From Judo Gold to MMA: How easy would the transition really be?

Pictured above: Olympic champion Kayla Harrison (left) following victory over Gemma Gibbons at London 2012

2016 Olympic Judo Gold medalist Kayla Harrison made history for USA Judo this month by winning her second consecutive Olympic title in the -78kg division.

In addition to a haul of championship victories at the Pan American Games and World Judo Championships, Harrison brought her Judo career to a close by winning Gold at the 2016 Rio Olympic’s in Brazil, having claimed her first Olympic title four years ago with Gold at the London 2012 games.

Harrison’s triumph and subsequent retirement from Judo sparked speculation of a potential transition to mixed martial arts. However, during her Olympic press conference, the 26-year-old American expressed that this would not be her next step.

What would it take for an athlete of Gold medal calibre to reach a competitive level in MMA? The UFC already has its share of high level judokas who have completed the transition, the prime example being former UFC Women’s Bantamweight Champion, Ronda Rousey, who earned Bronze in judo at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and Silver at the 2007 World Judo Championships. Other accomplished judokas from around the world include Cuban UFC middleweight contender Hector Lombard, who competed in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, plus German national judo champion Nick Hein who now competes in the UFC Lightweight division.

Judo black belts have also become standout competitors under the banner of IMMAF’s intentional amateur platform. Northern Ireland’s Leah McCourt transitioned from Judo to become an international BJJ competitor before earning Lightweight Gold at the 2015 IMMAF European Open, and the Featherweight title at this year’s IMMAF World Championships of Amateur MMA. Furthermore, 2016 World Championship Silver medalist Julia Dorny leads the way as Germany’s most decorated amateur mixed martial artist. The 26-year-old featherweight continues to compete in Germany’s Judo Bundesliga after debuting at the IMMAF World Championships in 2015 where she earned Bronze, seven months after first transitioning to the world of MMA. The multifaceted competitor also claimed Bronze at the 2016 World Sumo Championships in Mongolia.

Bertrand Amoussou, President of the French MMA Commission (CFMMA), achieved prominence as a ten-year veteran of the French national judo team, and earned Bronze at the 1990 European Judo Championships. Amoussou himself transitioned to MMA and earned victory in 2004 at Pride Bushido 3 in Yokohama, Japan.

Success of the transition from any martial art to MMA would be subjective to the individual, but Amoussou, who now serves as a coach to judo and MMA veterans, discussed the hypothetical transition of a top level judoka and what would be expected for an athlete such as Kayla Harrison.

“This question comes in good time because I’m coaching and preparing Morgane Ribout, who was Judo World Champion in 2009 and will compete in MMA before the end of 2016,” Amoussou revealed. “If you take judo alone, technically speaking, you cannot be successful in MMA as it is now. Judo is the art to throw; this skill is not enough for MMA because that will never end a bout unless you throw your opponent into a stoppage, which is rare. So the only way to use your judo skill properly is to have a good ground game, then it’s about working your striking technique. This is where the big changes are, but a champion like Kayla will learn faster than anybody else because she knows exactly how to train and what it takes to reach the top level. After one year of intensive training she could potentially achieve some success in MMA.”

By IMMAF.org lead writer and website manager, Jorden Curran