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What is judo's problem with mixed martial arts?

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Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Three events have taken place in recent weeks that have positioned the sport of judo - or, at least, some portion of its leadership - firmly against mixed martial arts and its top promoter, the UFC.

First, there was the removal of the 2015 European Judo Championships from its host city, Glasgow, Scotland. The British Judo Association (BJA), which was essentially tasked with staging the event, had previously accepted a measure of sponsorship and promotion from the UFC. While the European Judo Union (EJU), one of the five continental judo unions, never expressly named the UFC as the source of their ire, they issued a stunning rebuke to the BJA and stripped the UK of the event. This came after the UFC removed their participation from the event in an effort to save it before the EJU could act.

Second, Jean-Luc Rouge, head of the French Judo Federation, warned any member teaching mixed martial arts would be excommunicated from their organization. "Anyone (in judo) caught teaching MMA will be removed from the French Judo Federation. MMA is illegal in France. All those who teach do not have the right and are liable to be written off. They put the Federation in trouble and if there is serious injury, it will be my fault," he told L'Equipe.

Third, European Judo Union president Sergey Soloveychick told BBC World Service Sport this week, "MMA is not a sport, it is some kind of show.

"Sport should have some human values and sports should help society develop human values. With MMA, it is not so. It's not good if your opponent is on his stomach and you sit on him and beat his head. It's not good for the education of the young generation, so we don't like to promote this kind of organisation during our competition. The spirit is to destroy your opponents by different ways and this is not good," he argued.

Mixed martial arts is not a stranger to criticism or controversy, but it's unusual to see this kind of repudiation from within the martial arts community itself. There have historically been fissures between MMA and some portions of what's commonly referred to as the traditional martial arts community, but those martial arts' members typically lack integration within MMA. Judo - from Ronda Rousey to Hidehiko Yoshida to Karo Parisyan to Makoto Takimoto to Naoya Ogawa to Pawel Nastula to many others - has been involved within professional MMA across numerous continents for years.

All of this raises the question, then, what is going on? What is judo's problem with mixed martial arts?

The EJU, BJA, International Judo Federation (IJF) and USA Judo did not respond to multiple requests for comment by MMA Fighting related to the writing of this article. Those somewhat outside of the sport, however, offer their own theories as to what's driving the public distancing from MMA.

At the top of the list, they say, is members of judo's leadership's alarm at what they view as the UFC's attempt to recruit top judoka away from judo to MMA through sponsorship of judo events or organizations.

"The EJU have warned the BJA almost one year ago as at the European Championships the BJA was already in contact with the UFC. They warned that a possible sponsorship would not [work] with the judo values. Judo is an independent and strong Olympic sport and wants to distance from others martial arts," says Hans van Essen, Editor-in-Chief of Judo Inside.

"Since this year injuries at judo are not even televised," he notes. "For me, personally, this goes far as it is a part of judo, which is still a martial art, men to men. However, you can also use it as a commercial moment. Nonetheless, the boards of both the IJF as its continental unions stayed away from more violent forms of martial arts. I understand the commercial value of the UFC, I understand that the UFC and judo could work together, but judo doesn't want to be a pool of recruitment for UFC."

"At the congress of the EJU, IJF President Marius Vizer strongly stated that any kind of infiltration into other fighting sports would have its consequences," he continues. "It was followed by a statement at the IJF website where he clearly took distance from other sports. Obviously, continental unions followed."

Dr. AnnMaria De Mars, mother of UFC women's bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey and the first American judoka world champion, echoes the idea judo organizations and leadership are threatened by the financial opportunities present in MMA.

"I think judo is full of people who have enormous egos and minimal talent. In the U.S., it's not a very hard sport to be in the top ten or so because there's just not very many people. It was always that way and even more in recent years.

"And they're threatened because here comes MMA, which people have the opportunity to make money in it. They have the opportunity to make a living off of it. That's one reason they're threatened by it," she claims.

The other, she argues, is the protective and insular nature of judo leadership hierarchy. For example, the EJU is comprised of fifty national judo federations or associations, each with its own sitting leadership over a designated territory. Power in these institutions can become entrenched and with multiple layers of bureaucratic control, an attempt to hold onto what's there becomes the driving impulse.

"The other reason is judo - and probably a number of the martial arts are like this - because they have this belt system, you get people who get together and vote you're a sixth-degree black belt. Then you go around and shove your chest up because you're a sixth-degree black belt. In MMA, you can't get anyone's vote that you're a world champion. You have to win it or not.

"I think you have people who have this limited little fiefdom, but it's all they've got and they're protecting it," she claims. "People don't want to lose their monopoly. They don't want anybody infringing on their turf. All they have is these athletes who get very, very little money, if anything. You have these people who are not making very much money and along comes the UFC with the opportunity to do a great deal more and they're protecting their assets."

Dr. Martin Bregman, a seventh degree judo black belt and former Olympic referee, agrees this dynamic exists, but staunchly believes judo's rejection of MMA is a European phenomenon, not a stateside push.

"I think this is a European thing," he states. "I've never heard any member of the American judo hierarchy - even the guys I don't think are very competent - express any kind of idea like that.

"I have never heard any judo people, whether the hierarchy or working coaches or working players, ever have that kind of attitude towards MMA," he adds. "They may not like particular players because they're a little bit too full of themselves, etc. In general, against MMA? No, I've never heard that here in the United States."

To Bregman's point, the UFC and USA Judo penned an agreement in 2014 that would, "support and promote the development of judo." Still, he argues, even if the anti-MMA attitudes are largely or exclusively European in nature, the toxicity has repercussions for both sports.

"A lot of the European hierarchy in the various countries is that, 'Well, you know, this is our forte and you're encroaching upon our students' and that kind of stuff. But, to me, competition is competition. If you can't keep your students, you don't deserve to keep your students.

"If they're going from judo to Brazilian jiu-jitsu or whatever it is, maybe they can make more money at it. Realistically, it just sounds like sour grapes to me. I look at any sport that gets kids off the street as being worthwhile."

De Mars agrees that while problems with judo's leaderships and organizations might be worse in Europe than other places in terms of negative attitudes towards MMA, the entire sport is run in a way that's lamentable. It starts at the IJF, she says, and creates a regrettable culture all the way down.

"Judo has been run in a very authoritarian way for many years. You have people who get to the top somehow and they want to tell everybody else what to do," she says. "That's one of the reasons I'm not involved in judo organizations at all. I don't do well being told what to do.

"There's been a history of sex abuse of female athletes, physical abuse, and nothing's been done about it because they're defensive. I think its time has gone."

Judo and its leadership, they say, also cannot be properly understood without properly placing the importance of the Olympics within context. "Judo is an Olympic sport. We think of ourselves as Olympic athletes," Bregman succinctly observes. "As far as power is concerned, we're totally connected to the Olympics as is the International Judo Federation."

Judo is believed to be widely participated across the world, but even its strongest proponents agree does not generate revenue in the way more televised Olympic events do. That has lead to a sustained effort to please the interests of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) even at what some see is the expense of the sport itself.

In 2012, the IJF essentially banned all techniques that involved grabbing below the belt. In other words, anything where judoka attacked a leg for a throw or trip.

"In my opinion - and this is opinion because you can't really get an answer from anyone in the hierarchy - there was a time there where many sports were afraid the Olympic committee was going to start eliminating non-profit-making sports," Bregman explains. "Sports that they couldn't put on TV during the Olympics and things like that. As you recall, they went after wrestling and eliminated wrestling, which was one of the original Olympic sports back in the ancient Games.

"The entire world rose up and smote them down, so wrestling's been reinstated, but techniques that have been eliminated were all techniques that occur by some kind of grab below the belt: a leg grab, a double leg grab, a dead tree lift throw. Even kata guruma, which is a shoulder wheel, that was eliminated. I'm really unhappy about that. In my opinion, they eliminated the techniques that looked like wrestling because they were afraid wrestling was going to be thrown out of the Olympics."

De Mars also believes the similarity to wrestling was the impetus for the IJF eliminating those techniques, but theorizes the action could have an ulterior motive related to judoka leaving the sport for more financially green pastures.

"I know one of the effects has been that judo as a sport that people can use to transition to MMA is now of less interest," she says. "If I was an athlete now looking for something that would help me in MMA, judo wouldn't be as high up on the list as it would have been before because of all the silly rules. The rules get sillier by the year."

If judo leadership is so problematic and the rules are changing for the worse, wouldn't that affect the health of the sport? Not necessarily.

"I don't think we have much power. Without sponsorship, we have very little power. The only thing is it's one of the most participated sports in the world," says Bregman. "It's the sport that sells out its venue first. It's the sport that has more countries participating than any other sport at the Olympics, but it's not a money sport, at least not in the United States."

Van Essen concurs. "I don't have these figures [on participation], but given the fact that judo is now in the third Olympic IOC group of sports in stead of the fourth (lowest group) I can imagine that the general idea is that judo has done the utmost to improve the sport and is still one a very popular combat sport among the Olympic Sports."

It is claimed by the IJF roughly 40 million people practice judo each year around the world.

Current data to substantiate these claims, however, isn't readily available. The IOC did not respond to requests for information on worldwide participation of judo or how it compares to other Olympic sports as a revenue generator. The BJA has provided some information related to participatory rates in the UK, but nothing for Europe, generally. The National Federation of State High School Associations showed a marginal rise in participation over the last six years, but the U.S. is not considered to be a major player in international judo. It is true, though, the IJF is one the largest international sport federations in the IOC with over 200 member nations.

Still, even the Olympics own literature from 2012 contradict a prevailing narrative of participation in judo. "The two major sports on the programme of the Summer Games are athletics and swimming," notes a paper from the Olympics website. "These are the most widely followed Olympic sports in the world. They also have the largest number of events and greatest number of participants from different countries. Athletics consists of a wide range of events: jumping, throwing, and sprint, middle-distance and long-distance races. Some of these were performed at the ancient Olympic Games: foot races (varying distances), the javelin throw, the discus throw and the long jump."

Whatever European judo's issues with MMA, no one who spoke to MMA Fighting believes it will affect the sport one way or the other, certainly not in the short run. However, they contend, that doesn't mean there's not real problems affecting the future of judo that the rift with MMA has brought to light.

"We're happy Ronda's doing as well as she is because basically she's using judo and showing it's a superior way of winning and things like that. If anything, one of our superior judo players is doing well against these other forms. But, our hierarchy doesn't seem to have any way of making anything out of that," Bregman claims.

"I don't think it's going anywhere," De Mars says about the sport of judo's global popularity. "Judo people tell themselves these myths all the time, 'We're the number two most-practiced sport on the planet'.

"But like I said, I've been to China, I've been to Africa, I've been to Canada. Yes, judo is practiced more in other countries than it is here, but I think they are very insecure. It was a niche sport when I was young. It's going to continue to be a niche sport. It's like the old saying. If you do what you've always done. You'll get what you've always got. In judo, it's like that."