After a year of training at my university judo club, I decided I needed to seek out high-level competition coaching if I wanted my judo to progress.

One of the most famous judo personalities in the US was a guy named Hayward Nishioka. He was really quite well-known in the 1960s when he was five-time national champion and Pan-American Games gold medalist.

I first got to know about him through one of my university club mates, Brendan, who was a footsweep specialist. He told me about a book on footsweeps that Nishioka had written, which he said was really good. I felt this was the guy I needed to find!

The only problem was that this was during the pre-Internet and pre-mobile phone era, so it wasn’t so easy to find anyone. All I knew was that he was out there somewhere in Los Angeles. So, that summer I convinced my roommate, Bernd, a German student, to head out to LA with me.

I didn’t own a car and didn’t even know how to drive, so Bernd did the driving. It was our first long-distance trip together but we would soon go our separate ways because the plan was that he would spend the summer absorbing the sights and sounds of the West Coast while I would pursue my judo dreams.

When we arrived in LA, we looked up the phone book for judo clubs and went around to a few, looking for Nishioka. One club owner gave us a solid lead, telling us where we might find him. We went to that club but alas, Nishioka was not there.

The club owner there asked me why I was looking for Nishioka and I told him I was looking to learn competitive-style judo. “Try LA Judo,” he said. “John Ross runs that place. He’s a former national coach.”

The LA Judo Training Center was a big place with a large mat area that was well-sprung. Placed underneath the tatami were old tyres, so there was a bit of a bounce to the mat, which made the impact less painful when you are thrown.

I met up with Coach Ross and told him about my situation. I was a student from the University of Texas in Austin and I had traveled all the way to LA to look for competition training. I’ll be here for the whole summer, I said.

He asked me a few questions about my judo experience and why I wanted to learn competitive judo. It soon became obvious to him that I didn’t have a clue what competitive judo was all about. But he liked my earnestness. He was surprised that I had earned my brown belt within a year of training.

I told him that’s because I trained almost every day. The judo club trained three times a week, and when there wasn’t judo practice, I would train at the wrestling club. Collegiate wrestling wasn’t the same thing as judo but it was close enough.

My coach, a Czech immigrant with great ashiwaza skills, didn’t grade me for a year but when he did, he gave me a brown belt. But it was what I’d call a “recreational” brown belt. In competitive terms, I was practically a white belt.

I told Coach Ross that I didn’t have much money. He gave me an offer I couldn’t refuse. He said I could train at the club for free and he would give me a sleeping bag and a pillow so I could sleep in the office at night. The club had shower facilities and I could keep food in the fridge. I’d have to teach the kids class in the afternoons to earn my keep. I agreed straight away.

Then, he told me what my training plan for the next three months would be. My personal trainer would be his assistant, a Japanese-American coach named Tracy, who had an encyclopedic knowledge of judo. “He’ll train you every afternoon after the kids’ class,” Coach Ross said. Then in the evening there would be randori.

One of my regular randori partners was Coach Ross’s wife, Jan, who was trying to make the 1992 Olympic team. A former national champion at -52kg, she was as tough as nails. Coach Ross told me there were few men her size who were as strong as she was, and he wasn’t kidding. She was especially good in groundwork and she would tie me up like a pretzel each time we did newaza randori.

Coach Ross would teach me the principles of competitive judo. “It’s all about the grips,” he said. “You want to be good at competitive judo, you have to be good at gripping.”

He then introduced the four basic rules of gripping:
1. Never let your opponent get a grip
2. If he gets a grip, break it
3. If you can’t break it, attempt a throw
4. If you can’t throw him, be ready to counter

He also advised me to focus on newaza, which he said is easier and quicker to develop than tachi-waza. That’s because throwing involves an element of natural talent and flair. Groundwork doesn’t, he said. It just requires practice.  

Coach Ross pointed to a bunch of brown and black belt players at the club. “You see those guys? They’ve all been doing judo since they were kids. There’s no way you’ll catch up with them in the throwing department within three months. But if you work on your newaza every day, you can be as good or even better than them on the ground by the time this summer’s over.”

Posted on the walls of the dojo were lists and lists of standing and groundwork moves. These did not contain traditional names of techniques. Instead, there were things like “Koga Seoi-Nage”, “Mickey Matsumoto Sode”, “Trap Choke” and so on. I didn’t know what any of these things were. But by the end of that summer, I would know everything.  

Tracy was very systematic in his approach to my training. We’d always start with newaza. He’d go down the list, teaching me a ground move and making sure I was able to do it correctly before moving on to the next one. Then we’d do the same thing with tachi-waza.

Coach Ross was also the one who introduced me to the world of video analysis. He sat me at the TV one day and put in a VCR tape. “I want you to see something,” he said. “This is a guy named Koga. He was a whizz-kid even in high school. By the time he was in university, he was throwing all the world’s best players.”

He played a clip of Koga throwing American World Champion Mike Swain in the 1986 Shoriki Cup (a competition for university students in Japan) and in the 1987 Kano Cup (a major international competition which today is known as the Tokyo Grand Slam). In both cases, Koga threw Swain with a standing ippon-seoi-nage for ippon.

Coach Ross also played other clips of Koga throwing various opponents, including another Japanese player. “That’s Koga’s senpai, his senior in the university,” he said. “Koga just slammed his senpai for ippon.”

He then proceeded to highlight what was so different about Koga’s ippon-seoi-nage. First of all, look at his legs, he said. Koga doesn’t squat or bend his knees. He does his seoi-nage with straight legs. Secondly, look at his grip. He’s right-handed but he takes hold of his opponent’s right lapel, just like a left-hander would. Thirdly, notice how he lifts his opponent as he enters into the throw. By the time he makes his turn, his opponent is already loaded onto his back.

I was in awe. And dumbstruck. Everything I had learned about ippon-seoi-nage went out the window. I was told to bend my knees when doing seoi-nage. I was supposed to hold uke's right sleeve, not his right lapel. I was supposed to turn and then lift, not lift as I turned!

Coach Ross passed me the Koga tape and told me to study it. I must have watched that tape hundreds of times. He also gave me a bunch of other tapes from various international competitions to analyze. When I wasn’t training or teaching kids or resting, I would be at the TV watching judo videos.

They say it never rains in Southern California but man, does it shake! There were mini-earthquakes several times a week. I was shocked the first time I woke up feeling the ground shaking underneath me. The folks at the club told me, “Welcome to LA, you’ll feel these every few days.” After a while, you actually get used to it and the shakes don’t faze you anymore although at times, it does get quite shaky.

Since I was broke and didn’t have a car, I was stuck in the dojo. The only times I went out was when I hitched a ride with some of the players to buy groceries. The dojo didn’t have a kitchen so I couldn’t cook. I could have microwaved some TV dinners but I couldn’t afford those. So, it was mainly canned food that I bought. I ate a lot of beans that summer.

Training was six days a week with the rest day being Sunday. I usually rested that whole day. On a few rare occasions, I would go out and have a meal with some of the players but I don't recall it being more than two or three times that whole summer. This was partly due to lack of funds but also because I was tired all the time.

The LA Judo Training Center was the happening place for judo and we had many famous players drop by. One of the regulars was a lightweight player named Mickey Matsumoto, who was a US National Champion at -55kg. He was a really technical guy and very friendly and helpful. He gave me a lot of tips.

One of the Gracie brothers (I can’t remember which one) also dropped by sometimes. The Gracies were BJJ guys but one of them liked doing judo so he would occasionally come to LA Judo for a workout. His standing wasn’t anything to shout about but his groundwork was excellent.

I never got to meet Hayward Nishioka but his daughter would come by sometimes to do a workout. She wore a purple belt, which was kind of unusual but there are many different grading systems in the US, and perhaps her home club had purple belt in their syllabus.  

Jason Morris, who would go on to win the -78kg silver medal at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, dropped by a couple of times too. I was a -60kg player so doing randori with him wasn’t a serious consideration. But once when he called me over, of course I didn’t say no. His favorite technique was uchimata but he was merciful and didn’t throw me with that. He just played around with me and threw me with yoko-tomoe-nage a few times.

Speaking of yoko-tomoe-nage, that was the other throw (besides ippon-seoi-nage) that Coach Ross asked me to focus on. He said it was the right throw for me. While ippon-seoi-nage came easily enough to me, yoko-tomoe-nage took forever to master. It would be years – long after I had left LA Judo – before I could get it to work on a regular basis. But I trusted my coach and never gave up. Eventually I got the technique to work and it's since become an important part of my judo repertoire.  

In subsequent years, I would go to Europe to do further training in judo. I developed into a much stronger competitor, and added more techniques into my repertoire, training at places like Camberley Judo Club and the Budokwai in the UK and Russelsheim Olympic Training Centre in Germany. But it was at LA Judo where the foundation of my judo was laid. Much of my thinking today about gripping, technical development and strategy is based on what I had learned at LA Judo, thanks to John Ross and his capable assistant Tracy.