Have you retired from judo competitions?
I have not made a firm decision on this yet. I know that is a very vague answer but my body has been very badly damaged over the last few years and USA Judo as an organization doesn’t take care of its athletes after retirement. There is no job, no pay, no post-competition plan. You’re just left alone. And after 12 years of fighting on the world circuit, I don’t think I can take a risk like trying to win another Olympic medal when there is no financial benefit after you’ve done it. I feel like it’s time to start focusing on new goals and new aspirations. With that being said there is still a spark inside me that wants to compete in judo. Maybe one day I’ll wake up and pour gas on it and “shock the world” one more time.
What won’t you miss about judo competition?
That’s easy: cutting weight! Everyone knows I cut a ton of weight. Handling that, with all the travelling and training was a real difficult task for me. Just to give you an idea of how much weight I cut, I normally walk around at a weight of 93kg. When I would start training hard I would get down to 88kg. And when I am in great shape, I’d be down to around 86kg – and that’s after a judo training session! In 2015, as I was gearing up for the Olympics, I weighed around 89kg with a body fat of not more than 7.5%. My nutritionist said I should not go below 84kg. But I had to get down to 81kg! So we just set a plan in place that worked for both me and him, knowing full well I have no choice but to suffer. The goal was just to minimize the suffering rather than trying to remove it all together because that just wasn’t possible.
Are you confident could make an effective comeback if you wanted to?
I know I could make another Olympic team and possibly medal in it too. I feel like the level of judo has gone down in the -81kg category since Rio 2016. A lot of the top athletes have taken time off, switched divisions or retired. So, yes, I feel I could make a comeback and start medalling at the Grand Prix and Grand Slam level and from there, generate momentum for another Olympic run if I really wanted to do it.
What do you think about the new IJF rules?
I think things are generally moving in the right direction. I like the notion that the refs will give you a lot of leeway provided it’s obvious you are going on the offensive and trying to attack. The only thing I’m not really a fan of is the four minute rule change. I have spent 10 years of my life perfecting the conditioning needed to fight with 100% effort for five straight minutes. I feel that taking off that one minute is a free gift to those who don’t want to work as hard. The reduction to just three shidos for hansoku-make should help to mitigate the reduction in match time because it should push the pace of the match. I can’t say for sure though because I’ve not competed under the new rules.
You are known for having a very regimented training system. Do you feel that having a set training system is crucial for competition success?
It is when you’re in a country where judo is not very popular. It’s not hard to produce world champions when you have a huge number of players to choose from and can pick the most talented to represent the country. When you don’t have the numbers and have just a small pool of players to choose from, you need a structured system to teach players how to win. Over the years, I’ve learned how to win.
What was a typical training day like for you last year?
This was what it was like when I prepared for Rio 2016.
08.00 – 09.30: Weight lifting
10.00 – 11.30: Judo training
12.00 – 13.00: BJJ training
13.00 – 18.00: Rest
18.00 – 19.30: Judo training
19.30 – 20.30: BJJ training
How did you get enough randoris training in the US?
I’m a very disciplined athlete who follows a set training system so I don’t actually need the best training partners. I won a competition in Germany one year when the only person I had to train with for three months was a white belt with just six months of judo experience. He was all I had to train with so I worked with what I had. Of course high-quality randori is important and when I’m overseas, at international training camps, I do a lot more randoris than most players. I view those camps as an opportunity to push myself and break my body down as much as I can. Doing up to 15 rounds of randori is normal for me.
Jimmy Pedro would train for fairly long periods overseas. Did you do that also?
Jimmy did have very long stays in Japan, England, Germany and other countries. But my training was more geared towards a home development system where I just focused on whatever I needed to develop. The longest I ever stayed overseas was six weeks in France to train with their team there. Most of my overseas trips were a lot shorter, maybe two or three weeks.
Did you like training in Japan?
When I went to Japan, I’d be there for 10 days, that’s it. The system they have there doesn’t really benefit me for the way I like to do judo. So, I don’t stay for very long. Normally, I like to go to a place that can shock my body and make me really tired. Normally, after about 10 days in Japan, the three-hour training session at Tokai would have become easy as my body would have gotten used to it. So, then it’s time to move on.
Did you watch videos to prepare for competition?
Almost never. The only time I ever looked at a video was four months before the Olympic Games when we had a good idea of where the seeds were going to be. I don’t believe in watching videos. I know some people do and have great success with it but I don’t feel I can assess my opponent’s fighting style through a video if he’s fighting anyone other than me because how he fights will depend on his opponent’s particular skill sets, strengths and weaknesses. For example, If Khalmurzaev throws a Korean player for ippon with uchimata, that doesn’t necessarily mean his uchimata is something that would work on me. I know some of you reading this might say, “But he did throw you with uchimata in the Olympics” but for the record he didn’t throw me with an uchimata attack but rather, countered my kosoto with an uchimata. There is a difference! But back to the topic of video, I much prefer to learn about my opponents through training with them. When I train I try to find out how my opponent reacts. I think about what he’s working towards, what throws he’s trying, what grips he is trying to get, what grips he’s trying to block and so on. I basically analyse everything and I base my game plan on that.
In the final of Rio 2016, you nearly caught Khalmurzaev on the ground with juji-gatame but you seemed to give up on it. Why?
I follow a very strict system on the ground which I don’t waiver from, ever. It’s what leads me to have great success on the ground. In that match with Khalmurzaev, I was confronted with a choice of either working on straightening his arm or creating movement on the ground in order to kill time so there would be less time for exchanges in a standing position. It was a strategic decision based on the fact that many referees are quick to call matte when they think there’s nothing going on. When I was in the juji position with Khalmurzaev, I asked myself how long it would take to straighten his arm and the answer was “longer than what the referee would be willing to give me”. So, I didn’t pursue the armlock but engaged him further on the ground instead. Matches are won and lost in the strategic decisions we make and maybe in that particular instance it was the wrong one but overall I felt running out the clock was the smarter play to make. If given the chance to re-fight that match, I would make the same choice I’m programmed to do.
You attempted kosoto-gake and he countered with uchimata. If you had not done that, do you think you would have subsequently caught him, perhaps on the ground?
Who knows, but my game plan all along was to throw him with kosoto. I was going to live and die by that plan. It was what I had decided on and there was no turning back. I have trained with him before and I didn’t feel he was strong enough to throw me with a direct attack uchimata. In fact, he tried to do it early on in the match as I was able to defend against it. I felt confident that I could take him down with kosoto-gake and perhaps it might have worked if I had done towards the end of the match when he was more worn out.
Some players are unhappy when they get a silver medal but you seemed genuinely happy with your Olympic silver and you said in an interview that to you, it’s as good as gold. What did you mean by that?
Leading up to Rio, I had broken my thumb, dislocated my sacroiliac joint, almost lost my leg due to infection, and had a massive concussion – all within 15 months before the Olympic Games. Forget about winning, forget about taking a medal; there was a good chance I might not be able to go. After my concussion I couldn’t walk in a straight line, remember what I had to eat or even the day of the week. I couldn’t get in and out of my car unassisted. The amount of pain and struggle I went through in order to prepare my body and mind for the 2016 Olympic Games is not something I would wish on my enemies. So that fact that I was able to mentally keep it together, stick to the plan and pull it off – to me that was a gold medal performance.
What are the major injuries you’ve had in your career so far?
Broken a total of 12 Ribs
Broken all of my fingers
Tore both hamstrings twice
Broken both ankles multiple times
Dislocated sacroiliac joint
Five herniations in my neck (C2-C7)
Concussion in 2015
Bacterial infection in the right knee
Let’s go back a bit, to the 2012 London Olympic Games. Give us a bit of insight into that infamous incident in your semi-final match against Ole Bischof. What exactly happened there?
A lot of people have asked me about this and it’s funny because everyone thinks there is something more to the story than meets the eye. In reality, all it was were two guys being really competitive. I didn’t kick him, I didn’t say anything to offend him… it wasn’t anything like that. I think he just felt upset that the attack I did was kind of weak and he was trying to show off and give a display of strength. When he got right up to my face, some people thought it was going to result in a shoving match or even a fist fight but that was never going to happen. Neither one of us was going to throw away an Olympic final over something like that. We were just really into the match, that’s all.
Are you involved with USA Judo in any capacity
No. USA Judo turned down my offer of being the head coach for the U23 team. They said I wasn’t qualified for the position. Jimmy is no longer involved with USA Judo either so I have no idea what the plan is for the kids or what they are working on or who’s in charge of their development.
How did you get started in BJJ?
I did it because I had to. Six months before the 2012 London Olympic Games I broke my foot. I couldn’t stand on my feet so I had to figure out a way to train and I figured with BJJ, I could sit on my butt and still train. I had a lot of fun training doing BJJ so I kept with it even after my foot healed. Judo will always be my first passion in life when it comes to sports. That’s why I went to three Olympic Games for judo. But if it wasn’t for BJJ and the competitiveness that it offers in the US, I don’t think I would have had the same level of success in judo. There isn’t a whole lot of judo in the US and American judo athletes are not really competitive at the world stage. There are a few of us who are – Kayla and I are examples – because we have put in the time and dedication to training at the highest levels. But as a country, we are not feared or respected in judo. People don’t go, “Oh no, I drew USA in the first round” like they do when they get drawn against Japan, Russia, France or Brazil, for example. If you are in a country where the judo is not all that competitive, it’s important to cross train so you can learn how to handle stress in a match and win. That’s why I did BJJ.
You’re now fighting in BJJ for prize money. Why not MMA?
I honestly feel like MMA fighters are underpaid. I understand that when you make it big, things are great but that gap from starting out to getting to the top is just too much of a gamble for me. BJJ makes more sense from a financial point of view and also I just like it more. I think it’s great as a part-time sport. And it’s popular in the states too so running a BJJ school is something that I can do for the rest of my life.
The popular perception is that judo is more about tachi-waza while BJJ is about newaza. Is that just stereotype?
It is not stereotype. Judo is 100% without any doubt more about tachi-waza. Just look at the highlight videos of judo. How often do we see someone getting an armlock or a choke? It’s just in our nature as judokas to want to throw people. It’s also true that BJJ is more about the ground game. But neither scenario is bad or wrong. It’s just that the rules dictate how the matches are fought. Judo rules definitely encourage standing.
What makes you say judo rules encourage standing as opposed to groundwork?
In judo we give shido for stalling in tachi-waza, which encourages more attacks, but you don’t get a shido for stalling in newaza. You can be totally defensive on the ground and never get a penalty. But imagine if you actually can get penalized for stalling on the ground. Let’s say for just turtling up and not getting back on your feet fast enough, or for not allowing your opponent to get a grip on your lapel, or for crawling off the mat area. Let’s say all these things are shido offences on the ground. The way judo groundwork is played would be completely different. There would be far more attacking on the ground.
Who would have a better chance of success, a top judo player fighting in a high-level BJJ tournament or a top BJJ player competing in a high-level judo tournament?
A top judo player in a high-level BJJ event would have a better chance. We are physically more explosive, stronger athletes. And skills wise, when it comes to being well-rounded the judo guys are generally more so. We are physically strong enough to fend off ground attacks and we have the ability to score a takedown or keep heavy pressure on top. So a top judo guy would have a chance in a high-level BJJ tournament. In contrast, even a top BJJ guy wouldn’t stand a chance of winning at a high-level judo competition. Judo athletes are strong enough that if a BJJ guy were to get on our backs, we’d just have to stand up and ref would call “matte”. So the BJJ guy would have no chance to do his groundwork in a judo competition. The rules of judo are just so anti-BJJ that it would require a BJJ black belt to have a very good understanding of judo just to win a few fights. In general because of the rules, a judo guy has a better chance at BJJ than the other way around.