This new footage of Vladimir Putin training with Russia’s judo team is exactly the sort of stunt world leaders with influence like to flaunt. The role of a nation’s president requires someone to be of sound mind and body. Further, public perception matters. Voters may second-guess backing a president without the health, stamina, or heart for one of the toughest jobs on the planet. So it’s important to regularly dispel any concerns about age and health to maintain the image of a strong, healthy, and confident leader.
Putin is a solid six years younger than the United States’ President Donald Trump. Both aging men devote considerable amounts of effort into conveying an image of youthful health and vitality. President Trump uses methods like having the White House doctor tout his excellent health and “good genes,” while Putin prefers carefully-staged photography sessions of him shirtless in the wilderness.
However, Putin also holds a black belt in judo, and spent the early part of his career working as a KGB agent in Russia, where he eventually climbed to the rank of lieutenant colonel before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Experts once analyzed Putin’s presidential strut and attributed it to what’s called a “gunslinger’s gait,” or a the walk of a man who’s grown accustomed to carrying–and needing to quickly access–a firearm.
As the peer-reviewed British Medical Journal put it, Putin’s stride “may result from a behavioral adaptation, possibly triggered by KGB or other forms of weapons training, where trainees are taught to keep their right hand close to the chest while walking, allowing them to quickly draw a gun when faced with a foe. This should be included in the differential diagnosis of a unilaterally-reduced arm swing.”
It seems possible this walk was part of Putin’s day-to-day business at one point in life but today, it’s just as likely that Putin’s unusual gait, similar to his topless photos and judo training, are as much a part of maintaining his larger-than-life image as they are about his past.
Which brings us to the recent footage of Putin training (or as we used to call it when I was fighting, “rolling”) with the Russian judo team.
Now, I’ve made a habit of picking apart Russian propaganda as it’s released. Somehow Moscow’s often bumbling misinformation efforts are incredibly successful in the United States, and it’s important that we acknowledge the reality of national security threats, particularly when they’re nowhere near as dire as they’re being represented.
So as I turned on this video, I’ll admit this was my frame of mind. To be clear, it’s because I realized I may have some biases in play that I chose to write this piece in the first person–it’s important to understand while reading this article that what I glean from the footage is based on my fairly-informed opinion about martial arts. But informed or not, opinions are opinions.
I spent years training and competing as a mixed martial arts fighter, including earning a spot on the Marine Corps‘ first official mixed martial arts team out in Twentynine Palms, California under the incredible coaching of retired Sgt. Maj. Mark Geletko. I’ve also trained in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu under Rickson Gracie Cup Champion Abmar Barbosa, assorted Filipino martial arts under Sensei Anthony Penaloza (a former Navy Corpsman), as well as a long list of other incredible instructors and specialized disciplines. I’ve trained in both realistic Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu no-Gi environments and tournament-specific Gi environments.
Over the years, this mashup of martial arts methodologies has turned me into a jack of many trades, but certainly a master of none. The only black belt I hold is in the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program, which despite its bad reputation among tan (white) belts, is actually a rather effective approach to fighting once you reach the brown and black belt territory.
I’ve competed in a number of fights and tournaments, and although I tend to tap out a hundred times a day while training, I’ve never lost an official bout. I’m not the baddest or best fighter in the world, the country, or even on this side of the Mississippi, but I’ve been around long enough to know those guys when I see them.
Putin isn’t one of those guys either, but he’s something.
Much of Putin’s approach in the video above plays out similarly to a low-level Marine Corps Martial Arts training revolution: agility and conditioning drills followed by putting in repetitions on different techniques. Throughout the drills, Putin looks a bit stiff, maybe even slightly foolish at times, but the guy is doing front shoulder safety rolls on the hop at age 66. If you ask me, stiff stops being a real critique after 60.
However, I was impressed at Putin’s willingness to participate in these somewhat silly-looking drills, and with his general mechanical competence when it came to executing things like foot crossovers (which we called karaoke, for some reason). It’s clear watching the drills that this isn’t unfamiliar territory for the Russian president, even if he may be a little out of practice.
Putin’s rolling partners were the definition of “being a good dummy,” which means the Russian president didn’t need to execute any judo techniques with the requisite form or intensity necessary to actually take down an opponent in a real fight. I’m not, by any stretch of the imagination, a master of analyzing judo, but I would contend his basic body mechanics were present, if perhaps rounded off on the edges and lacking in the forceful aggression of movement real throws often require.
Put plainly, he may not have looked like a young man, but he did a better job of looking like a guy that’s been in a few fights than Steven Seagal tends to when he puts on similar shows. Aikido is a different brand of martial arts than judo, but Seagal’s demonstrations are more like a high school play than any fight I’ve ever seen or been in.
Of course, these demonstrations are meant to be executed at “half-speed,” but as Seagal walks around casually with a fellow black belt in a one-handed wrist lock before tossing his opponent like a sack of trash, it becomes apparent that move is for a whole lot more flash than function.
So while Putin might not be a spring chicken, and Russia has a knack for trying to make everything about their president seem larger than life, I’d contend this is a pretty capable 66-year-old man. I hope I’ve still got that footwork three decades from now.
This footage is, of course, propaganda. But it’s the best and most effective kind: propaganda based on a bit of truth.