Japan and judo go hand in hand, and some believe its low homicide rate is a product of that. Sensei Earl Wright of the Pensacola Judo Training Center certainly thinks so.
In fact, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime showed a homicide rate of 0.3 per 100,000 population in 2013, the lowest in the world, and Wright believes judo is behind it all.
In light of the tragic Uvalde Elementary School shooting and many more like it across the country, Wright is calling on more of the American population to get involved in this sport of self-protection. . Currently, only about 100,000 US citizens practice judo.
He insists that not only does it give individuals security from violent threats, but training in this concentration-driven art leads to a strong mental state. It is widely believed that one of the greatest benefits of sport is the increased sense of calm it brings to its participants, leading to better decision-making, inner peace and confidence.
“It gives an individual the opportunity to not only improve their physical fitness, but also their mental fitness while working with others, sharing a mutual benefit of peak efficiency,” Wright said. “This maximum efficiency will continue throughout their lives, whether in business, education, social affairs, etc. The ultimate goal of judo is to build a better character for society.”
Judo has been used by some popular figures over the years, with President Theodore Roosevelt actually establishing a Dojo at the foot of the White House.
In Japan’s almost nonviolent society, students must choose a martial art as a required course, and many choose judo.
But more locally, students under Wright at the Pensacola Judo Training Center spoke of his improvement in their lives. For student Abbie Herman, it’s so crucial that her four children actively train with her.
Even in his adult life, judo lessons trickled down to his personal interests.
“”I’m actually going back to school for a second degree because I have that focus now…doing judo long term has helped me ‘I can finish this’. I can finish school, I can finish work, whatever I’m trying to do,” Herman said. “The endurance aspect of life. You know that every game is going to end, just like this phase of everything you go through, good or bad. So enjoy it or if it’s not a good time just know it’s going to get better, keep going.”
Another student, Keith Reynolds, who has a background in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, came to judo to learn the grappling part of martial arts. Judo teaches the technique of standing combat, which is more practical in situations of self-protection.
What he learned was that he benefited the most from judo, in more ways than one.
“The biggest effect this had on me would probably be the planning, I had to get used to it, but once I put this as a priority on my list, it made me prioritize what I had to pour into my life,” Reynolds said. “Like good grades and a better work life.”
A third student, Chris Mose, had done all kinds of martial arts before switching to judo. From an early age he was involved in taekwondo, taijutsu and “a few random things here and there over the years”.
But while watching a jiujitsu match, he saw a competitor perform a judo throw, and that’s when he knew he wanted to try it himself. He has since said it was #1 on his martial arts list.
“For me personally, I think that’s number one because there are regular fights that are different, something I’m not used to, and it helps you stay cool under pressure and gives you a another dimension to courage,” Mose said. “I was a chef a year ago…staying cool under pressure is very important, it translates very easily off the mat. When things start to get hectic…just breathe, be confident in your decisions.”
Now in law school, Mose will carry those lessons into the legal world.
An elite sensei
Wright started teaching judo in 2009, but he never stopped competing. The best coach is the one who can get tough on his athletes, and his track record continues to show him to be one of the best in the country at that.
After serving in the Marine Corps and competing in judo there, Wright took his talent to regional, state, national and international tournaments. At the 2009 World Championships in Atlanta, he got a bronze medal.
He has since won national championships and US Open championships, all of which have been in B-level competitions. For those who don’t know, A+ and A-level competitions are where Olympians compete. .
“I’m somewhere near seven or eight national and international championships in total.” Wright shared.
He knows a thing or two about the sport, which makes him the perfect coach. If you are new to the sport, he can tell you how to become a novice. If you’re on the fence about it, it can tell you why you need it in your life. If you are dedicated to it, it can take you as far as you will allow it.
Judo offers a bit of something for everyone, and its mission is to bring about the strong involvement of judo in America. It’s his life’s work, and now more than ever, he believes society needs the mental benefits of sports training.
“When I think about my students, I see focus, discipline, self-reliance, independence, and the ability to come in and struggle and understand what a struggle does for you,” Wright said. “The beauty of competing and achieving a goal and seeing that goal come to fruition and going back to the drawing board and working on things that need to be worked on. It’s building the left and right sides of their brain .”
However, Wright is unwilling to pass on these immense benefits to just anyone. When you show up at his Dojo, you must be prepared to lock yourself in.
It emphasizes the idea that to truly capture all the greatness of judo, you have to adapt to the community. It’s a community of respect, bowing and retiring from practice, treating your opponents with grace, victory or defeat. A sport where you work so hard, it builds your character.
“You don’t hear anything about blood doping in judo or drugs in judo,” Wright said. “You don’t stop at a judo contest and you don’t smell the marijuana coming out of the cars. It’s just the family that judo has. Two people get on the mat, you shake hands and say, ‘Hey, you did a great job today” and bow to each other. There’s no hard feelings, it’s just ‘I came here today to get better and I got myself beaten against myself.'”
The Pensacola Judo Training Center is fresh out of the Senior Nationals event in Daytona May 21-29, with qualification for the 2024 Olympics set to begin next month.
Over 400 athletes competed in 106 different categories and some of the best from this local gym performed well.
In the men’s 81 kg category, former University of West Florida football player Nathaniel Holloway placed sixth. In the women’s 78 kg, Lindsey McDermott went home with a silver medal.
But the old dog returned as champion, with Wright winning gold in the 100kg-plus division.
With an outstanding award, Leilani Fernandez, one of Wright’s students, was named the Gulf Coast’s Most Outstanding Judo Player of 2022.
Lucas Semb can be reached at [email protected] or 850-281-7414. Follow him on Twitter at @Lucas_Semb for stories and various Pensacola area score updates.