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Is Vladimir Putin a judo fraud?

Russian President Vladimir Putin took part in a training session with Russia's judo team in Sochi on January 8, 2016. Putin held a friendly fight with the team's Italian coach Ezio Gamba. (Video: Reuters)
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Vladimir Putin’s martial arts skills are the stuff of legend. Thanks to a steady stream of fawning coverage from Russian state media — often repeated uncritically in American news outlets — Putin is widely reputed to be some sort of high-level expert in judo, his abilities so impressive and so well-known that they have become a metaphor for his governing style.

Putin does possess a black belt, after all, and the 64-year-old Russian president has received multiple martial arts honors from organizations that give out those sorts of things. A quick Google search turns up a huge trove of photos and news footage of him in a white robe flipping opponents on sparring mats with apparent ease. He has co-authored books about judo, and he even starred in an instructional video, aptly titled “Let’s Learn Judo with Vladimir Putin.”

His alleged martial arts prowess certainly fits with the machismo he projects to the world — a perfect complement to the portraits of him posing shirtless in military fatigues and the tall tales of him wrestling bears and felling Siberian tigers with tranquilizer darts.

But is Putin really the master he’s made out to be?

No, says Benjamin Wittes, the editor of the national security blog Lawfare.

Wittes, who happens to be a martial arts aficionado himself, has chided Putin as a “fraud” and a “phony” and is trying to call his bluff by challenging the Russian strongman to a fight in any location where Putin lacks the authority to have him arrested.

Wittes issued the initial challenge in fall 2015, at a time when Lawfare was still a relatively small, wonkish expert blog that catered mostly to national security insiders. In the nearly two years since, Lawfare has surged in popularity, breaking stories about the investigations of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and running unforgiving commentary about the Trump administration. Wittes himself has turned into something of a Twitter celebrity and hero to the left, especially after he went on the record in May with his insights about former FBI director James B. Comey’s eyebrow-raising interactions with the president.

Riding the new wave of popularity, Wittes called out Putin again over the weekend, tweeting a link to his original posts about the hypothetical fight. “Got to be ready for the day when the Kremlin finally calls,” he said.

According to Wittes, a 47-year-old who holds black belts in taekwondo and aikido, many of Putin’s judo videos — and there are lots of them — are bunk. They typically start with some shots of Putin and his sparring partners warming up, then transition into Putin throwing or tackling an opponent. Wittes says Putin’s partners drop to the floor all too easily.

“At least in the videos I have seen, there are no committed attacks on Putin, and I see no evidence that his opponents are ever trying to get the better of him,” Wittes wrote on Lawfare. “The videos are demonstrations in which he shows off his masculine prowess with them taking what the Japanese call ukemi (defensive falls) for him.”

In a Facebook post titled “Why Won’t Vladimir Putin Fight Me?,” Wittes put it more bluntly: “Putin is fraud martial artist. He only fights people who are in his power, and they are all taking falls for him.”

The dark side of Putin’s displays, Wittes wrote, was that they were rooted in his aggression on the international stage and repression of dissidents and minority groups at home.

Putin’s martial arts background is well accounted for, and he has long advocated for judo and other fighting techniques as a way of disciplining oneself. Whether he’s actually as fierce a fighter as he is made out to be is, of course, a different question, one that few writers other than Wittes have approached with much skepticism.

Putin’s biographers note that he started practicing judo and the Soviet combat technique Sambo as a teenager in St. Petersburg. In a 2001 interview with NPR, he described his lifelong love of both sports:

I started practicing this sport when I was 14, and as a matter of fact, what I did start engaging in was something called sambo, which is a Russian acronym for, quote, “self-defense without arms,” unquote, which is a Russian wrestling technique. And, after that, I joined a gym that was teaching judo. And I was what they call a master of sports. We have our sporting ranks, and the equivalent of the black belt I received when I was, I guess, 18, in judo. And all my adult life I have been practicing judo — I guess I can put it this way — and I do love the sport tremendously. And I think that there is more to it than just sport. I think it’s also a philosophy in a way, and I think it’s a philosophy that teaches one to treat one’s partner with respect. And I engage in this sport with pleasure and try to have regular practices still. Yes, still.

In recent years, Putin has received honorary martial arts awards, bestowed not so much in recognition of his actual skills as for his advocacy. In 2014, an international karate organization awarded him an eighth-degree black belt for his work promoting a form of full contact karate in Russia. The previous year, he was made a grandmaster of taekwondo by the World Taekwondo Federation after a visit to South Korea, even though he doesn’t practice the sport. The Independent noted at the time that he now ranks higher than martial arts expert and action movie star Chuck Norris.

RT and other state-funded media have enthusiastically promoted those honors and others at every turn, weaving an almost super hero-like persona of Putin that revolves in part around his mastery of martial arts.

“Who needs bodyguards when you’re this good at self-defense?” asks an RT reporter in a 2008 news clip over video of Putin leg-sweeping an opponent on the sparring mat. “Vladimir Putin shows he’s a politician not to be messed with.”

Some American outlets, too, seem to revel in the idea of Putin as a caricature of a dictator for whom martial arts are a meme-worthy eccentricity. Doting headlines include: “Vladimir Putin’s Judo Skills Are Better Than Yours,” “Putin shows off by throwing members of Russia’s judo team to the ground,” and “Vladimir Putin Earns 9th Degree Black Belt In Taekwondo, Because That’s What Vladimir Putin Does.”

Wittes, of Lawfare, doesn’t buy it, and his proposal to fight Putin is not a joke, he says.

“Putin needs either to fight this reasonably well-trained but not especially expert middle-aged desk worker in a situation in which I’m actually allowed to win without fear of reprisal, or he should face condemnation worldwide as a wuss and a phony,” he wrote. “A truly strong leader doesn’t need to stage displays using lackeys subject to his power.”

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