Four Reasons Judo’s Founder Was Wrong About Groundwork

A 2013 biography on judo’s founder, Jigoro Kano (1860-1938) claims the creator of “the gentle way” had some unsavory views of newaza (ground fighting). 

According to biographer, John Stevens, Kano criticized ground fighting as easy, dangerous, against human nature, and ineffective against multiple attackers. 


Kano may have never uttered a word of this.  Biographers have been known to either take statements out of context or out-and-out lie. 

But if Stevens’ claims are true, Kano’s ideas would have been misguided at best, and outright stupid at worst.   

Here are four reasons why. 

It does not matter what humans were “made” to do

Kano is quoted in his biography as saying he did not like newaza because “Human beings were made to walk, not crawl.” 

Foregoing all the sacreligious claims about whether or not we were made to do anything, Kano would be shooting himself in the foot if he appealed to this argument. 

First, how would he know what we were made to do?  For all we know, human beings were designed to pick their noses and eat corn all day. 

Second, who cares what we were made to do? Samsung did not design my old cell phone to weigh down the papers on my desk, but my Galaxy 1 can still sit on my unpaid bills as well as a paperweight sculpted my Michaelangelo himself.

The design argument is baseless and undeserving of any consideration. 

Jigoro Kano

“Effective groundwork” requires LOTS of practice

Stevens quotes Kano as saying:
“To learn throwing techniques well, it takes three years; to learn effective groundwork, it takes three months.” 

I do not think it will take much arguing to convince the Jiu Jitsu Times’ readers that most practitioners of BJJ will not develop an effective ground game in three months. 

If they did, it would be hard to imagine why they would bother staying after getting the first stripe on their white belts, never mind scratching and clawing their way up to black belt.     

I have been studying jiu-jitsu for years.  Going by the statement attributed to Kano, I should be a grand master. 

Ground fighting is probably the safest form of fighting

Stevens says Kano believed . . .

“ . . . there was a much greater possibility of getting injured in groundwork because of the severity of application, and subsequent resistence to, chokes and pins.” 

There is no evidence to justify this claim.  In fact, the opposite seems to be the case.

Brazilian jiu-jitsu is renowned for its low impact sparring, which is one of the reasons it is attractive to older learners.  Not only is there virtually no risk of getting hit, but unlike judo, there is very little risk of being injured while falling. 

Chokes also carry little risk.  According to MMAjunkie’s medical columnist, Dr. Johnny Benjamin:

“Compression of both (one on either side of the neck) carotid arteries for eight-to-10 seconds is likely to render a person unconscious. It takes several minutes of lack of blood flow to the brain (somewhere in the range of four-to-six minutes) before permanent damage to the brain is likely to occur.

If fans believe that a choke was held for roughly 10 seconds after a fighter has lost consciousness, the brain has likely been without adequate blood flow for approximately 20 seconds (remember that it took roughly 10 seconds for the fighter to go to sleep).

In an otherwise healthy athlete, lack of blood flow to the brain for 10-to-20 seconds is not particularly dangerous. Obviously, it’s not a great idea, but once again, it’s not likely to cause permanent damage.”

(emphasis added)

This means that, unless your opponent holds on for minutes or unless you have a hypersensitive carotid sinus, there is little risk of permanent injury from a choke. 

Far from increasing any risks, jiu-jitsu is probably one of the safest martial arts anyone can practice. 

Judo is not much better against multiple opponents

Finally, Stevens says Kano believed . . .

“If there is more than one opponent, there is no possibility of grappling one-to-one on the ground. Fighters have to stay on their feet to deal with multiple attackers.”

I agree with this . . . to a point. 

Brazilian jiu-jitsu is a highly effective art for dealing with a single ruffian, but it offers little in the way of handling multiple opponents. 

But exactly what advantage would judo offer in a similar situation?  Besides making it easier to turn tail and run, the judoka puts herself in a similar vulnerable position as the jiujiteiro when she tries to fight off a barrage of attackers at close range. 

In situations with multiple attackers, striking arts like Muay Thai, kickboxing, and Kyokushin karate would be optimal because they allow the practioner to strike and maintain a distance. 

Parkour may even be a better option. 

In all due fairness to Kano (and assuming he believed what his biographer claimed he believed), he never lived to see Brazilian jiu-jitsu. 

Had he, maybe he would be singing a different tune.    


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