Breaking A Judo Grip With Travis Stevens
It might sound obvious but it’s easy to overlook the fact that different grips need different breaks applied against them to free us.
Kumi kata, or grip fighting, is a unique phase of combat that has a winner and a loser. We can win or lose a grip exchange. It can be easy to overlook this, especially if we aren’t familiar with a systematic approach to winning the advantage by gripping.
If we think of an MMA contest it is clear to see there are distinct phases of combat, long range kicking, medium range kicking, punching outside or inside the clinch, knee and elbow work, vertical grappling, ground and pound groundwork and submission groundwork. Often one fighter will favour one range over another and will want to play their own strengths against their opponents weaknesses.
The crucial part about either Judo or BJJ in the gi is that gripping is a phase that can’t be overlooked.
We must go through a sequence of kumi kata (grip fighting), kuzushi (breaking balance) and only then can we successfully execute waza (technique).
Fortunately for us we have Silver medal Olympian Judoka, John Danaher black belt and Judo Fanatics instructor Travis Stevens here to teach us about grip fighting.
So Travis starts by reminding us that every grip has a different break that’s required. The traditional Judo grip is known as a three finger grip and has a longer history in Japan than many people might know about.
The origin of the three finger grip in Judo comes from the use of the katana, or Japanese sword, which is renowned for both its cutting edge and flexibility as well as being suitable for both single and double handed use.
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When we watch someone untutored in the Japanese sword hold its handle we typically see them take a two handed baseball bat grip on the katana, a grip which completely kills one's ability to swing the blade in a manner that’s integrated with the movement of one’s body.
Instead the grip on the sword should be very similar to the three finger grip in Judo, and is best described by one of Japan’s best known swordsmen, Miyamoto Musashi in his seminal text ‘The Book of Five Rings’
“In wielding the long sword, the thumb and forefinger grip lightly, the middle finger grips neither tightly nor loosely, while the fourth and little fingers grip tightly. There should be no slackness in the hand.”
This way of gripping in both the Japanese Sword and in Judo connects the grip of the hand to the underside of the arm and lat muscles while maintaining fluidity in the wrist.
Travis notes that when someone successfully takes this grip on the sleeve one can’t simply rotate out of it. This is in part due to the flexibility in the wrist that this grip allows, which helps the three finger grip stay tight along with the movements of a resisting opponent.
The first thing Travis notes when breaking a grip is that we don’t want our grip break to break our own stance or posture. When breaking a grip we have to let the mobility of our shoulder be the limit we can move our arm backwards, while maintaining our posture. This way our shoulders and chest stay square to our opponent and we can continue to defend and respond in kumi kata.
As we maintain our posture while breaking our opponents grip we remain in a position that is ready to go on the offense the moment we break our opponents grip.
To assist in breaking the grip we want to create a push/pull motion against our opponent so we’re maximising the force we can place against their grip.
Travis does this by taking a lapel grip that he can use to push his opponents chest away and at the same time pull against his opponents sleeve grip. This is similar to a bow and arrow motion but with an inverted stance from a typical drawing back of a bow. The distance between our opponent and their grip location considerably increases when we use this motion.
As always with Judo the grip fighting is very closely linked to kuzushi and waza, so the second Travis breaks grips he is looking to off-balance his opponent and look for his throw.
In this example Travis breaks the grip and is now able to circle around his opponent, something Kayla Harrison used to great effect in her Olympic Judo matches, and set up a quick Ouchi Gari.
As soon as Travis breaks the grip we can see him creating a wave-like pulling motion on his opponents lapel, which is shaking his opponents head and breaking down his opponents posture. As he is doing this he’s circling to the side and as his opponent tries to reset his stance to be effective is where he leaves his back leg vulnerable to Ouchi Gari.
This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to kumi kata. Kumi kata is a vital piece of the stand-up game and deserves as much study as we can manage so that we’re setting ourselves up for victory in this crucial phase of combat.
If you would like to know more and win more by studying grip fighting with Olympic athlete and America’s best Judo coach Jimmy Pedro and Olympian Travis Stevens then check out the Grip Like a World Champion 2.0 series at Judo Fanatics here!