Facing Gawthorpe - Ben Poppleton

When it comes to our most vivid memories in life, some talk of how they remember the first time they got drunk, or got into a lasses knickers. Others where they were the day JFK was shot, or when Elvis died.

Me, I remember the day Steve Gawthorpe beat the fuck out of me on a judo mat just outside of Leeds. A day that changed everything, and when nothing would ever be the same again.

Any pre conceived notions I had about groundwork went out of the window from this one single exposure to this man and his ability in matwork.

A legend in judo circles and modern jiujitsu history, Steve Gawthorpe is one of the greatest armlockers that ever lived. Training partner to world champion Neil Adams. Together with other team members, Adams and Gawthorpe led the movement and development of the modern jiujigatame (armlock) sequence. Sequences and developments which can be witnessed regularly on tatames around the planet. From club level to the world stage.

Gawthorpe and Adams. (Los Angeles Olympics 1984)

Possibly the greatest armlockers of all time! (Gawthorpe and Adams)

Steve became my newaza (judo ground work) instructor in 1998, and ive been under his guidance ever since. So, when i was given the chance to spar with him for the first time over 20 years ago, i took the opportunity with both hands.

I thought I was a young lad in decent shape who’d been training hard. When in reality, id really just been spending my time pissing about with mates.

I was now about to witness first hand the real thing. A genetic specimen who’d honed skills of the highest calibre on the world stage against the best the planet had to offer.

Imagine reading every book there is about swimming. Then actually be thrown into a pool for the first time.

It was like throwing a young chicken at a fox.

Hajime”, was called signifying the start of the sparring round.

Steve grabbed my collar and shoved his other hand under my armpit, pulling me on top of him into his open guard and flipping me straight over with a turn into mount whilst simultaneously cranking pressure on my left arm as I landed.

This forced me to drag my arm across his body to defend my elbow being crushed, but the trap was set as he slid straight into the armlock, bypassing Eckys hold.

It felt like my arm was going to come off at the shoulder, it hurt from my left eyeball down to the tip of my left little finger. I tapped so fast I think I got ‘tap burn”. It was the most brutal display of aggressive assertive fighting id ever witnessed. Never in my life had reality ‘bit” so hard. My nervous system was doing cartwheels.

I composed myself, knelt opposite him and shook hands to start another round of ground fighting.

He did exactly the same thing, to the letter. Maybe even quicker. Gripped, displaced, turned , cranked, arm locked. He looked at me, smiling and said, “I think we need to re evaluate your strategy”.

We’d been sparring for less than 2 minutes, but being unacustomed to such a stress on my nervous system with the intensity Steve created, I was already completely fucked.

With one final go left in the tank I knelt opposite Steve for my last effort.

I pulled full closed guard. My wish and intention was to pull him close to me and have a go at his neck.

My old fella once told me, “you can wish in one hand son and shit in the other, and see which one fills up first.”

The truth in this statement was lost on me as an 8 year old. But now, laid under Gawthorpe, I was about to see what he meant.

Steve postured up and broke my grip, with frightening speed and intention. Like he was wiping snot off of his jacket, almost snapping my fingers in the process.

Before I’d blinked he’d passed one of his arms under my legs, grabbed the opposite collar and was stacking the shit out of me. The grip on my collar felt like my jacket was stuck in a vice, my knees up next to my ears.

I attempted to follow him as he manoeuvred himself around my stacked legs and realised I was just spinning around and around with him on top of me, crushing the shit out of me.

I was spinning like a dog trying to lick its own arsehole, getting nowhere fast. My lungs were crushed, and with Steve on top of me I was running out of breath quickly, and there was no where to go.

He made no attempt whatsoever to improve his position from a strategic point of view. There was simply no need. I was physiologically fucked.

As I lay there, both trapped and fucked, contemplating my fate with the remaining remnants of air left in my lungs I happened to look up at my adversary.

Steve was motionless, and was just staring down at me, grinning. It was quite an unnerving sight to behold. He was enjoying my predicament and his obvious impending victory, and like a cat would play with its prey before its imminent fate he was savouring every moment of my suffering. He maintained his position and remarked, “theres nowt worse than being folded in two”

I tapped, and collapsed in a heap of sweat, completely spent.

Gawthorpe looked like he could have gone another 5 rounds easy. And did so, as he wandered off in search of yet more prey for his ground arsenal. Leaving me alone in my thoughts.

If I had to choose one, I would say that this was the single most pivotal point of my life. It changed my mental focus and direction entirely.

Years later, my old fella, who’s been training the majority of his adult life, so, 60 odd years, decided to build his own ‘bit of a gym’ in his back yard.

He’s got what you could describe as an old farmhouse type of place with a big back yard that backs onto fields. He decided to put up a big wooden summerhouse like structure at the bottom, mat it out, and train there whenever he felt like it. The result being, that everyone in the area who enjoyed the game as we did ended up at some point training on that mat, in Roys ‘shed’, often together.

Theres been some Sunday mornings where theres been 5-10 blackbelts on that mat, during some sleepy Sunday morning, in some corner of some little village in the north of England.

Some Brazilian champions too. Gordo, Gordinho, Pablo Silva, Lucio Lagarto, Gabriel Kitober, Carlos Escorrega Lemos, Victor Estima and of course an ex olympian, Steve Gawthorpe.

Steve lived for a while just around the corner from my dads place, so would often turn up on Sundays to train with the lads when he felt like it, or just sit on the mat with my dad and talk shit for abit.

One particular Sunday Steve called in on his way back from “B&Q”.

I remember the turn out was good that day and there were a few lower belts, (blues/ purples) on the mat.

I don’t know what lit a fire up his arse that day, but something gave Steve inspiration because he suddenly decided he fancied abit of a spar (or a ‘rumble’, as he often put it).

Being that he had no kit with him he just borrowed some of my dads which was hanging up on pegs on the far wall. (to be frank, Steve was just borrowing back kit that my father had blagged off of him over the years, so really he was just wearing his own old gear)

Steve changed into a Gi and just whipped on the nearest belt to tie his jacket up.

It was a white one, but no one gave a shit, everyone knew who he was. Didn’t they?

Steve wandered onto he mat, white belt around his waist and offered one of the younger bluebelts who was sat out between the rounds the opportunity to partake in ground work with him.

The bluebelt in question was Paul Cole, now a blackbelt and owner of 5 Rings Grappling Academy in Sheffield, who id first met years before in Birmingham (more on that later).

Paul accepted the challenge and as they found a suitable free space on the mat to begin their encounter my dad happened to offer a passing comment to Gawthorpe, knowing all too well his ability and maybe feeling a responsibility for Pauls wellbeing as he was, after all, just a young ‘whippersnapper’ training in his gym.

“go steady with him.”, my dad said to Steve.

Blissfully unaware of who Gawthorpe was, Paul mistakingly assumed my dad was talking to him, making a point about him not hurting the older whitebelt during the round.

“don’t worry”, Paul said offering my dad reasurrance.

5 minutes later Paul made his way slowly off of the mat. A shadow of his former self. He sat with a heavy head and even heavier heart next to myself and my old man.

He looked as drained as an old dog collapsing after a long walk. Emotionally he expressed the demeanour of someone who’d just been physically abused, whilst expressing a disappointment in his eyes you’d associate with one who’d underachieved their own expectations. Like he’d gone for a much needed shit, but merely farted.

His gaze was fixed in front of himself, his eyes were dull and his complexion grey.

My dad slapped his hand on Pauls thigh, trying to gee him up a bit. “you alright son?” He asked.

Paul never moved, he just starred straight ahead. His voice was void of emotion.

“I feel like i’ve just been beaten up by my granddad” he said.

Craig Lawton was a very highly respected personal trainer in the south Yorkshire area at the time, and was born and bred only a few villages away from where Steve was, in the Barnsley district of South Yorkshire.

Craig has a sharp mind and a sharp eye and jumped at the chance to train with Steve when Gawthorpe offered him the opportunity to spar with him once in my dads shed.

Through his other experiences and pursuits, Craig was more than aware, that one of the greatest opportunities you can be given, in any physical endeavour in pursuit of excellence, is the opportunity to train with someone better at it than yourself. Craig was a blue belt at the time, in very, very good condition and in his late twenties. About 5’8 and 70-75 kilo.

Gawthorpe was early fifties and about the same, and just murdered him.

Steve never fixed what wasn’t broke. He flipped Craig over 4 times in succession, to mount him and armlock him with the same exact technique. On the final turn, Steve managed to create sufficient ground clearance with the sweep that Craig actually had time to speak before he hit the mat.

“Its like fucking groundhog day this” he exclaimed.

The most interesting thing to note about Gawthorpes grappling career in my opinion is that although he was and is without doubt one of the greatest straight armlock masters ever, he will forever be remembered most for a strangulation sequence which took place in his competitive prime.

Gawthorpe in his prime, hitting the jiujigatame on the world stage

Now to Say that Steve isn’t a strangulation expert would be misleading, he can strangle the shit out of you. But the point is that he is, and was an armlock specialist.

He can coach you through the details of the subtleties of his variations on the jiu jigatame (straight armlock) and you can replicate them to the letter. However, the way which Steve strangles cant be replicated, unless you’re Steve.

Ive seen countless numbers of folk asking Steve to show them some strangle he just got them with, then watched the confusion on their faces as they fail to achieve the desired result from the technique which Steve just demonstrated.

His forearms are like iron tubes, with edges, his hands are like pit shovels, and although unauthodox, the mechanics he perfected for his own sequences are, and were, devastating.

Just ask Illie Serban.

Illie Serban was a Romanian Judo expert who faced Gawthorpe in the European Judo championships in Liege in 1984.

It was a bout that would be forever etched in judo history.

At my prompting Steve has recounted this story to me several times since I’ve been his student, and each time I was able to extract extra details from him about the incident which gave me a bigger picture of what happened that day.

The best account I got was a conversation I had with Steve as I sat in the passenger seat of his ford puma as we travelled to training one night.

In Steves words,

“I got this Romanian, Serban, in’t Semi’s. We got into groundwork sharpish, I caught him wi’ armlock, an’ he tapped. I thought that were that, but when we stood up, I could see him muttering summat t’ referee, moaning about summit, an’ saying he didn’t tap, that he didn’t give in. So ref brought us back into t’middle of mat, ready to start us off again like nowt had happened.”

We rolled to a stop at some traffic lights. Steve shifted the car into neutral and turned to look at me. His eyes were fixed on mine, and in total deadpan he continued.

“We weren’t in the best of moods”

Now, you have to realise, Steves presently in his 60’s, 4 decades past his competitive prime, and still an absolute fucking nightmare, as everyone who’s done a round with him will testify.

If you face him after he’s had a good dinner, and before he runs out of wind, even at 60 odd years of age, you’re going to be in a war, no question.

The level of intensity he brings, in my experience has only ever been equalled by Carlinhos, Gordo, Mauricio and the Brazilian champions I’ve been crushed by. He wouldn’t know ‘flow rolling’ if it bit him on the arse.

Many a practitioner, either new to the grappling game or simply unprepared for what they’re about to face has left the tatami realising that jiujitsu really isn’t “for everyone” after a round with Steve. Many have commented that they, “feel like they need counseling.” after the experience, and just as many have never returned to the tatami.

I’d need 4 hands to count, just off of the top of my head the number of students who quit the game after one exposure to Steve. The reality of Jiujitsu maybe not being quite what they thought it was.

I’ve always been quick to point out to the newer generation, who have commented on their experience with Steve of late, his current age, and that they should contemplate my predicament, as I faced him in sparring when he was in his late 30’s, pointing out that if they think he’s a handful now, they should have faced him then, in the peak of his power.

Trust me when I tell you, he was thoroughly terrifying.

The power he generated didn’t seem possible. He would clamp onto you and suck you in and like a fly stuck in a spiders web, your impending doom loomed over you. You could feel the anxiety mount in your nervous system, which was made worse by the fact that Steve would spend the entire round starring right at you with a constant glee and menace in his eyes.

If you opened your elbow 2 cm from your hip, then you were getting armlocked, every time, and I’m not talking about feeling pressure in your elbow joint, forcing you to tap through fear of damage to the articulation. I’m talking about the fear that your arm was going to be ripped out of its socket. If Steve got hold of your arm and you didn’t tap, I promise you, it was going to be life changing. This wasn’t a case of 6 weeks physio with rest and recuperation to sort it out serious. I’m talking about emergency surgery and having to learn to wipe your arse with the other hand for the rest of your life serious.

If if were to compare it to a modern day equivalent , id say the reaction people had when Steve went for their arm was comparable to the panic you see in folk when Rousimer Palhares goes for their leg.

Big Nelly (Neil Owen. Infinity MA) was in his early 20’s when he first got to train with Steve.

Nelly was a fair specimen, former rugby league pro, natural 90-100 kilo lad, with the movement of a 75 kilo, who, if he had been around in the modern environment, I’m sure he could have made his mark on the world stage.

Nelly was the best we had. Our best fighter.

It probably took him a minute longer, but Steve battered Nelly too, and just like me, big Nelly revelled in it. Grateful of the opportunity.

There was a crew of us at the original stable in Doncaster who could give you a decent battle. Myself, Charlie, Nelly and Neil White. We were all in our prime, Steve was well past his, and would go through us all in turn, one after the other.

If you take all the above into account, and now substitute Steves age, from late 30’s for mid 20’s, substitute gym sparring for tournament fighting, and swap city dojo for European world stage, I think we can construct a formula for the level of power and aggression Steve was able to summon and apply to the unfortunate Romanian that day, especially as he’d just pissed him off.

I honestly believe that at that moment, id have rather accepted an invitation for “an intimate evening of wine and cheese” with Jeffrey Dahmer, or “an in depth introduction to ballhammers and there various uses” with Peter Sutcliffe than have been young Illie Serban.

What happened next became the stuff of judo legends. Recounted in many a judo text book.

The traffic lights changed and we started moving again, as Steve continued.

“So ref set us off again. I gripped up, we had bit of a tussle and went over. I nailed him straight off wi’ a turnover and id got him in a strangle an all. He was dribbling and gurgling like a good un and I pinned him wi’ “Tate” just to make sure (Tate shiho gatame, or mount in BJJ) but ref had missed the strangle.”

The referee, as opposed to stopping the bout and giving immediate victory to Gawthorpe for the shimewaza (Strangle), made the mistake of instead signalling for the count to begin for a hold down, unaware that a strangle had been applied, and that Serban was already unconscious.

Under olympic judo tournament rules, when a hold down is signalled, a player must be held on their back for a count of 30 seconds for their opponent to secure victory.

The problem here was that Serban was already out and Gawthorpe was still strangling him, yet the clock had just started and there were 30 seconds still left to go!

Steve continued.

“I didn’t know if he were working a trick on me so I nipped my feet in tighter and just kept squeezing and shoving as hard as I could. We were there for ages, I looked up at ref a couple of times and could hear crowd getting agitated coz everyone could see summit were amiss. I could hear ‘em shouting, but I weren’t gunna let go”

It was one of the line judges who first intervened.

By the time Gawthorpe was pulled off the Romanian, Serban had been on the receiving end of Steve’s strangle for nigh on half a minute and been unconscious for the entire duration.

Steve sat crosslegged on the mat as the judges worked to revive the Romanian. But to no avail.

Panic began to set in as the emergency medical team rushed onto the tatami to resuscitate the fighter.

Still with no success, Serban was carried out of the arena on a stretcher.

The judo text books greatly play down the events which followed. Being quick to gloss over it they talk quickly of Serban’s subsequent recovery with no ill effect.

Maybe this is an attempt from the judo authorities to maintain judos integrity and preserve its gentlemanly status amongst the masses, but the truth, told and collaborated by several sources who were there on the day was that Serban had suffered cardiac arrest, that the emergency team had to use defibrillators to revive him, and that he actually ‘died’ twice more in the ambulance on the way to hospital.

He was successfully resuscitated though, and went on to have no long term effects. But still, the point of all this is simple, when you faced Gawthorpe, you were facing a man who had applied the techniques of modern jiujitsu to ultimate effect, and had used it to actually kill a man.

Believe you me, this little piece of judo history was always in the back of your mind whenever he invited you for a round of ground practice.

He’ll be my coach til i either bury him, or him me.

A formidable man, with a mind and body made of steel. So Im guessing it’ll be the later.

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