British Judo Council Rokudan¬†
IN 2002 Sampson Sampson became the youngest man ever to wrap a British Judo Council red and white belt round his middle. Yet the accolade was, according to the man himself, late. Sampson had gained his black belt in 1975 as a 15 year old by the time he turned 17 he was already a 3rd dan.
It is worth pausing for a while to consider those bare statistics, putting them into some kind of perspective. The British Judo Council is not a small outfit, whereby simply being a member for any length of time is going to get you up the ranks. Sampson, who had only started judo at the age of 14, won his ranks in contest against adults in Britain's leading traditional judo organisation. The BJC is affiliated to the British Judo Association, the National Governing Body and its grades are recognised as being equal - many even contend that BJC judoka have a higher technical ability.
Sampson, then, is clearly a special judoka. He has grafted a natural talent with determination and dedication to achieve a grade that by definition eludes most. He has also displayed a loyalty and a level of integrity that while part of the traditions of budo has long since been eradicated from the sport of judo.
When at his contest peak Sampson was invited to train with the national squad of the BJA. He competed with those that were vying for a spot in the national Olympic squad, but back then the requirement for non BJA members was not just a case of a licence transfer, but a complete denial of their past: How many people know that Ray Stephens and Jane Bridge were brought up on BJC judo or that Neil Adams' formative judo was not at the hands of the BJA? Sampson was in that bracket, but simply refused to deny his heritage. "If they wanted me they had to accept my family and recognise my BJC grade," he said.
When he speaks of that missed opportunity there is a hint of regret, no great soul searching, no wailing "I could've been a contender," just a small observation that his coach could, perhaps, have allowed him to go with his blessing.
Sampson did get involved in Olympic judo, however. A Londoner of Greek Cypriot origin, his skills as a coach have been used by the Cypriot Judo Federation to coach their Olympic fighters with a degree of success.
Sampson is now recognised as one of the best coaches in Britain, filling that role at the Sobell Sports Centre, where he started his judo all those years ago. His students are reflections of his fast, light judo which is based on precision of technique at precisely the time that balance has been broken. He remains true to the philosophies of kyu-shin-do as handed to him by Alan Fromm, his first coach and mentor.
"The structured foundation is encapsulated in the early techniques," he says of his coaching methods. "Every technique has a structured foundation. It catapults the knowledge for learning other techniques. If you learn the foundation techniques properly they will help you learn the next set of throws because it gives you the idea: Harai-goshi, uchimata, hanae-goshi, ogoshi all come from the ability to get proper chest contact. The variations are very limited."
It is a philosophy on coaching that is not new. Sampson is a very innovative coach, but he understands that the principles of judo have not changed and neither have the principles of learning. "Before you teach somebody a triple somersault you have to teach them a single somersault. It is a build up," he says.
New it may not be, but for many years in the world of competitive judo it was a lost philosophy. Coaches up and down the country where keen to get their students onto a competitive footing as quickly as possible with the result that at the turn of the century you could find BJA dan grades that had never even seen kata, and many were obsessed with drop techniques because they had not been taught the principles of kuzushi. Grading syllabi were becoming more and more complicated and yet producing less and less technically skilled judoka, a fact now recognised by both the BJA and the BJC.
Sampson, inevitably, has clear ideas about how a syllabus should be laid out and on what principles. Like most he recognises that the current BJC one is in need of overhaul. He said: "The way it is at the moment I am teaching how to drive a car and they are examining on how to fly a helicopter. We need to have a syllabus that the teacher teaches every day, the student can relate to that and the teacher can relate to the student. It is common sense and logical that we examine people on what we do every day. Grading should be closely related to the Ippon Judo that we [the BJC] teach. It has to be realistic and it has to be key techniques that actually work. It does not make sense if we are training twice a week and we have to do a completely different lesson ahead of the grading."
A young rokudan, Sampson is inevitably a mixture of tradition and modern. He is an evidently proud man, but not brash. His confidence and projection lead some to suggest an arrogance that is simply not there. His self-belief comes from a life time of studying martial arts: graded to black belt in kendo and karate he has boxed and practiced Tai-chi, but it is judo that has gives him his bearings. Watch him teach and you see a man supremely confident in not just himself but the philosophy and the art that he is passing on. Too much modesty could be construed as false.
Indeed it would be churlish to expect somebody of Sampson's range of abilities to hide their light under a bushel. Not only was he a contest dan grade at 15 and probably the youngest ever 3rd dan in Britain or even Europe, Sampson even found time in those early days to become a national kata champion, partnering Simon Mazzullo, now also a BJC sixth dan.
The kata pairing of Fromm's two star pupils was quite simply remarkable. The nage-no-kata was done at a speed and with a ferocity that some felt showed no soul, but to Sampson to point was that the nage-no-kata was a randori-no-kata. "If we did kata, especially the randori-no-kata , the way I do it, it is fast, it is dynamic. I am actually throwing my partner: nobodies goes over for me. That will develop your contest.
Sampson, however believes that the katame-no-kata aside, contest judoka should not be side stepped into studying kata too early.
"Honestly, you can't tell me that the way kata is done at the moment it is going to help a contestant in today's world. It is impossible. If you do two days doing judo and one of those is doing kata then you have missed a days training."
"Personally I would like to see kata completely separate from contest judo. Kata has a place. In a realistic world it is very difficult to train to do both contest and kata, especially for people that are training just once or twice a week, it can only work if you are a club that is training three or four times a week. You have to be realistic. A lot of us are amateur and it is hard to motivate and encourage young people. I would introduce kata at dan grade and above. From white belt to dan grade you accumulate a certain amount of information and then it will be easier to do the kata, you will understand it better."
It sounds like a wild statement from a senior member of the BJC and a man who was a national kata champion in his teens, but in fact his idea is very similar to that of the Kodokan, who only introduce the randori-no-kata to their pupils at first kyu and even then not the entire katas, merely selected sets. Sampson says: "The Kodokan syllabus reflects the way I am thinking about the way that we introduce kata to our students. It is about the structure and the balance.
"Katame-no-kata you could implement because those techniques are encased, but we know that a lot of the nage-no-kata techniques, are being removed from contest, so I don't see how that is going to help your contest. We don't encourage sacrifice techniques. It does not improve your contest, unless we change the way we do kata.
"Kata is designed to pass on information from generation to generation, that is what it is designed for. You want to be good at contest you have to train for it, you have to learn strategies for contest, combinations, randori, uchikomis You have to fight. Kata is a demonstration, it is an example of what traditional techniques are."
From the day he first burst through the doors of the Sobell Sports Centre dojo, running away from a security guard, Sampson has been an exuberant, dedicated and diligent student of judo. He has matched his boasts with his achievements; he has been innovate and yet remained traditional and as judo re-examines itself across the board, asking searching questions it could do a lot worse than listen to the man dubbed the Greek Samurai.
Courtesy of David Hammond (http://www.allthingsjudo.co.uk)
Editor of BJC's National Joudokan Magazine