Every once in a great while a story comes along that defies our collective imagination, forcing us to recalibrate the limits of the human condition. The tale of Judd Reid is such a story. To get to the root of its telling we can't start with him holding up his arm in victory at a secret dojo in Osaka, utterly exhausted and physically broken but elated after becoming one of just a handful of people to get through the 100-man kumite, where he fought 100 black belts consecutively in bare-knuckled matches. Nor can we go back to Judd being handed the World Championship of Karate belt in 2010 on a flashbulb-lit stage in Japan, finally at the top of the martial arts mountain after struggling with 2nd and 3rd place finishes for years. Judd's story doesn't even start when he was hand picked by the founder of Kyushin karate, Sosai Mas Oyama, for 1,000 days of the world's most intensive and clandestine karate training, the "uchi deshi" Spartan living program in Tokyo in the early 1990's, becoming one of only two foreigners to ever graduate.
To truly witness the beating heart of the Judd Reid story we must zoom back 25 years to a chicken-legged Australian teenager with a preppy haircut back in Melbourne, Australia, obsessed with Bruce Lee movies and newly introduced to karate by instructor Shihan Eddie Emin. Spanning back through those decades, we first catch a glimpse of what led Judd to accomplish one of the most difficult tests of strength, skill, and mental determination in the history of athletic achievement. It's something in his eyes -- a glint of pugnacious resolve alarming in its intensity, oceans of belief that led him to the most rarified air of martial arts.
For a long time Judd's story has only been familiar to a small number of people; fellow karate traditionalists, fight enthusiasts, Australians cheering their home-town boy, and peers at the gym in Pattaya, Thailand where he trained the last 7 years. But now, thanks to his best friend and corner man, Anton Cavka, who shot an intimate documentary of Judd's journey called 100 Man Fight, the world will know.
The award-winning film is impossible to turn off from the start -- an image of a chiseled 205 lbs. vicious bear of a man, no longer the 160 lbs. wide-eyed teen, kicking a heavy bag with such speed and violent ferocity it almost shakes the movie screen. To put it bluntly, Judd is a badass. Even in the growing world of MMA and UFC badasses, he's one of the toughest there is - a legend. How else can you describe a man who gets through the real life kumite at 40 years of age, a feat only 18 other martial artists in history have ever accomplished? But quickly, Cavka's documentary humanizes the mythology -- showing us a gentle man making porridge in the morning with his girlfriend, driving to the gym for this daily torturous training session, genuflecting as he talks about the single mom who raised him. Cavka's pull-no-punches 56 minutes allow us to see the warrior in action but also meet a man hard-wired for humility, embodying the best of martial arts despite the pressures - or glory - of his undertaking.
100-Man Fight is taking Australia, Europe, and Asia by storm but still only available via website rental in the United States, where familiarity with the kumite is limited to the 1988 Jean-Claude Van Damme movie, Bloodsport, based on the real life competition. Cavka's documentary gives us never before seen footage of Judd's early years, his mind-blowing training regime, competitions, and actual comprehensive footage of the kumite where he punched and kicked his way through 3 ½ hours of the most grueling physical abuse imaginable.
So many questions filled my head as I sat down with Cavka early one morning in a smoke-filled, end-of-the-world bar in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, grizzled patrons still drooping over their beers from the night before, unwilling to face the light outside. He patiently recounted Judd's story and told me all about the film.
Judd's superhuman training started as a 19-year old with the 1,000 day uchi deshi under Sosai Mas Oyama who founded Kyokushin karate (a discipline UFC great George St. Pierre studied) and was the first man to complete the kumite in the 1950's. Judd's invite was unheard of for an outsider, and for those 3 years he was basically sequestered in secretive training, 7 days a week, as his instructors broke him physically and mentally in order to build him back up like molten steel. Communication with his own family was limited to one outgoing letter per year, but Reid confesses in a moment of levity that the hardest thing to get used to was the same breakfast for 3 years straight; a bowl of rice, miso soup, seaweed with an egg on top of it. There were many times he couldn't walk after doing 1,000 squats in a row, or straighten his legs for weeks when his limbs were beaten black from taking so many kicks, but it was such an honor to be taught by the demi-god of Kyokushin (who passed away in 1994 with almost 12 million disciples worldwide) that he never even considered quitting. Reid adapted to the grueling punishment and excelled in his training, coming to revere the elder teacher as the father he never had.
Going in as a 160 lbs. kid, Reid emerged as the 205 lbs. personification of violence that we see now. Cavka recalled the first time he met up with his friend at a Tokyo golf course after those three years. Amazed at Judd's new physique, he asked to see some of the karate he'd learned. Reid walked up to a 2-foot thick tree and kicked it, bare-shinned, with all his might. The tree cracked and swayed. Reid continued to leg strike it again and again until the whole trunk split across and fell to the ground, leaving Cavka with mouth agape but Reid unaffected.
Although finished with uchi deshi training, there was more work to be done. Sosai Oyama instilled in his students that there were two accomplishments every great karate fighter should pursue in his lifetime:
1) To be a world champion, and
2) To complete the 100-man kumite.
So Reid, still only 25, undertook the first, leading him through a storied professional career that certainly had its share of frustration. Tournament after tournament, year after year he came in 2nd and 3rd in international tournaments but never to be crowned champion. His response was always to train harder, still. Realizing his window was closing once he hit his mid 30's and it was time to try something different, Reid moved from Australia to the famed WKO Gym in Pattaya, Thailand. There he found a home inhabited by world-class fighters of all disciplines -- kickboxing, karate, Muay Thai, and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu under Sifu Ian McInnes. Cross training and immersion in a new system took him to the next level, and Reid finally won the world championship of karate in 2010 at the age of 39.
Content with the championship as the highlight of his karate career, Reid went back to teaching until he was invited to compete in the 100 Man Kumite in 2011 by the World Kumite Organization. The ultimate test of physical and mental capabilities, the kumite is so intense it's been compared to completing an Iron Man triathlon... with someone punching and kicking you the entire time. Few are even honored with an invite yet alone complete it, as they're required to fight -- not spar, but fight -- 100 consecutive black belts and top fighters from Japan with no headgear, no gloves, no pads, and no quarter given. Punching to the face is not allowed but it's perfectly okay to kick to the head at full force. Each fight goes on for 1½ minutes and cannot be stopped for any reason without being disqualified. A doctor is on site but not allowed to intercede for any reason until the fight is over, even in the short 30-second rest between rounds. Reid was hesitant to accept the invite as he'd seen the kumite fell greater men.
"When I first was asked to do the 100-man, I said "No way. I can't do it," said Reid, "It's too hard. I had seen some people go through it, and actually one of them was one of my opponents, Masada Akira."
Reid fought the karate world champion twice before as an opponent when Akira attempted the 100-man kumite years earlier. He faced him in round 10, when Akira was fresh, and again round 70 when Akira was delirious, a walking punching bag whose mind and body were in shock, leading him to start biting opponents.
"I guess he was just going into survival mode. I had never seen anything like it, so that's why I said no and continued to say 'no' for a while," said Reid.
However, haunted by the prophetic words of his former master, encouragement from Sifu McInnes, and honoring the battle his best friend, filmmaker Cavka, was facing with cancer at the time, Reid decided to go for it. He trained like a man possessed in Pattaya, 6 days a week for at least 6 hours a day. The regiment he put his body through brought him to new levels of conditioning in anticipation of the pounding he'd have to take; heavy weight training, carrying huge logs, sprinting up steep hills, burpees with a man on his back, hitting the heavy bag for an hour straight, and letting other professionals tee off on him with punches as kicks while he stood still and absorbed them. Most days he lost 10 lbs. or more just from sweating in the oppressive Thai heat.
Then, he was ready. The milestone date of the kumite, October 22, 2011 was upon him. It was held in a heavily guarded underground dojo beneath Osaka's Perfectionary Gymnasium with Cavka's camera the only one rolling. Reid was supported by his mother and sister in attendance, his Thai girlfriend, Mo, Cavka, and Nicholas Pettas, his co-student and only other foreigner to complete the 1,000-day training.
As the fights started, Reid was a beast, handily beating all of his master opponents. But as black belt after black belt fought him to the best of their capabilities, the physical toll began to mount. He rolled through the first 50 fights, his otherworldly conditioning training paying off, but hit a wall around fight 70. The last 20 fights or so he was past exhausted, unable to use his legs to defend or kick, wavering with dizziness, taking a tsunami of punishment from his opponents but never giving in. The story, and the documentary, ends right where we first see it start, with Reid summoning his last ounce of willpower for just one more fight, his 100th, completing the 100-man kumite to honor his late master and the dream he'd followed since he was a teen.
"It was the hardest thing I've ever been through," Reid said, "But having my family and friends there meant the world to me. I feel like one of the luckiest martial artists in the world, having had great teachers."
Fittingly, the next day he was at a children's tournament in that same dojo signing autographs like nothing had happened when most men or even professional martial artists would have been bedridden for a week. When doctors examined him they said it looked like he'd been in multiple car crashes, his knee tendon severed, shoulder ripped, legs and torso black with bruises, and his whole body cramping severely. But the smile was on his face as always while he laughed and encouraged the kids, proving that karate wasn't just what Judd Reid did, but who he'd become.
Reid has since moved back to Melbourne and opened up his own burgeoning karate studios, giving boxing training to an Australian Rules football team, and enjoying quiet time with his family now that he's finished competing in martial arts. He puts all of his focus and determination into teaching kids the valuable lessons he learned through karate.
"It's all about making absolute sacrifices to achieve what you want in life," Reid told me via a Skype call to Australia. "Whether that's in a classroom or the dojo or a karate tournament. Preparation is everything in life, isn't it? Now I can take my love and my passion and give it all back to the students."
After watching the documentary and getting to know Judd, it's not lost on him how full circle his journey has come; from a punchy teenager to helping teach teens, from 1,000 days training to fighting 100 men, from longtime runner up to world champion, and from revering his master to being a teacher, himself. But no matter where you want to pick up the Judd Reid story, it's sure to live on, thanks to Cavka's inspiring documentary.
To see real video of the kumite or rent the documentary, go to www.100ManFight.com.
All photos courtesy of Judd Reid, Anton Cavka, and 100 Man Fight.com.