Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Rise of a Judo Queen

At WSJ, "How an American Took Down Judo":
As Kayla Harrison, the only American to win a gold medal in judo, prepared for the Rio Olympics at her coach’s dojo in Wakefield, Mass., in March, she spent most of the morning wrestling on the mat. She practiced pins, chokes, armlocks and other submission moves. In judo, this is called “newaza,” or grappling techniques. Unlike the match-ending throws that lift competitors off their feet and slam them down, newaza isn’t flashy or explosive. In American judo, it’s a religion.

“All over the world, I’ve been to so many training camps and they’ll do three rounds of newaza randori, which is sparring, and then they’ll do 10 rounds of standing sparring,” Harrison said. “That’s where they’re weak, so that’s where we should get good. And we are.”

At the London Games four years ago, three American judokas reached the semifinals of their competitions. Marti Malloy won a bronze in the 125.5-pound division. Harrison, who weighs 165 pounds and competes in the 172-pound division, won gold and has since become the top-ranked judoka in the world for her weight class. She said this would be her last Olympic Games. If she decides to join the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the mixed martial arts competition, she could earn millions. For now, she seems to be leaning toward a life in judo.

“Do I really want to start all over in another sport and have a completely new athletic career at the age of 26?” she said. “I don’t know. I want to stay involved in judo.”

Under current UFC weight classes, Harrison—5 feet 8 inches, broad-shouldered and all muscle—would have to lose 30 pounds. UFC competitors, like Bellator MMA, have higher weight classes.

“Obviously we’re aware of her,” said Dana White, president of the UFC, through a spokesman. “We’ll see what happens.”

Harrison could remain in judo—as a promoter. Until now, the sport’s governing body, USA Judo, has sold few tickets and sponsorships to its national tournament. But it recently signed an agreement for Harrison to run the national championships for five years starting in 2018.

To win gold in Rio, Harrison will need four or five consecutive wins—all in the same day (each fight lasts four minutes). Her event is scheduled for Aug. 11. She’s by no means a lock. Harrison lost early in last year’s world championships and won a bronze in 2014...
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