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Written on the Body

John Anderson has Been Teaching Martial Arts and Life Lessons for Half a Century--One Beatdown at a Time

John Anderson throws down on student John Hsu
Dressed Up to Get Messed Up: Baltimore Judo Club students in the realm of the sensei
Anderson demonstrates a hold on fellow black belt Charles Peters.
The Beltway: Anderson (seated at far right) circa 1955.

Courtesy John Anderson

By Scott Carlson | Posted 9/17/2003

Like any martial art, judo is an oral tradition expressed through the body. When a judo teacher steps on the mat, lays hands on you, and performs a technique, he or she is telling a story about countless matches won and lost. Textbook throws develop their own anomalies and adjustments, depending on what worked for that teacher in the past. Old masters know holds, armlocks, and other tricks that you'll never find in judo manuals or in magazines. Those techniques--those stories--either get passed on or they disappear.

John Anderson has been quietly telling his judo stories in Baltimore for more than five decades. A seventh-degree black belt, Anderson established the Baltimore Judo Club at the downtown YMCA in 1950. It now operates in Catonsville, where Anderson can still be found leading practice most nights.

On a recent evening, he laid down on the mat with a group of us standing around him, called me over, and told me to pin him. He lay there as if sleeping as I moved in for the pin, and suddenly--ack! His arms were around my neck, his wrist like a katana blade against my throat. I gagged and slapped his shoulder in submission.

He stood up and conveyed a judo lesson in metaphors, as he sometimes does. "Judo is like chess," he said. "You make a move, and the other guy makes a move. Eventually, like a good chess player, you can see the moves coming, because you know what the possibilities are. This is what I learned from Donn Draeger and Takahiko Ishikawa"--legendary judo men who taught Anderson when he was young.

Anderson was a physical force in younger years. Along with setting state and regional weightlifting records, he was judo's East Coast Champion five times, a state champion 10 times, a National Masters Champion 12 times (he last competed when he was 66), and an alternate for the 1964 Olympics.

Even now, at nearly 74 years old, he moves around the mat more fluidly than men half his age. He turns up four days a week at the judo club and strolls quietly around the mat, stopping students here and there to fine-tune a technique--to tell a judo story. When he demonstrates a hold on a student, he puts every muscle to work, constricting like a python. His fine adjustments make even tough guys groan and gasp for air.

"He's my hero," says Hayward Nishioka, an international judo champion, a sensei in Los Angeles, and the author of essential books on the sport, such as Judo Heart and Soul. "He's one of the more credible instructors in the country. I don't think you can find a more unpretentious person. He's not in it for the limelight. He was a major competitor in his time, but you have to drag it out of him to find out he's beaten some of the best."

"There's a famous quote from St. Francis: Preach the gospel at all times--and when necessary, use words," says Terence McPartland, a student at the Baltimore Judo Club who has been practicing the martial art since he was 10. "I think John, perhaps without knowing that quote, follows that."

Anderson was born in Georgia in 1928, two months premature. Weighing in at 2 pounds and four ounces, you could've held him in one hand. He remained a "runt," in his words, as he grew up. When he joined the Navy in 1945, at age 17, he had to eat five pounds of bananas to meet the military's minimum weight of 118 pounds.

His journey to judo started shortly after World War II in Hawaii, where he was stationed. He and two friends came across a judo school during a stroll near Honolulu. The Japanese students from the school, cautious and somewhat resentful due to the tension of the war, invited Anderson and his friends in, then gave them a pummeling judo lesson.

Anderson, who had by then gained some bulk through weightlifting in the Navy, was the only one who came back for more. "It appealed to me," he says. "I was very combative."

Judo is a rough-and-tumble sport, often compared to wrestling. The players lock arms and dance across the mat, each trying to hurl the other to the canvas. A perfect throw, which lands an opponent square on his back, earns a full point and ends the match. A sloppy or imperfect throw brings the fight to the ground, where judo can get nasty, as the fighters try to beat each other with bone-breaking armlocks and knockout strangles.

In ground fighting, Anderson found his niche in judo. Big men tossed him, but he would spin out, land on his side or front, then clamber around his opponent, looking for a stray arm or an exposed neck. One of Anderson's rivals on the mat called him "the spider." During his competitive career, Anderson lost only one fight on the ground.

"I figured if they wanted to hold me, they'd have to kill me." he says. "I'd take three licks from anyone just to give 'em one."

Despite its rough appearance, "judo" in Japanese means "gentle way," stemming from the idea that one can use an attacker's aggression and lack of balance to throw with minimum effort. But the "way" is as much about providing education and benefit to society as it is a set of devastating fighting techniques. Anderson has embraced the whole art. His club, which charges an affordable $50 a month, has rarely made money in all of its years. Anderson sometimes forgives the dues of students who have lost their jobs or who come from poor families. Humility governs his character; he lives by a motto hung on the dojo wall: "docendo discimus"--in Latin, "we learn as we teach."

He tells a story from rough, divisive times in Baltimore to illustrate how judo has affected him. One night in 1968, about two months after Martin Luther King's assassination and during the spree of Baltimore riots, he looked out the front door of the club to see a mob of young black men coming up the street, itching for a fight. Anderson stepped out on the front stoop and called to them: "C'mon in and have a seat on the bleachers!" Once they were inside, he started demonstrating basic judo throws and talked with them about judo. Then he issued a challenge to the crowd: "Who's the strongest one among you?"

Fingers pointed to a burly guy sitting in the bleachers. Anderson called him onto the canvas and said, "Throw me." With little hesitation, the big guy picked Anderson up and threw him. The crowd cheered, and Anderson jumped up off the mat. "That was great!" he exclaimed.

By the time the crowd left, people were shaking his hand and clapping him on the shoulder. "That's judo, too," he says today. "You take someone's aggression and redirect it. It's the only sport I know where you try to kill each other on the mat, but when you step off the mat you're the best of friends."

Anderson and his wife, Laureen, live in a modest suburban home in Randallstown. His basement is a testament to a man who has given his life, and his body, to judo. A group of trophies sits gleaming in one corner, near a set of pictures of Anderson at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, where he was an official for the judo competitions there.

Shelves on the far side of the room are filled with books detailing judo throws and grappling techniques. Gray's Anatomy sits heavily among them, bookmarked with dozens of strips of paper. He studied the thick book many times to learn how to apply a tighter choke or a more painful armlock, and he referred to it while he weathered his many injuries. "I had a split sternum once," he says, opening to a marked page that shows a rib cage. He runs over the picture with crooked fingers that never healed straight after being broken on the mat.

He still lifts weights every other day on a homemade set sitting near his laundry machines--he has a goal to bench press 200 pounds this year. do it! now! is scrawled in black marker on the rafters above him. A black-and-white picture of Laureen hangs near the barbells.

"I love her. I get emotional sometimes when I think about her," he says, momentarily choked up. "Without her support, I couldn't have continued in judo."

Long stacks of papers, neatly ordered in manila folders, surround his weight set.

"I'm a keeper of records," he says, adding that the files contain certificates of all the people who earned black belts in the regional judo association.

The club is smaller now than it was in the 1950s and '60s--judo has been eclipsed by trendier martial arts like tae kwon do and kung fu--but new students still turn up all the time, and Anderson takes them on eagerly. On the mat one recent night at the club, a few brown belts sparred in one corner while Anderson spent time showing throws to new white belts, including a woman who seemed mainly interested in self-defense techniques.

His teaching style often uses humor and trickery. He'll grab some burly judo player, hum a romantic tune, and mock ballroom dance with him to show him how to move his feet. He'll tell students to tug on an opponent "till he looks like a hood ornament on a Rolls Royce." If he wants a student to shift his hip deeper into a throw, he'll bellow: "Stick your butt out, like you're a girl getting her picture taken on the beach!"

Then he'll add: "You might say, 'That sounds stupid,' but it's the stupid things you remember."

Perhaps now more than ever, he says, he tries to get people to remember what he's showing them--the skills and stories he learned through 50 years of painful trial and error on the mat. "I held a clinic for ground techniques last month," he said recently. "And I told them, 'Pay attention, 'cause I'm not going to be around forever. When I'm gone, you're going to have to teach this.'"

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