It Had to Be Felt #38: Hiroaki Izumi: Uke Should Feel Like He's in Control
I practiced Judo in Vancouver, BC, starting in 1972 and ending in 1979, after what for me was a career-ending knee injury.
In 1980, Judo BC went through their records and offered me the shodan "course", so I could bolster their voting ranks in Judo Canada. I was in graduate school, working on a Master's degree in physical education/exercise physiology and biomechanics at the time. I'd taken up rowing, and combined rowing, graduate classes/research, and the shodan course for the month it took to go through the formality of the test. After getting the shodan, I hung up my obi and rowed, making the varsity-level boat at the University of BC in my first season. After a rather roundabout path, I ended up being the head coach for Saskatchewan Rowing, in Saskatoon. One day, some guy in a gi with funny black "dress" and a pot of water walked by the open training room where I was getting some exercise, and asked who he'd have to talk to so his daughter could get involved in rowing.
I started at Saskatoon Aikikai several months later (October 1993), after being made to feel like a helpless child by an Aikikai shodan. We were at a training camp earlier in 1993, and the aikido guy was at our camp as a "parent chaperone." He asked me how we could get a group of the kids to figure out balance in the 8+, and I remarked how something I used from judo training had helped me learn to balance a single (skiff). He suggested that he could demonstrate something similar from aikido later, in the gym, after the kids did their weights. Mel (the aikido guy) sat in seiza, and had me (90 kg, and quite strong) push on his shoulders, and suddenly, I was in the air. Then the kids started asking "what's better, judo or aikido" and since I'd only done sport judo, I knew little of self-defence. Mel said "punch me," and suddenly I was taken right to the edge of my balance through about 30 seconds of a whole bunch of different arm and wrist controls. THAT got my interest, and that's why I started aikido, without which I never would have met Rocky.
I started practicing aikido part time there for a while, and then, in late 1994, I met Rocky, in Regina. This was fortunate. I was being moved by my employer from Saskatoon to Regina, and Rocky had moved back to Canada after stints in Texas and Hong Kong. When we met, he complained that there wasn't anyone responding to his advertisements about starting a dojo. I had a lesson in his basement that day -- I had NO CLUE what was going on - but for the next couple of months, whenever I visited Regina, I'd connect and practice, usually in his basement, modifying my technique based on Rocky's input while preparing for my gokyu test. Rocky corrected my posture away from the crouch of competitive judo/wrestling, straightened my tenkan from a bunch of round steps to "enter-pivot-step". I was still pretty rough around the edges, so it's hard for me to say what the big differences were between what other sensei did and what Rocky was doing, but he explained why a movement had to go where it went, as well as showing it. He never felt like he was forcing it, but nothing ever felt like I had a choice. He'd say, "Uke should feel like he's in control all the way to the end of the technique," so that uke wouldn't let go or modify the attack.
Then, on December 31, 1994, Rocky followed me in my pickup truck as I moved from Saskatoon to Regina with a U-Haul. On New Years day, 1995, we unloaded the truck in my new apartment. On January 2nd, in minus 35 degrees centigrade, we were out at some farm, north of Regina, shooting rabbits for the stew-pot.
Rocky was then a professor at the University of Regina, and he arranged for us to use the wrestling team's mats, upstairs in their fitness facility as a ‘community dojo'. There we started the Regina Aikido Dojo sometime in early January of 1995, and Greg (another rowing coach), Rob (a large gentle aikido ‘sponge' -- he soaked up aikido like nobody I've seen) , and a few others started coming to the university 3 or 4 times a week. As a judo shodan with an illustrious gokyu in aikido (and a professional coach in rowing), I was usually uke when Rocky demonstrated. He also asked me to teach introductory stuff -- ukemi and basic attacks -- when new beginners came by. Ukemi for the Rock was unique: with us beginners, he'd demonstrate four times, and then be uke for us four times. I think he did this, in part, to see if we'd "got" what he was teaching.
Rocky's classes were dynamic, and not for the faint of heart; we were advised to wear mouth guards to avoid chipping our teeth. Gripping his forearm was like trying to hold another person's leg, except with little hint of what was to come, you're on the floor. And the harder you attacked (ok, the harder I attacked), the less I felt he was doing anything, and the harder was the thump on the floor when I finished attacking. Rocky would say the harder you attack, the more gentle he could be. The more gentle he was, the more I had to pay attention to how I was taking ukemi, because his "gentle" waza would leave me in the air, heading for the floor, not sure how far in the air I was, not sure where the ground was and not sure which corner I'd land on unless I got moving to protect myself when I landed. I don't recall being "cranked" with wrist waza, but I do recall having to move, urgently.
My first exposure to Rocky at speed was during a demonstration at the University of Regina during a martial arts display day. The brand new Regina Aikido Dojo (RAD) was a motley crew, with some of us coming from karate, judo, various police agencies, and off the street. We went through some rehearsed stuff, and then it was Rocky against three of us - it was supposed to be four, but I'd accidentally smashed Darryl on the head with a bokken, and he was leaking red stuff - in a randori situation. Which end is up? Where's the mat? How did I get here? Funny, I don't remember anything except how hard I hit the floor. An observer commented later that they couldn't understand how none of us was seriously hurt after the demonstration (I didn't tell him how much that last ukemi had hurt).
Rocky taught as a professional teacher. He was always experimenting with adapting techniques. He taught me how to apply handcuffs while someone was punching, how to take away a pistol with kotegaeshi and how to retain one with nikkyo, all using Aikido principles.
Rocky was also open to other ways of operating. As a professional coach with a sports science background, I could discuss how modern training methods were slightly at odds with the "traditional" way of warming up, and we changed our practice format. If you watch the Youtube video of him teaching in Bucharest, and listen carefully, you'll hear him say that we have to remember that this is a MARTIAL art, and that attacks had to have meaning or you don't have to do Aikido. That's the Rock that I remember!
My two years training with Rocky was all too short. When I was practicing aikido in New Zealand between 1997 and 2000, a sankyu at the time, various sensei there told me that I'd been well trained and complimented me on my Ikkyo (Thanks Rock- that was YOU). Later, in 2007, Kawahara sensei authorized our dojo sensei in Calgary, Steve Erickson, to examine me for shodan at our regular training. Rocky was passing through Calgary at that time, staying in our spare room -- I was helping him clear his possessions through customs at the Calgary airport on his return from Barbados. The night before my test, I was given a midnight aikido lesson in the kitchen while my partner slept -- Rock then got up early and observed my 6:30 AM shodan test.
I think that that midnight practice was one of my more important aikido lessons. Rocky explained for me, in a way that made sense, why different ma-ai were better suited to different waza. For example: shomenuchi attack with what starts as ikkyo response, but ends up being ikkyo, nikkyo, sankyo, yonkyo, or koshinage, depending on whether nage ended up respectively: in the right place, behind (too far back to do ikkyo), ahead of (too far in front to do ikkyo), too far away from, or too close to uke. With that lesson still bubbling in my head it was easier to demonstrate the techniques for my shodan test. I've passed that information on when asked what I would like to teach. Rocky always found the path of least resistance when applying techniques. I sincerely believe that if I'd had more time with him I'd better understand what he was doing. Now all I have is my memories and some of his instructional DVDs.Back in New Zealand from 2007 to 2010, practicing at Aikido Shinryukan Cambridge and then Aikido Shinryukan Canterbury, I still felt strongly influenced by the hard-work-no-excuses attitude he'd instilled in his RAD students. I kept hoping that I'd be able to go and visit Rocky, or attend one of his seminars, but sadly that won't happen. R.I.P., my friend.
 Rob Kowalchuk started aikido in 1995 with us and was a frikkin natural -- he graded for shodan in less than two years. I went from playing with him like he was a big teddy bear to wondering where he'd come from and how he could possibly pick it up so quickly.
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