Sensei Randy Ball and Gordon Witherspoon at Borderland Judo Club have been practicing the unarmed modern Japanese martial art for almost 50 years. Last weekend on January 7 they hosted a Judo Clinic where teachers and students from judo clubs in Kenora, Dryden and Thunder Bay gathered to uphold a tradition of respect and friendship by training together and sharing their wealth of knowledge.
“It went great and was a ton of fun. The juniors—13 and under—were up first followed by the seniors,” said Witherspoon regarding the Judo Clinic.
Ball said that the regional clubs are like “one big family” who push each other to become better judoka (a person who practices or is an expert in judo).
“We’re all one big club and we don’t hoard information to beat each other. We share the information so that we’re better students,” Ball said, adding that if he has any questions or can’t attend an out-of-town tournament with his students, he knows he can turn to any of his friends at the regional clubs.
“We have some fantastic high caliber fighters and high ranked black belts in the area,” he said.
Judo Clinics in northwestern Ontario are hosted around every two months.
Compared to other martial arts, Judo is known as a “grappling art,” said Ball, who explained that Judo started in 1882 and originated from Jujitsu. When a Jujitsu master named Kano Jigoro Shihan felt the sport was too violent and difficult to teach, he created Judo.
Ball said that “Ju” means “gentle” and “Do” means “way,” making Judo much more effective than Japanese Jujitsu because it could be practiced without easily hurting somebody.
Like the originator of Judo, Ball’s father, who trained both Ball and Witherspoon when they were young, was also trained in both Jujitsu and Judo.
“My dad took Jujitsu as well and he said it was very difficult because it’s so destructive. It’s hard to do the moves without hurting somebody,” said Ball.
In his childhood home, Judo was a way of life. Ball started learning in 1983, when he was in grade 6, from his father who ran Borderland Judo back in the day before the family moved out of town.
Ball’s mother had an orange belt and his siblings had a brown belt. Oftentimes, their living room served as a training center.
“We were always being taught around the house,” Ball said, laughing at the memory. “Every time we asked something we’d get a judo lesson in the house… that’s how we grew up. It was always fun and interesting.”
Witherspoon recalled being 17 years old when he took over the club for Ball’s father, describing himself as “a kid not knowing what [he] was doing at all.”
He started learning Judo when he was nine years old while participating in various other sports such as hockey and football, “but always got out to Judo a few nights a week,” Witherspoon said, adding that he received his brown belt when he was 16.
He said that Judo was first introduced to the region around the late 1960s through a Japanese family by the name “Matanees” (exact spelling unconfirmed) who moved to Dryden and founded the originating club.
Witherspoon recalled going to their Judo club on weekends, sleeping on the Judo mats at night because it was cheaper than staying at a hotel, then putting on their Judogi (formal Japanese name for the traditional uniform) in the morning for another day of training.
“That was always a fun one,” Witherspoon said. “We’d go up there and we’d spend the night on a Judo mat, which was a big deal. We loved it.”
“And the Matanees were awesome. They were super hardcore. Like I said, they were right from Japan. And pretty well all the Judo in Northwestern Ontario now can be traced back to them in Dryden,” he said, adding that while their family has moved on, everyone running the Judo clubs today, including Ball’s father, likely had received their training at some point.
Despite taking a 30-year break in Judo, a break Witherspoon said was caused by his move to Winnipeg and the busyness of work and raising his own family, he continues to compete today often against guys at least 20 years his junior.
“It doesn’t always go so well for me,” he said. “The idea is still there, the mind is still telling me what to do, but the body is always about a second behind. I mean I still do well in tournaments but near as well as I would like to do.”
The moment Witherspoon steps on the mat and is faced with his opponent, everything else disappears. He describes the three to four minutes where his entire focus is on pinning down his opponent, his body wielded with gravity as a weapon.
“Once you step on the mat for competition, it’s amazing how there’s literally nothing else happening,” he said. “That’s why I still do it, even though I go out and quite often get my butt kicked by the younger guys, I just love that feeling stepping on the map when you’re ready to compete against someone.”
“When I was younger and competing, I relied totally on reaction.You do the reps so many times, muscle memory just automatically kicks in. And sometimes I remember my absolute best fights when I was young, I would have to come off the mat, and I’d have to ask my sensei, or whoever was there, ‘what did I actually throw?’”
“But what I found now as being older, that the muscle memory is still there, but it’s too slow. So now I have to actually have a plan of attack, I can’t just go in and react, I have to go in and specifically think of a technique I’m going to try.”
“I have to rely on having a game plan, you know, actually figure out how to set up the guy. So that took a while to learn. It was kind of a steep learning curve at first. But anyway, you just change your plan of attack when he starts slowing you down.”
“I totally kick myself in the arse for ever having gotten out of it for all those years,” Witherspoon said, adding that he’s working towards getting his second degree black belt and hopefully a third and fourth one, and that he plans to teach for a very long time.
Today, Witherspoon and Ball run the Judo club twice a week at Robert Moore School, learning exercises such as how to break a fall, which Ball said comes in handy even in everyday life after he had “taken spills” from his bike, and most importantly, learning the tradition of respect in which Judo was founded upon.
Witherspoon said they have a “zero hockey mentality.” To master the techniques of the sport he said it takes about 1000 reps before it becomes muscle memory, whereas the philosophy behind Judo, focusing on mutual respect, must be drilled constantly.
“The whole mentality on a lot of sports is, ‘It’s me getting better than everyone else. I don’t care what happens to them.’ Whereas the Judo mentality is more of helping each other learn, and through that you’ll learn better yourself,” Witherspoon said.
Borderland Judo look forward to a competition in Winnipeg on February 4, 2023.
Anyone interested is welcomed to watch the practices. Juniors are on at 6 p.m. and the adults at 7 p.m.
Witherspoon said that it’s never too late to start, and that many adults in the classes are in their 50s. Competitions are not a mandatory activity and anyone is welcomed to join if they’re looking to get in shape or learn self-defense.
Elisa Nguyen, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Fort Frances Times