The first time I got the crap beaten out of me, I was a cocky 16-year old ironically on my way to, of all place, karate class. What started as a very minor auto “incident” ended as a completely avoidable road rage fight with a big 40-year old farm-boy who outweighed me by 100 pounds. I know he outweighed me by 100 pounds because the very short fight ended with him lying on top of me in the middle of the street after pile-driving me straight into the pavement.
I now work as a leadership keynote speaker, where I teach successful professionals how to make better decisions in business and life. But I’m also a martial arts instructor. So when I found out that one of my prized students, Benjamin Wittes, had issued a challenge to fight Russian President Vladimir Putin, I thought he could use some of my decisionmaking wisdom.
Wittes’s premise is that Putin’s martial arts prowess is largely a matter of propaganda and public relations imaging. As he writes,
Martial arts videos of Putin litter the Internet. So do shirtless images. He tangles with endangered species and supposedly wrestles bears. But for all his displays of the crudest forms of masculinity, Putin only fights people who are in his power, whom he can have arrested, whose lives he can ruin. And I think they’re all taking falls for him. In fact, they’re not really fighting him at all.
Though his Lawfare post is limited in its claims about Putin, Wittes has not always been careful in his descriptions. In at least one social medial post, he called Putin a “fraud”—an idea that then got picked up in the Washington Post in a story about the challenge.
I’ll leave to others the task of evaluating Wittes’s political point about Putin’s use of martial arts for propaganda purposes. For present purposes, let’s focus on gaming out the fight. How would Wittes fair in a fight with Vlad?
I am unusually well-positioned to address this question. I am a 30-year Aikido practitioner—a 5th degree black belt in fact, and I spent 10-years living in Japan (both as a Marine and as a martial arts student). In response to several conversations with Wittes about the subject, I also spent time analyzing Putin’s martial arts ability as a Judo black belt through the wonders of YouTube. And I’ve trained with Wittes to boot.
For starters, there is no doubt about Wittes’s martial arts prowess: He is a legitimate black belt in both Taekwondo and Aikido. (In over-simplified terms, Taekwondo is a form of “Korean Karate” that uses kicks and punches, while Aikido is similar to Judo or wrestling and uses throws, submission pins, and controlling joint locks.) Wittes has been one of my Aikido students for eight years, and I’ve witnessed both his excellent striking and grappling skills firsthand.
But I think Wittes is probably selling Putin short, at least in his glibber social media dismissals of the Russian President’s skills. Here’s what I discovered from Putin’s videos.
First, Putin is not a martial arts “fraud.” He is a legitimate Judo black belt, although perhaps an older one. Does he have the skills of an eighth degree black belt, a “Judo knight,” or any of the other honorifics that have come his way in an authoritarian society he runs? Who knows. But these honorifics are not unique to Russian presidents. I've seen this sort of thing in Japan in Judo, Aikido and Karate. Such higher levels are sometimes awarded honorarily based on what the person is doing or has done to promote the art. It is not unheard of for a 65-year-old guy who has practiced Judo since around 14 to be awarded eighth dan (degree) when he remains a high-profile practitioner. What is clear in the videos is that Putin’s technique is sharp, as are his reflexes—especially for a 65-year-old man. On several videos, he does Judo moves that are clearly spontaneous and on target. Here are a few examples.
This is a 95-second video of Putin training in Judo with Russia’s national team. From the 50-second mark to 1:22, Putin demonstraties some well-timed throws and falls. Of this, two things caught my eye: First, at 1:06, Putin does a nice throw of another Judo black belt. However, due to Putin over-committing on his throw he loses his balance and is counter-thrown by the Judo black belt he just threw. It is a quick “BAM-BAM” sequence, and Putin ends up rolling out of the counter-throw effortlessly. That cannot be faked. Second, at 1:19, pay particular attention to the two black belts sparring in the lower left hand corner of your screen. The camera has zoomed out, so it is hard to distinguish Putin, however, he performs a nice sacrifice throw—where he throws himself and thus, also throws the black belt he is sparring with. Again, this cannot be faked; this move is clearly well-timed and precisely executed.
This video is of very cooperative training partners letting Putin throw them for 3 minutes and 16 seconds. However early on he tangles with a very large, very heavy fellow between 0:16 and 0:38. You’ll see a great “inside leg” take down that is one of the few techniques that will actually work against this giant fellow. Putin also attempts to do a shoulder throw of the big guy that is fails miserably. To his credit, Putin immediately resets and pulls off a very well timed, well executed throw. Finally, at 1:38, you see a very close-up, very well executed sacrifice throw. It is the same technique mentioned above, although in the other video it is much tougher to see. It is worth watching to see the athleticism and dexterity necessary to perform this move.
This is a one hour and 22 minute “Let’s Learn Judo” video. The vast majority of it is Putin narrating with other demonstrating. But right around the 58 minute mark, Putin demonstrates throws, takedowns and sacrifice throws for a solid minute. It’s good, crisp, real stuff:
This is the famous video of Putin in Japan, in which a little girl throws him. Its significance is not his combat with a child he is clearly humoring. But the video shows a great defensive fall (called ukemi in Japanese) by Putin. This is useful to see because ukemi is hard to perform correctly and cannot easily be faked:
Wittes is correct that there is very little video evidence of any other black belts offering serious resistance to Putin in a “live” sparring match (called “randori” in Japanese). However, in this video, a female black belt does give Putin good resistance during their training. He does a nice “real-time” sacrifice throw, and thus, also throws the female black belt. She then scrambles to get on top of him and Putin immediately flips over to a good defensive position on all fours (called “turtle position”) and protects his neck. This is a spontaneous move by Putin; it is the correct move for this situation, and is done expertly. In other words, one can't fake that move. He’s drilled it a ton of times as a child and young man I'm sure.
In short, don’t take Wittes’s trash talk about Putin’s being a “fraud” as evidence that Putin does not, in fact, have real skill. He was once, by all accounts, an extremely fine Judo practitioner, and the videos show that at age 65, Putin is probably on par with any other 65-year old martial artist. That is, the residue of serious skill is clearly evident to my eye. He is obviously in shape, takes care of himself, and appears to be relatively injury free. I have no idea how often he trains, if at all. To maintain any martial arts prowess, one should train at least three times a week. I doubt with Putin’s schedule he is able to train regularly, but he is certainly training often enough to maintain capabilities.
So how would a fight with Wittes go? Let me start by saying that Aikido is also known as “The Art of Peace.” So I don’t condone physical violence except as an absolute last resort when protecting yourself or others from imminent physical harm.
That being said, I think Wittes is very likely correct that he could handle Putin in a fight. Wittes is seventeen years younger than Putin; he has much better striking skills; and he probably has comparable technical knowledge of throws (as Judo and Aikido employ many of the same throwing techniques). I think Ben would likely pepper Putin with kicks and punches to soften him up and wear him down, then move in for a throw or take-down to finish him off. I have no reason to believe that Putin has trained to defend against a well-placed roundhouse kick to the head. Here’s a video clip of Wittes (in black in the video) throwing this kick in a competition:
Wites’s challenge is, notwithstanding his protestations to the contrary, a joke designed to make a political point; he knew full well that Putin would never fight him—even before the Kremlin made an official comment on the challenge. If I thought Wittes were actually serious, I would urge him—as I do anyone contemplating a fight—to avoid it. I would urge Wittes instead to continue wrestling bears at the National Zoo shirtless from time to time instead.