The Importance of Ashi Waza

In my experience, judoka who begin learning hip and shoulder throws too quickly not only risk injury, but stunt their development in the central aspect of judo –  off-balancing (kuzushi). There is no better way to begin learning kuzushi than through ashi waza (foot throwing techniques).

Baiting your opponent’s foot, shifting his weight onto it and attacking, using your own weight to throw momentum into the direction you plan to attack, convey some basic, critical functions of judo that are clearly and safely learned through ashi waza. When you become grounded in foot throws, you put yourself at a better vantage point to learn hand, shoulder, hip and sacrifice throws, which involve finer, more subtle details. Any time I taught hip throws like O Goshi to a beginner, the number one hang up was footwork. So the Earthbound Freestyle Judo program will seek to address this hurtle early and often before moving down the list from highest to lowest percentage throws.

For students who are new to Judo, the first throwing technique I teach them (as they continue to learn proper breakfalling) is  O Soto Gari (large outer reap). There are a few hookups from which you can execute it without the gi, but in our class I have students grip fight to an over/underhook position, because it gives tori (the attacker) the  best chance to win the transition from the throw to standard side control. In fact, winning the transition to ground control is the number one consideration for me when deciding which hookup to demonstrate a throw from.

There is also the question of how to properly break the balance for the throw. If you search O Soto Gari gi or no gi on YouTube, you will find a variety balance breaking entries to the throw. Some prefer to immediately step forward and shiftuke’s (opponent) weight onto their right leg, and attack from there. This is the way I learned with the gi, and it is very much correct. Others prefer to attack out of a sidestep. There is no wrong entry in this case, as long as the principle of shifting weight onto the leg you plan to attack is obeyed.

The way I prefer to enter O Soto Gari, with or without the gi, is from a circle pivot. If you watch or participate in high level Judo matches, one thing you will notice is that a great number of throws are executed out of a circle. Even in submission grappling competition, when athletes hook up or even prior to the hook up, they tend to move in a circle. This is because walking forwards or backwards into/away from an engaged opponent is a commitment of weight and balance that is obvious for most to see. Even an untrained individual can understand, simply from being told, that walking into an opponent can get them pulled over, and walking backwards while engaged can result in them being push onto their back or rear.

When you have some free time, make a study of YouTube street fight videos involving people with hoods, baggy t-shirts/sweaters, or two females with long hair. Often times, instead of straight line movement, the pair will engage in a stalemate where both people grab each other’s clothing or hair, lean back, and circle in a sidewinder type movement. The risks of being taken down out of a circle are not at once apparent – it’s a movement that feels neutral, and neutral feels safe.

Even among combat athletes and grapplers, moving in a circle is not avoided because it is neutral.

Nor should it be avoided – if you become proficient in attacking out of circular movements, you will pose a significant threat to any opponent from standing.

The combat realism of the circular throw entry is one reason why I prefer it for a great many throws, especially O Soto Gari. Another reason is that I’ve executed O Soto Gari from the circle pivot many times in Judo competition, and it is one of my go-to throws in BJJ as well. This particular entry for O Soto Gari was shown to me years ago by former West Point Academy Judo coach Grandmaster Reno Claudio (the man who gave my instructor his black belt). As soon as he showed it to me, I never went back to any other entry for O Soto Gari. Simply put: it works.

From the over/under position, I pull the overhooked arm while pivoting backwards in a semi-circle. Normally, this causes an opponent to step towards me, exposing his leg. If your opponent does not have great footwork and instead steps behind his own leg, great. You don’t need the throw, you can just drag him down to the floor, because he is already off-balance. If he steps with the other foot, against the momentum of the circle, then a more advanced student has two nice options from here: attack the leg with O Uchi Gari, or use a variation of Uchi Mata that I came up with (and have been using successfully for years) that I call Dirty Uchi Mata. In future blog posts and videos, I will talk about and demonstrate this full sequence.

Back to O Soto Gari. When I pull and pivot backwards to a semi-circle, I am baiting out my opponent’s leg. As he steps in the direction of the pull, I use my underhook to shift his weight completely onto that lead leg. In other words, I am using my underhook to pull him and continue his momentum onto that leg, fully weighting it. Now, with his weight completely on one leg (you  will notice that his other foot, now weightless, is either off the ground or on its toes), step forward with your outside leg, meet him shoulder-to-shoulder with as little distance between your chests as possible, and sweep out the leg he is weighted on. You should be attacking him in the direction of the back corner (if you attack with the right leg, he should be leaning towards the back left corner of the room).

For a powerful finish, torque your head, hips and sweeping leg when completing the throw.

To review: grip fight to the over/under hook, pull with your overhook and pivot into a semi-circle, baiting his right leg, while using your underhook to shift his weight completely onto that leg towards the back-left corner of the room. Step forward with your left leg, meet him shoulder to shoulder, and use your right leg to sweet out his leg, with a head/hips/leg torque for a powerful finish.

This is just the first of many ashi waza techniques that my students begin their Judo education with. After 15-20 classes of drilling ashi waza techniques and their various attack sequences, students are better prepared to start practicing hip, hand and shoulder throws.

If I only had 2-3 months to teach someone Judo, 90% of the techniques covered would be ashi waza. They are simple to learn, do not require much athleticism, and are incredibly high percentage techniques that continue to be used not only in the highest levels of grappling competition, but in mixed martial arts and street self-defense situations as well.

For novice and advance students alike, it is important to ask yourself: how good is your ashi waza game?

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