North Texas Daily

Woodson family shares judo history

Woodson family shares judo history

Woodson family shares judo history
June 12
01:51 2015


Julian Gill |
Staff Writer

The sound of Mike Woodson’s defeat filled the small gym as his back slammed against the mat.

A blonde 8-year-old girl stood victorious over him wearing a clean, white Judo uniform and a grin on her face.

The 67-year-old club president and head instructor Woodson, sporting his faded camouflage gi, or martial arts uniform, popped up to his feet and stared at a row of giggling children.

“Who’s next?” he said as he caught his breath.

It’s just an average Thursday evening at Denton Junior Optimist Judo Club, one of the oldest judo clubs in Texas. About 40 kids between the ages of four and 14 stretch, practice and learn how to flip Woodson onto the ground.

Video by Caitlyn Jones – Contributing Photojournalist 

Unlike martial arts, where kicking and punching are standard practices, judo focuses on grappling and throwing. The kids run drills in an attempt to bring the other down. Most parents look amused while they observe from the sidelines, but some are doing drills of their own.

One of those parents, Chris Martin, practices advanced Judo grappling moves with other adults while his 4-year-old son, Zeek, does his own thing 20 feet away.

A dusty picture of Martin with a gold medal hanging from his neck and an arm around Woodson hangs in the front office. Similar pictures are seen throughout the gym. Most feature Woodson, who has held his position for 23 years.

A portrait of his father, Mose, elderly and stone-faced, sits alone on a back wall. He was the club’s very first member n
early 60 years ago.

“None of this would have happened without him,” Woodson said. “He was a pioneer of Texas Judo.”

Judo_JuneWeb2

Laura Martho takes down a fellow judo student at the Denton Junior Optimist Gym.


Something new

The introduction of judo as an art in Texas is credited to Mitsuharu “Bill” Nagase, a Japanese World War II kamikaze pilot.

“The war ended before he could apply his kamikaze training,” Woodson said.

Nagase moved to the United States in 1953 and earned a degree from Texas Christian University before going to graduate school at the University of Texas-Arlington. While working for an engineering firm in Forth Worth, he taught judo classes at a dojo in the city.

One of Nagase’s students, a Hawaiian-born judo black belt named Emil Freedman, also served in WWII. At the time, Freedman was a scoutmaster for the Denton Noon Optimist Boy Scouts.

The Denton Noon Optimist Club is a local non-profit service organization that has sponsored youth programs since the 1940s.

“The point was to keep kids off the street,” Woodson said.

In 1957, Freedman asked the club if one of their members was interested in sponsoring a judo program. Woodson’s father, Mose, the instructor for the Denton Noon Optimist boxing club, agreed to be the head sponsor. He had no previous martial arts experience.

“He was interested in it because it was new to the U.S.,” Woodson said. “He wanted to try it out.”

Mose and his two young sons, Mike and Larry, became the first members of the judo club as they spent time every week learning from Freedman.

“Emil knew Hawaiian judo so it was a little different than the Japanese style,” Woodson said. “In those early days, he would perform live knife exhibitions and trim the hairs off of his arm.”

Because there were only two active Texas judo clubs at the time — Nagase’s dojo in Fort Worth and Denton Junior Optimist judo — Nagase spent time at both.

“Judo means ‘the gentle way,’” Woodson said. “[Nagase] showed how you can take some big guy and throw him down on the ground and get him in a lock. But it’s not about starting it. It’s about finishing it.”

A few years later, Freedman’s black belt was no longer recognized at judo competitions because it was earned through unorthodox Hawaiian methods, Woodson said. Black belts must be ranked with traditional Japanese affiliations, according the U.S. Judo Association.

“He got discouraged when they bumped him down to a brown belt and he never got back up on that horse,” Woodson said. “He pretty much stopped teaching at that point.”

Mose took over as head instructor and applied what he learned from his years with Freedman. Nagase helped as he visited the club more often, teaching his sons the traditional technique. The club grew from there and began participating in tournaments.

“We had an old Station Wagon and we would load it up and head off to Odessa, Louisiana and New Mexico,” Woodson said.

They hosted the first annual Mose Woodson Judo Classic, known then as the Denton Junior Optimist Judo Tournament. Held every year at UNT, it continues to attract competitors.

“We had an old boxing room and that’s where we started it,” Woodson said “We only had about 20 people at that tournament. Now its about three or four hundred.”

Judo7_June

Children sit patiently in a line on the mat while learning new judo skills.

Next generation

Four generations of the Woodson family have learned judo in the optimist gym.

Woodson’s son, Shannen, started when he was 3-years-old, and his granddaughter, Stacee, when she was five.

“The most inspiring thing was seeing everyone look up to my dad,” Shannen said.

Shannen grew out of judo in his late teens, but for Martin, childhood commitment developed into something much more as an adult.

“I’ve known Mike since I was a little kid,” Martin said. “He’s the reason I stuck with it, and now I have kids and I’m getting them started in it.”

Martin won the Amateur Athletic Union National Championship in 2009 and placed 7th in a 2008 Olympics qualifier.

Amanda Nguyen started at the optimist club with her brother and sister when she was 4-years-old. After seven years, she left to take classes at her father’s dojo in Garland, TX, only to reunite with her Denton judo family eight years later.

“The moment when you start to get to know the people, your coaches and your sensei, they don’t treat you just like a student,” Nguyen said. “When you come through the door there’s always more than that.”

Ryan Firth was one of the first kids Nguyen met when she walked in. He was 6-years-old and his father was the youth instructor.

Now in their twenties, they teach kids at each meeting how to stay balanced and disciplined.

“It just seemed like home,” Firth said. “You can go and do other things, and if you want come back, it’s always here waiting for you.”

Firth’s father Randy drives an hour from Gainesville every week to teach the kids.

“We build up our club from the roots, and that’s where things grow to the advanced levels,” he said.

The club has about 170 kids taking classes, making it the largest in Texas. Woodson teaches each one how to flip him onto his back, despite any harm it may cause him.

“I’ve needed to have this knee operated on for awhile,” he said. “I went to my doctor and he said your lifestyle is going to change and I thought ‘no it isn’t.’ I’m going to take falls for these kids for as long as I can until it falls off.”

A purpose 

Woodson said it took some time to really get invested. When he turned 17, he thought about switching to karate.

“You might be fighting 50-year-old black belts,” he said. “So I told my dad I didn’t want to fight the older guys.”

His father coaxed him into doing one more tournament in Louisiana where he ended up defeating all six opponents and winning first place.

“My first match was against a black belt and he had two kids with him,” he said. “I thought ‘oh my God this guy is going to kill me,’ and I got out and beat him, and it wasn’t that hard.”

Woodson’s success in that tournament earned him a brown belt. From then on, he decided to stick with judo and model himself after his father.

“That’s who I looked up to,” he said. “His hands were twice the size of mine and he would kick my butt. There was a lot of respect there.”

Nagase, now 84, still makes time to visit the optimist gym when he can. He was diagnosed with cancer and has been undergoing intensive chemotherapy, but Woodson said he plans to come teach the kids when he can. His original gi and black belt from 1940 are framed in a glass case near the front of the gym.

For most, this reminds them of a living legend, Woodson said. But for him, it’s a reminder of purpose.

“I’m here for the kids,” he said. “My dad had cancer and was out here right up till close to the end.”

When Woodson took over as the head instructor after his father’s death in 1992, he nourished the club the same way – with family.

Featured Image: Mike Woodson, left, teaches orange belt Jacob Coffamn, age, how to properly grab his opponent. Woodson is the head instructor and club president of the Denton  Junior Optimist Club. Hannah Ridings | Visuals Editor

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