Judo isn’t “gentle” the way the Pedros teach it.
If you’ve read a story about a judo player from the United States over the past four years then it was probably about the current Strikeforce women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey. Rightfully so, as the standout product of the Pedro’s Judo Center in Wakefield, Massachusetts in 2008 became the first American woman in history to medal in judo at the Olympics by winning a bronze at the Beijing Games. The 25-year old’s judo talents have continued to tear through competition from the mat to the cage, where Rousey is undefeated, with all five wins coming by first round submission.
“The Pedros’ judo is very unique in what they taught,” says Rousey. “They focus largely on a developing a good ground game and good gripping. Gripping in judo translates very well to upper body clinch work in MMA. Not only is the judo taught at Pedro's very effective in international competition, but I think it translates the best over to MMA.”
Before the Strikeforce belt and appearing on major sports magazine covers, “Rowdy” could be found following the simple “no pain, no gain” principle of learning judo from America’s best teaching tandem: Big Jim Pedro, dad, and, son, Jimmy Pedro. As a two-time Olympic bronze medalist in 1996 and 2004, Jimmy fulfilled his father’s dream with this and other success on the international stage of the sport that Big Jim taught him since he was a kid. The Pedro’s Judo Center is the US’ top ranked judo gym and the staging ground for the Olympics, as Jimmy is the team’s head coach. For Rousey, it’s where learning a juji gatame for judo paid dividends when wrenching armbars for championships in MMA.
“I think judo is the best grappling for MMA,” explains Rousey. “What people don't realize is there isn't only one style of judo; there are many styles of judo. In judo, I was always a very ground-oriented person and into submissions. Judo in general is one of the only martial arts that promotes good posture, which is good for striking. You don't have to change levels when you go from striking to changing levels to go to grappling. A wrestler gets really low when they go for a takedown or they hunch over, so they telegraph that they're going to switch from striking to wrestling. Judo doesn't have that problem. Also, there’s the emphasis on throws with such little time on the ground. In judo, if you want to be a ground-based fighter you have to be really fast and you have to be able to transition from your throw straight into your submissions almost in mid-air because the referee will only give you a second or two. Some people choose not to develop any ground game at all in judo because of that. Whereas I chose to make myself so fast on the ground that referees couldn't stop me. That is how my experience with judo molded my style for MMA.”
With the 2012 Olympic Games in London getting underway, the US Team is looking to capitalize on Rousey’s bronze-winning effort and, amazingly, to exceed it. The major hopefuls are the currently top-ranked Pedro products Kayla Harrison at 78 kg and Travis Stevens at 81 kg. Both were in attendance in Beijing for Rousey’s moment on the medal stand and have been furiously training at Pedro’s Judo Center ever since for a similar one, if not a step or two higher. Historically, the US has not been a major player in judo during the Olympics, but Harrison and Stevens are ready to change that perception once and for all.
“They should expect judo to shock the world,” states Stevens. “There's a very, very high chance that we walk away with two medals, if not three, which would make history for the US. Regardless, whether they are bronze, silver, or gold, three medals at the Games has never happened before. We're definitely looking to raise the bar, the standard for judo in this country. Also, it should show that our sport transfers well into MMA because we're not like jiu-jitsu where we just have the ground work or wrestling where we just have the takedowns - we're a mixture of both.”
If the world wasn’t ready for Rousey in 2008, then nothing will prepare them for Harrison in 2012. “I won't be happy with anything but a gold medal,” declares Harrison. “That pretty much sums things up.”
To the uninformed, this will be simply dismissed as typical American bravado. To anyone who follows the sport or spends half a minute Googling her name, Harrison’s platinum hair is almost destined to be adorned by gold in London. In the lead-up to these Games and for the better part of the past two years, the 22-year old has fought and defeated just about every top judo player she could, which will make up the same lineup of players Harrison will be prepared to steamroll at the Olympics. Harrison winning gold at the Judo World Championships in 2010 proved she can do more than just walk the walk, but her mission on the mats won’t be finished unless she is standing the tallest on the podium.
“The last four years of my life, every judo competition I've gone to, every training session that I've done has all been in preparation for August 2nd,” affirms Harrison. “Winning all those tournaments doesn't mean anything if I don't win the big one. This is going to define my career. It doesn't feel like pressure to me because this is something I've expected all along. I know that I can beat every girl, everyone in the world. I just have to show up that day and do it. It's more about me than them. As far as pressure, I feel pressure from myself. It's the good kind of pressure. It's the kind of pressure that makes sure I get out of bed at 4:30 in the morning, it makes sure I don't skip a practice even if I don't feel 100%. That's the kind of pressure I like.”
It was four years ago that Harrison soaked in an Olympic experience from the sidelines as a training partner for Rousey in Beijing. As “Rowdy” kicked down the door with her bronze, Harrison is looking to clean house with ippons, which she most recently did at the European Cup, going 5-0 for the day with 4-5 wins by ippon. Although this year has already been studded with international gold, Harrison’s road to London has been as successful as it has been extra laborious, as the Ohio native battled back from a partially torn MCL in March. Injuries and pressure aside, Harrison’s dogged determination for Olympic gold is perfectly illustrated by her presence on the mat as she comes forward and bullies her opponents.
“I began training with the Pedros when I was 16,” says Harrison. “They definitely have a proven method for winning. It worked with Jimmy, it worked with Ronda Rousey, and it is working with myself. I'm not necessarily the most stylish player, I'm not necessarily the most flashy player, but I am relentless. I will push and push and push until you break. It's the relentless pursuit of my opponent that makes me stand out against the other competitors.”
Simply put, no one is going to give Harrison a medal - she’s going to take it.
To bookend Harrison’s harai goshi hostility is the Tacoma, Washington native - Stevens. “Travis is just a bulldog - he's crazy,” says Harrison of the 26-year old, two-time Olympian, and proud owner of over 30 international medals, including six at the Pan-American Games. To prepare for his second Olympic Games, Stevens has expanded his training beyond judo to other martial arts, specifically Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Stevens splits time defending rear naked chokes with UFC lightweight Joe Lauzon at his gym in Bridgewater, Mass and the enigmatic BJJ black belt John Danaher with the Renzo Gracie Academy in New York City.
“The mental aspect is what it really helps me with,” tells Stevens. “When I'm at the Renzo Gracie Academy and there is such a high level in the room and I'm no longer the biggest, toughest guy in the room, it helps with that mental side to keep pushing even if you're getting beat or getting submitted. To work to make sure you get past their guard or get an armlock or whatever it may be. It's something I don't face when I'm doing judo because I'm at such a high level. I have to be at a Russian national training camp or a French national training camp to really be concerned with it. I have to train my mental side when I'm doing MMA or BJJ because I don't really get to do that when I'm training judo here in the states.”
A trip to London is in large part a search for redemption for Stevens’ disappointing ninth place finish in Beijing. Stevens is focused on the medal stand and believes he is better prepared physically and, even more so, mentally for these Games as opposed to the last. The other fulfilling aspect of competing and, hopefully, winning in the Olympics is facing the world’s elite, which will truly challenge Stevens to summon his best effort. The allure of training for hundreds of hours to eventually battle the greats a particular weight class has to offer is as applicable to judo as it is for Stevens’ post-Olympics adventure: professional MMA fighter.
“For me, it's just about the level of players come in prepared for their fights,” asserts Stevens. “I like to compete against the best guys in the world and the best prepared and those tend to be the guys in the UFC. They train specifically to beat individual players. In judo, we have brackets ranging from 30 to 100 people and you don't who you're going to face. Some could get knocked off early or make a mistake - you never know. To compete at a level where the guys are all skilled at all the arts and they can put together gameplans that will supposedly be able to beat you - I want to test it. I want to test myself mentally to see if I can rise to the occasion. That's the allure for me. I want to rise to the occasion again. In judo, that's only in the finals at big tournaments, championships, and the Olympics.”
While the highest expectations are reserved for Harrison and Stevens, there are three potential highlight makers to fill out the rest of the team and, on paper, one has real medal possibilities. At 26 years old and fighting at 57 kg, Marti Malloy trains on the left coast at San Jose State University. As of late, Malloy has been snagging silvers in several top events like the past two Pan American Games and the European Cup last month. The Olympics are filled with surprise stories like Malloy’s, who could get on a tear early and find herself on the medal stand in London.
“Marty is a lot like me,” tells Harrison. “We are very similar in our style. She is a very smart and tactical player. She's one of those girls who will come after you from start to finish. She's in such good shape that she looks the same at the beginning of the match as she does at the end. To be able to go five minutes hard and still have gas in the tank is amazing.”
The final two men, Nick Delpopolo (73 kg) and Kyle Vashkulat (100 kg), are living the quintessential American dream of emigrating to the US at an early age, growing up to be world-class athletes who represent this country, and are poised for a couple of upsets over big names. “Nick and Kyle are from the same club and they have very pretty judo, very old-fashioned Japanese judo,” says Harrison of the duo who train under former Olympian Jason Morris at the Jason Morris Judo Center in Scotia, New York. “Their game is more classical I would say. They have very good judo and have big wins and then they have big losses when they lose.”
Whether a first time or a long time fan of judo, the pieces are all lining up for the London Games to be a very exciting one, especially for the United States. The furious five coached by the fabulous Pedros should prove to be more than enthralling as they're gearing up to make their return with some expensive metal in tow. Specifically for Harrison, these Games could be monumental in the United States' athletic history as a country, let alone her own. Most of all for us watching at home, it’s a chance for fans to fall in love with a sport that has graciously given MMA stars like Rousey and, likely, many more in the future.
“I think people should be excited to watch judo in the Olympics because it is one of the most amazing sports in the world,” states Rousey. “People should love the sport in itself. It is the highest athletic level of grappling. I'm obviously biased, but I think judo players are the most skilled grapplers in the world. I go to judo tournaments and I see throws that I'm shocked ever happened. How could that possibly happen? You're capable of doing so much more when somebody has ‘handles’ on them. Wrestling is a great sport and I respect it and it's cool, but imagine if they had handles on them?! Imagine how much more cool stuff they could do if they had handles on them! That's what pretty much judo is. We're going to put handles on someone so that the throws can be even more dynamic and we're also going to have submissions. I still think judo is the coolest sport, hands down.”
Matches start on July 28th and continue to August 3rd, but fandom and respect for "the gentle way" can last a lifetime - especially how the Pedros teach it.