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Published July 25 2012

North Dakota has history with hard-hitting sport of judo

Fargo - People like Erik Jones don’t want to keep others at an arm’s length. Don’t be shy. He wants you to get closer to him.

It makes it easier for him to flip you over onto a mat with relative ease.

“With judo, we get closer,” said Jones, who is a Fargo-based instructor. “We just grab ahold and take people for a ride.”

Fast, furious, frenetic – yet fruitful – judo has certainly made a name for itself in North Dakota. In Dickinson, Williston and Fargo, there are four training facilities – formerly known as dojos.

North Dakota was also at one point home to Ronda Rousey, a 2008 Olympic bronze medalist who parlayed her Beijing glory to being the female face of mixed martial arts.

“It is growing,” said Randy Waitman, who founded the Williston Taekwondo and Judo Academy in 1978. “In light of all the MMA, judo is at the root of it, along with wrestling. Judo is rigid within its structure and it is gaining popularity.”

Judo in North Dakota?

Waitman, who is from Williston, went to college in Montana on a wrestling scholarship. That’s where he got involved with the school’s judo program in 1971.

Upon graduation, he returned home to Williston, where he and his wife, Kathy, opened a dojo.

“I just decided I wanted to share what I had learned and continue my education in martial arts,” he said. “I am at the end of my actual physical career, but we are still going strong.”

If Waitman has been the state’s western-based master instructor known as a sensei, then Vern Borgen would easily be his eastern counterpart.

Borgen spent six years in the Army and learned judo, according to the website of Red River Judo, the dojo Borgen founded.

Borgen, a professor at North Dakota State University, began a judo class at the school in 1979. Since then, more than 3,000 students have taken Borgen’s class.

“He’s been my only instructor,” Jones said of Borgen.

Jones, who wrestled at NDSU, started with Borgen in 1998 and has since become an instructor at the Red River Dojo, which was founded in 2003.

“I was looking for a way to burn off a little energy and had a background in wrestling and was looking for a way to use some of those skills,” said Jones, who is an engineer. “I had an office mate in grad school who said that I should try it out and he was right.”

Judo’s history

Judo became an Olympic sport during the 1964 games in Tokyo. It was only a sport for men until a women’s competition was introduced as a demonstration at the 1988 games in Seoul.

Women were awarded medals at the 1992 games in Barcelona, according to the International Olympic Committee.

Its origins come from jujitsu, which had been around for thousands of years. The first judo school was founded in 1881 by Dr. Jigoro Kano in Japan.

The sport took off, becoming one of the most popular forms of martial arts.

It is a sport which has been studied by many, including celebrities such as Lucille Ball, James Cagney and Peter Sellers. One of North Dakota’s most famous residents, president Theodore Roosevelt, practiced judo.

Tom Ross, the research coordinator for FightingArts.com, wrote Roosevelt may have become the first modern day head of state to practice judo. Ross also wrote Roosevelt was the first American to earn a brown belt.

More state ties to judo

While Roosevelt might have been the first North Dakota resident of note to take up judo, Rousey is the state’s shining example.

Born in California before her family lived in North Dakota for a few years, Rousey was the subject of a New York Times profile in 2008.

Rousey and her family moved back to Southern California, where she took up judo and used the sport as a release.

“She proved to the world that not only could the woman be the best at two arts (MMA and the Olympics) but that judo has such a lethal ground element,” said James Grimestead, a taekwondo instructor at Red River Traditional TaeKwondo in Fargo, which does offer judo. “She has changed the face of MMA.”

Rousey’s athletic ability has helped her make the transition into being a crossover figure. She was on the cover of ESPN The Magazine’s Body Issue, which features athletes with the best bodies throughout sports.

Grimestead said Rousey’s accomplishments make her the best among women, even better than Gina Carano, who has also found mainstream success as a fighter and movie star.

“I think that she has bridged that gap of celebrity and fighter,” Grimestead said. “Because of her Olympic background, everyone had high hopes for her. Because of her California beautiful looks, she proved you don’t have to be a big, pug-faced brawler. She is a face that can go on a magazine and still draw record crowds.”

Judo vs. taekwondo

What is the difference between taekwondo and judo? It’s a common question most judo instructors have to explain.

Taekwondo, arguably the most well-known martial art in the United States for the last 20 years, is what is known as a striking sport.

“As a striking sport, you are kept upright and you are striking with your hands and feet to earn points,” Grimestead said. “It has to be hard enough to displace the opponent and impact that person to where they move. A knockout is also another way to win. That is the ultimate goal.”

Waitman said to take up judo means you have to be “a certain breed of cat.” He said judo is a ground-based martial art which he believes involves more physicality than taekwondo.

Grimestead, Waitman along with Jones all added how judo had to be changed from its original format, which was considerably more violent.

“There are ways some of the techniques got modified to make it a competitive sport,” Jones said. “If they just (left judo in its original form), one person would come off with a broken wrist or a broken arm. It has been modified somewhat so it is a sport that is also a martial art.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan S. Clark at (701) 241-5548.