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Blending Judo (back) into MMA & BJJ: A Visit With Travis Stevens

Blending Judo (back) into MMA & BJJ: A Visit With Travis Stevens

Ronda Rousey may be the first UFC champion to claim judo as her foundation in the martial arts. But the “gentle way” has been influencing MMA for years, and not just in the careers of MMA elite like Emelianenko Fedor (who scored two third-place finishes in the Russian Judo Nationals in the 1990’s).

Heck, it was researched by the man UFC President Dana White famously calls “the Godfather of MMA,” Bruce Lee. In a 1997 book compiled of Lee’s notes, judo’s strengths are identified as “balance, o-soto gari (a reaping takedown favored by MMA fighters like Yoshihiro Akiyama — I found this example), foot sweeps, and mat work.”

It’s more obviously in the roots of Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) artists who practice an art originally brought to Brazil by Kodokan judoka Mitsuyo Maeda.

But judo and jiu-jitsu evolved differently over time, and it’s rare to find anyone who really excels at both.

Dave Camarillo, who coaches elite MMA fighters like UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez, was described by BJ Penn as “the best in the world at combining judo and jiu-jitsu.” He writes in his book Guerilla Jiu-Jitsu (Victory Belt Publishing, 2006) that “although jiu-jitsu stemmed from judo, the sport has taken a different path because of the rules of jiu-jitsu competition…. Each discipline has evolved in accordance of a specific set of rules. Judo is more technical on grip fighting and throws, and its players develop strength and speed. Jiu-jitsu is far more technical on the ground. If you combine the two, you plug the holes in each.”

Last month Camarillo described judo as the more “athletic” and “aggressive” of the two, and jiu-jitsu as “a little bit more technical and methodical.”

Last weekend, I had the honor of meeting Travis Stevens, a two-time US Olympian and Pan American silver medalist in judo. Stevens plans to compete at Copa Podia against the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu elite later this year, after competing at the 2013 Judo World Championships next month.

“I just love to compete and train,” he explains. “I love pushing my body to the limits and learning new things. BJJ is an ever-evolving sport so I enjoy it very much.”

Stevens, currently training jiu-jitsu under Renzo Gracie and John Danaher, echoed Camarillo’s assessment of the two arts. I was able to ask a question I always wanted to ask an elite competitor of both arts: could a hybrid sport be the next logical step – jiu jitsu matches with more emphasis on the takedown, or judo with more time for groundwork?

“I don’t think that making a new sport is a good idea,” Stevens answers. “Each sport needs to have its own identity. You get BJJ and judo any closer, we wont know the difference. But there are things a judo player can take from BJJ and things a BJJ player can take from judo. If you’re going to be great at one sport you need to take things from both, otherwise there will be holes in your game that people can exploit.”

It would seem the answer to my question, like many I ask in my own jiu-jitsu and judo training, is to “shut up and train.” The answers will be there.

“I am training for both,” he explains, “but when I train BJJ it’s very light; some drilling and light rolling, going over new moves just training my body to get used to rolling like a BJJ player. I use judo to push myself hard and get myself in shape. I train with Renzo (Gracie) and John (Danaher) every weekend.”

Stevens is among several members of judo’s elite, like Ronda Rousey, who are considering a future move into MMA. How he responds to the next challenge remains to be seen, but with his attitude and the team behind him, my feeling is it will be a sight to behold.

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