Japan and Judo go hand-in-hand, and some think 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 .3 homicide rate per 100,000 inhabitants in 2013, the lowest in the world, and Wright believes Judo is behind it all.
In light of the tragic Uvalde Elementary shooting and many others like it spanning the country, Wright is calling for more of the US population to get involved with this self-protection sport. As of now, only an estimated 100,000 US citizens practice Judo.
He persists that not only does it give individuals security in the face of violent threats, but training this focus-reliant art leads to a strong mental state. It is widely thought that one of the biggest benefits of the sport is the heightened sense of calmness it brings its participants, leading to improved decision-making, inner peace and confidence.
“It gives an individual an opportunity to not only get their body mutual fit but their mental fit while working with others, sharing a benefit of maximum efficiency,” Wright said. “That maximum efficiency will carry on through the rest of their life whether it is business, education, social affairs, so on and so forth. 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 creating a Dojo at the bottom of the White House.
In Japan’s nearly non-violent society, students must pick a martial art as a compulsory class, with many picking Judo.
Police units have been getting involved, too, for better control in dangerous situations.
“If you’re that law enforcement officer looking to sharpen your skills in your line of work or looking to learn self defense, this is the place for you,” Wright said. “We welcome all beginners.”
Students under the instruction of Wright at the Pensacola Judo Training Center have spoken on its betterment to their lives. For student Abbie Herman, it’s so crucial that she has all four of her children actively training with her.
Even in her adult life, Judo’s lessons have carried over into her personal interests.
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“”I’m actually going back to school for a second degree because I have that focus now … doing Judo long term has helped with, ‘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 match is going to end, so will this phase of whatever you’re going through, good or bad. So enjoy it or if it’s not a great time, know that 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 portion of martial arts. Judo teaches technique on standing combat, which is more practical in self-protection situations.
What he came to learn is that he’s profited most off of Judo, in more ways than one.
“The biggest effect it’s had on me would probably be scheduling, 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 be pouring into my life,” Reynolds said. “Like good grades and a better work life.”
A third pupil, Chris Mose, had done all kinds of martial arts before transitioning to Judo. From a young age he was involved with Taekwondo, Taijutsu and “a few random things here and there throughout the years.”
But while watching a jiujitsu match, he saw a competitor execute a Judo throw, and that’s when he knew he wanted to give it a try himself. Since, he’s said it’s been No. 1 on his list of martial arts.
“For me personally I think it’s number one because there’s regular sparring which is different, something I’m not used to, and it helps you to stay cool under pressure and gives you another dimension to courage,” Mose said. “I used to be a chef a year ago…staying cool under pressure is very important, it translates off the mat very easily. When things start to get hectic… just breathe, have confidence in your decisions.”
Now in school for law, Moses will carry those lessons into the legal world.
An elite sensei
Wright began teaching Judo in 2009, but he never stopped competing. The best coach is the one who can get down and dirty with his athletes, and his background continues to show he is one of the country’s best at doing so.
After service in the Marine Corps and battling in Judo there, Wright took his talent to regional, state, national and international tournaments. In the 2009 World Championships in Atlanta, he earned a bronze finish.
He’s since won National Championships and US Open Championships, all of which came in B-Level competition. For those who don’t know, A+ and A-Level competition is what Olympians compete in.
“I’m somewhere near seven or eight total national and international championships.” Wright shared.
Not only is he a practiced expert, but his authority is well-earned. Pensacola Judo is a United States Judo Association and USA Judo Inc Chartered Club, meaning all instructors must be NCSI background screened and SafeSport certified.
He knows a thing or two about the sport, which makes him the ideal trainer. If you’re new to the sport, he can instruct you on how to become a novice. If you’re on the fence about it, he can fill you in on why you need it in your life. If you’re dedicated to it, he can take you as far as you’ll let him.
Judo offers a little bit of something for everyone, and his mission is to talk the heavy-involvement of Judo in America into existence. It’s his life’s work, and now more than ever, he believes society needs the mental benefits of training the sport.
“When I reflect on my students I see the focus, the discipline, the self-reliance, the independence and ability to get 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 play out and coming back to the drawing board and working on things that need to be worked on. That is building the left and right side of their brains.”
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Wright isn’t willing to pass along these immense benefits to just anyone though. When you show up to his Dojo, you need to be ready to lock in.
He emphasizes the idea that to truly capture all of Judo’s greatness, you need to fit the community. It’s a community of respect, bowing in and bowing out of practice, treating your opponents with grace, win or loss. 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’re not pulling up to a Judo contest and smelling marijuana coming out of cars. That’s just the family that Judo has. Two people get on the mat, you shake hands and say, ‘hey, you did a good job today’ and bow off in respect to one another. There is no hard feelings, it’s just ‘I came here today to become better and I fought against myself.’
The Pensacola Judo Training Center is fresh off of the Senior Nationals event in Daytona from May 21-29, with qualification for the 2024 Olympic Games set to begin next month.
More than 400 athletes competed in 106 different categories with some of this local gym’s finest coming out with good results.
In the men’s 81 kg category, former University of West Florida football player Nathaniel Holloway placed sixth. In the women’s 78 kg division, Lindsey McDermott returned home with a silver medal.
But the old dog came back a champion, with Wright earning gold in the 100+ kg division.
With a superlative award, Leilani Fernandez, one of Wright’s students, was named Gulf Coast Judo’s Most Outstanding Player of 2022.
Lucas Semb can be reached at Lsemb@pensacol.gannett.com or 850-281-7414. Follow him on Twitter at @Lucas_Semb for stories and various Pensacola area score updates.