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Judo Chop: The Instinctive Judo of Yoshihiro Akiyama

In their primer for UFC 120's Michael Bisping vs Yoshihiro Akiyama, praises the judoka's take down skills:

Akiyama's most dominant skill is his judo. And that is the only area of the fight where he enjoys any sort of significant advantage over Bisping. Watching the former gold medalist from the 2001 Asian Championships and 2002 Asian Games throw around Chris Leben erased any doubt in my mind about this guy's ability to transition his judo skills to mixed martial arts, and he needs to rely heavily on those skills if he wants to defeat Bisping.

Keep in mind that Chris Leben has excellent takedown defense after spending the first several years of his career as a member of Team Quest. That affiliation gave him the opportunity to train on a daily basis with some of the best wrestlers that the UFC has ever seen, including Greco Roman guys like Randy Couture. Leben never imagined that Akiyama would be able to take him down with any regularity, but that is precisely what happened when the skilled judoka got his hands on the star slugger. In fact, Akiyama was able to take him down basically whenever he wanted. His throws and trips are that good.

It's no secret that I'm a total judo mark. There are few things as thrilling as seeing a fighter nail a perfect throw using the elegant principles of Jigoro Kano in a modern MMA bout. Part of my joy in seeing judo applied well in MMA is because for a long time judo was the most-underrepresented style in MMA.

Considering the soundness of its techniques (including both take downs and submissions), its high speed sport application, and its popularity, I'm somewhat dumbfounded that we didn't start seeing many judo throws or judo-based MMA fighters for the first decade of MMA.

A number of factors contributed to this:

  1. There was no judo Dan Severn.
    Every style to make a splash in the early days of modern MMA had a trailblazing star, whether it was Royce and Rickson Gracie for BJJ, Ken Shamrock for catch wrestling, Dan Severn for amateur wrestling, Oleg Taktarov for sambo, or Marco Ruas for Muay Thai. Judo did not. Its most promising early exponents tended to also have Shooto experience and as such were not clearly branded as judoka in the eyes of fans. It didn't help that, Yuki Nakai, was blinded in one eye by a gouging bastard named Gerard Gordeau and had to retire from MMA in 1995.
  2. Jiu Jitsu hogged the credit for a lot of judo techniques
    Had Brazilian jiu jitsu (which was originally based on judo by way of Mitsuyo Maeda teaching Carlos Gracie who taught Helio Gracie) not been around, judoka would have been about the only fighters around with triangle chokes, straight arm bars, the guard, and a number of other very successful techniques that MMA fans think of as BJJ.
  3. Top judokas had no need to enter MMA
    In most of Europe and the wealthier parts of Asia, top judoka do alright for themselves. Unlike amateur wrestlers in the states where only a small fraction make livings as coaches, judoka weren't eager to get paid to compete, they already were.
  4. When top judokas did enter MMA, they often don't use a lot of throws
    When we did get top tier judoka -- like Olympic gold medalist Hidehiko Yoshida -- competing in high level MMA, we didn't see a lot of flashy throws. Part of this had to do with the paucity of gi's in MMA by 2000-2002 which forced judoka to completely rethink their grips to land many signature throws. Part of this has to do with they way some judoka have found they like to slug it out on the feet as much or more than anything else. I'm thinking of Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou here.

So ever since the emergence of Karo Parisyan I've been enjoying much more judo in my MMA. Yoshihiro Akiyama doesn't do quite as many flashy throws as Karo, but his use of trips in his two UFC fights has been spectacular.

Before Akiyama was an MMA star, he was one of Japan's top judokas. He made the semi-finals of the 2003 world championships, although a greasy gi controversy took some of the luster off of his success at that event. But his judo skills are evident in his UFC fights as we'll see in the full entry.

We're in for a treat in this edition of the judo chops as BE contributor Dan Pedersen aka judonerd has interviewed U.S. Olympic Judo Coach Jimmy Pedro and asked him to break down a number of Akiyama's sexiest take downs against Alan Belcher at UFC 100 and Chris Leben at UFC 116. (Don't miss Dan's two part interview series with Jimmy Pedro, part 1, part 2).


Gifs by Chris Nelson.

Akiyama-leben-5_medium_mediumDan Pedersen: Can you tell us what you see here?

Jimmy Pedro: You see, this is sort of something... when I watch MMA a lot, I question why guys don't focus on-or do a little bit more-Judo training. Because some of these guys are just so exposed and so off-balance-or leaning in a certain direction-that Judo would easily get them to the ground if that was where the fighter wanted to take the game.

In this technique, essentially, all Akiyama does is feel where Leben is leaning: Hard to the right of Akiyama. [Leben] puts his head down a little bit, and his hips are bent. Now, in order to avoid being thrown in Judo, you need to stand up with your hips in. You know, much like in the Muay Thai plum: The way to defend it is to bring your hips in and stand up. As soon as you bend over, you're gonna catch a knee. To avoid being thrown in Judo, you have to stand up with your hips in as well.

So, if you notice in this technique, Leben's head is down, he's leaning forward, and all Akiyama is does is execute a Harai Goshi, which means "major outer reaping,' a sweeping hip throw. Basically, he grabs the head with his left hand, grabs an arm with his right-almost like a headlock-and whips his left leg over outside and catches him with the Harai Goshi.

Pedersen: I've noticed that, in Olympic Judo, guys like to really roll through the throw and try and get that perfect "ippon." The way Akiyama turns out after the throw [to the other side of side control]... is that something he picked up in Judo?

Pedro: Right. I mean, in Judo, you want the guy to land flat on his back to get the maximum score. If they land on their side, then it's a smaller score that you get and the match isn't over. In this throw, if you notice, Leben rolls across both of his shoulder blades. So if that was a throw in Judo, the match would have been over. Akiyama would have won. So without question, Akiyama's instinct is to roll through in order to maximize back exposure and get that higher score. Now, if done correctly here-if Akiyama had just sunk his hips at the moment of impact-he would have flattened out Leben in a sort of head-and-arm hold. A headlock, if you will. Like if you're a kid and you headlock your buddy. That's more ideally the position where he would have finished this technique.

Akiyama-belcher-2_medium_mediumJimmy Pedro: Here Akiyama catches that left kick, and it looks like he was starting to go for an inside trip. But you notice that Belcher's leg gets caught in the middle, and [Akiyama] ends up doing what we call a Ko Soto Gake, an outer reaping throw where you attack from the rear, leg to leg, calf to calf if you will. And he takes him backwards. It almost looks like he tries to do a double-catch the leg and shoot a double. But Belcher backs his hips out, so [Akiyama] just trips from the outside there. But yes, definitely a Ko-Soto-Gake-type technique.

Dan Pedersen: We see that technique done in MMA-guys like Roy Nelson use it-but their legs tend to be more straight up and down. Whereas here, Akiyama almost throws his leg sideways across the back of both of Belcher's knees. Is that more typical of Judo or is that just improvising on the fly?

Pedro: You don't see it done this way in Judo very often. Because very rarely do you have someone's leg with one arm, and if you did, you wouldn't be able to get to the back leg this easily. In Judo that's very difficult to do. So you don't see this angle very often in Judo. But the reaping motion he uses is technically done when you have more of a body lock. If you had a body lock on your opponent, you would execute the way he does with his leg.

Akiyama-leben-4_medium_medium_mediumPedro: What Akiyama executes here is an O Uchi Gari to Osoto Gari combination . And essentially, he missed it. He missed the O Uchi Gari, but it helped him get the angle and get in deeper for the Osoto attack. Normally what we do is, with that first hook, we try to grab the opponents front leg. So in this case, Akiyama is trying to hook Leben's right leg with his own left leg. He just misses it, but it allows him to get enough of an angle to reach that far leg.

If Akiyama had just tried to reach across [for Osoto Gari], he probably wouldn't get to Leben's back leg. But by doing the first movement... The correct way is to actually hook the front leg. That gets the opponent to defend [by lifting the lead foot], and he will transfer all his weight onto the far leg. And this stops them. This stops them from being able to back away. Once you feel someone touch your front leg, you typically lift it in the air. And all your weight goes on the other foot. This allows [the thrower] to come across and reap it and take that leg out. Once they transfer all the weight to the far leg, you hook the far leg. In this case, Akiyama misses the first attack but ends up getting the angle to the Osoto Gari anyway. You see how deep he steps with his right foot? That gives him the angle to reach Leben's left leg with his own left.

And obviously, his finishing position here is ideal. He's in side mount, he's passed both of the legs with the throw, and he's got control of the upper body. Now, it would have been better if he brought the knee to the hip a little bit better, and sunk his hips a little lower. But he certainly gets good side control.

Akiyama-belcher-1_medium_mediumPedersen: The question I have about this technique, even though it's not a throw... Akiyama catches a lot of leg kicks, much more than the average fighter.. Do you think he's benefitting from all of his gripfighting experience in Judo? Do you think Judokas have a certain advantage in catching or trapping when they transfer over to MMA?

Pedro: I do. And you know, there are a few attacks in Judo like Sasae [Tsuri Komi Ashi], where the automatic reaction when someone goes to reap your leg, you reach down and grab it to counter. So the leg grab is a counter technique in Judo. Even though you can't kick, there are techniques where people use their legs in a similar way to throw you. And it is instinct to come down and catch it in order to counter. But instead of [Akiyama] catching the kick and trying to throw, he just catches it and throws the punch. And without a doubt, that was just a natural reaction from his days in Judo, defending against the Sasae.

Akiyama-leben-1_medium_medium_mediumPedro: Basically, at first, Akiyama shoots two double in a row. He shoots the double, misses. Then he repenetrates and shoots another double, and then he just lifts his leg with Uchi Mata. As Leben is backing out from the two double-leg attempts, Akiyama comes up underhook, and then just sticks his leg in the middle and hops him over with Uchi Mata.

Pedersen: I've always felt that Uchi Mata is not an easy throw, especially if the timing and balance are off. And Akiyama throws it in the middle of a combo. Is this difficult stuff to pull off?

Pedro: If you notice, all of the techniques that Akiyama executes are done instinctually. There was really no thought process that had to take place. There was nothing forced. There wasn't a struggle to get the guy over, just instinct. In all of the Akiyama clips we covered, the guy goes over effortlessly. Just instinct. And that's the sign of a high-level Judoka.

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