This was my first world championships, the 1993 World Games gold medal match vs their team captain, USSR Judo Champion, Georgian Greco-Roman Champion, Master of Sport in Sambo, Zurab Bekochvili. I had two years of Sambo training at this point, not yet a black belt. So to face such a seasoned veteran (who had been a Soviet Judo champion since 1982), was an honor. Here’s the video:
My arm broke at 2:04. It was because of this painful loss, that I went on to become the 1st to train in Russia and learn their training methods. I didn’t have health insurance at the time, so my scaphoid suffered avascular necrosis (bone death). The joint mobility and fascial strengthening systems I’ve developed as a result, shaped the course of my future. At a world championship level you lose more team points by submission than by losing by points. So, stupidly I didn’t tap at 2:04 in the video.
I lost all grip strength at that point, and basically tried to defend myself. My attacks …were pretty feeble because of it, though Zurab was clearly the superior of the match. It hurt a lot, which you can see as I took the 2min injury time out. The ref tried to call the match (you can see him testing my arms after the break), but I convinced him that I could continue, since injury means an automatic submission forfeit. I only had to survive the match without being thrown in total victory (ippon) to avoid the loss by submission.
His throws were very clean. I had a lot to learn. A loss on points, and not by submission or total victory (Ippon) was a great achievement for fighting such a vet. I was only 23 (Zurab: 30), so it was a solid learning experience for me. You can see that he wasn’t necessarily more athletic, but a better technician. At the top of my discipline in the West, I saw the difference between here and the xUSSR. It was time for me to study there. Thanks to Zurab, I earned the passion to go through all the politics, drama, financial sacrifice to become the first to train over there. Without him, I don’t know if I would have been so inspired to study at the feet of the founders of the art.
Without this pivotal piece of personal history, I would not have had the passionate drive to push through all of the politics, drama, financial sacrifices, and years of travel throughout the xUSSR to study their training systems… and I would not have come back, nearly 20 years later, at 40 years old to win the 2010 World Games in sport jiujitsu, submission grappling and mixed martial arts against athletes half my age and 100lbs heavier. I owe this in part to my opponent, Zurab.
There weren’t very many angles to do this. The internet was very new back then. There were only two very basic sites on Russian martial art. I used my contacts that I made during the 1993-1995 world championship events, and started an email campaign. In 1996, I received two replies in one month: one from the All-Russian Federation of Russian Martial Art, and one from the SAMBO-70 Academy inviting me to try-out to be the 1st American. I was being asked to choose, since they were simultaneous. I chose the former, since, although I love the sport, it was the training practices behind it that I wanted to understand - the complete art. And the chance to train with the Spetsnaz legends was too incredible to turn down to continue learning more sport Sambo.
It opened me to a world of hate from the American vanguards of sambo because they felt that my training with the Russians was unpatriotic. The international president, an American, literally slapped me across the face at the 1996 national championships for accepting the invitation, despite the fact that I had brought the largest team from a single school to nationals in US history (32 athletes). I was “black-balled”.
I appreciate the historic significance since this was just post-Perestroika, but without the genius of my coach, Alexander Retuinskih, I believe that the Russian training systems may have been lost as the funding disappeared in their country. Now we see hundreds of Russian styles appearing in the West. None of these would have had that opportunity without my coach’s courage to breach the “cold war” culture and train an American in the xUSSR.
Thank you to Zurab for finding this. It was an honor to fight you, my friend. What a great memory. And thank you to my coach, Alexander Retuinskih, for directing me through the years of training to follow… you changed my life, Sir.
How harshly we judge failures in the present, only to realize later the blessed gift they had been.