister, and I only did that to gain back control of the remote. (I lost.)
I turn to my judo classmates and ask them why they chose to spend their Wednesday night grappling. Brittany Rood, a shy fellow judo classmate in only her third class, shrugs and explains, “I really wanted to try martial arts.” Ian Smith, a computer science junior, tells me that he just “finally decided to man up and do it.” When I ask him why he chose judo instead of any other martial art, he explains that he “didn’t want to be punched or kicked.”
Soon the class begins to practice falling correctly. Again and again, we fall as instructed, with one hand striking the mat at a 45-degree angle. Just like Peter insists, a fall taken correctly doesn’t hurt. But this constant falling down and struggling up makes me feel like a novelty punching bag.
After hitting the mat no fewer than 40 times, Peter volunteers to teach me two basic throws. I struggle to learn them. The fluid movements are hard to master and perhaps not pleasant for those who value personal space. It takes a lot of practice for me to lift the heavier Peter, but finally I manage to balance him on my back like an inappropriately large toddler. I can easily throw him down once I’ve lifted him up. I’ve simply got to tug the sleeve of his gi (the robes worn while practicing) and buck him off my back.
The UT judo club doesn’t have many female members despite its recruiting efforts. I don’t know why. As Mikaela Estep, the club’s treasurer, points out, in judo “even if someone much heavier comes at you, you should still be able to throw them.” Although the intensity of martial arts may scare off some women, their fears are unfounded — if I can throw a man after a single class, any woman can.
After I learn the throws, Che Valdez, volunteer judo coach, teaches the class a choking technique. In need of a partner, I walk up to a fellow newbie. “Hello,” I say. “May I choke you?”
An hour and 40 minutes into the two-hour class, we begin to actually spar. Across the mats, pairs of students bow to each other and commence grappling. I look on, terrified. But like I told Peter at the door, I am here for judo. I take a deep breath and walk up to Brittany, the timid biology major. “Hey, you want to spar?” I ask. “Sure,” she says quietly, looking down at the ground.
We kneel on the mat and each give a little awkward laugh about not knowing the proper way to bow. “So ... ” I say, unsure how to begin fighting to the death (or, more accurately, to the tap out). I take a cautious move toward her. She pins me down so quickly it barely registers, except that it does — as confusion. Did the painfully shy girl I met at the beginning of class just pin my head under her armpit?
Texas Judo holds meetings in the Recreational Sports Center every Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. The first few meetings are free, but semester dues for longer-term memberships are $35 and include the price of a Texas Judo T-shirt. Either to man up or just to have fun, there’s no reason not to try it — after all, there’s no kicking or punching involved.