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 said 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 have a black belt, and the 64-year-old Russian president has received multiple martial arts honours from organisations that give out those sorts of things. A quick Google search turns up a huge cache 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 skills certainly fits with the hyper masculine image he projects to the world – including the pictures of him posing shirtless in military uniforms and the tall tales of him wrestling bears and bringing down Siberian tigers with tranquilliser darts.
But is Putin really the master he’s made out to be?
No, says Benjamin Wittes, editor of national security blog Lawfare.
Wittes, a martial arts fan, has called Putin a “fraud” and a “phoney”, 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.
A challenge is issued
Wittes issued the challenge in autumn 2015, at a time when Lawfare was still a relatively small, expert blog that attracted mostly national security insiders as readers. In the nearly two years since, Lawfare has surged in popularity, breaking stories about the Russian meddling in the 2016 election and running very critical pieces about the Trump administration. Wittes himself has turned into a Twitter celebrity and hero, especially after he went on record in May with his insights about former FBI director James Comey’s interactions with the president.
Riding the new wave of popularity, Wittes called out Putin again on July 15, tweeting a link to his original posts about the proposed 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 aikido and taekwondo, many of Putin’s judo videos are false. They typically start with Putin and his sparring partners warming up, then move on to Putin throwing or tackling an opponent. Putin’s partners drop to the floor all too easily, Wittes says.
“At least in the videos I have seen, there are no committed attacks on Putin, and I see no evidence that his opponents are even trying to get the better of him,” Wittes wrote on Lawfare. “The videos show off his masculinity and mastery 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 a 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 is that they are rooted in his aggression on the international stage and repression of protesters and minority groups at home.
Putin’s martial arts background is well accounted for, and he has long promoted 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 scepticism.
Love of sports
Putin’s biographers note that he started practising judo and the Soviet combat technique sambo as a teenager in St Petersburg. In a 2001 interview, he described his love of both sports:
“I started practising 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 ‘self-defence without weapons’, 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 practising 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, a karate organisation awarded him an eighth-degree black belt for his work promoting full contact karate in Russia. The previous year, he was made a grandmaster of taekwondo by the World Taekwondo Federation even though he doesn’t practise 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 honours and others at every turn, weaving an almost superhero persona of Putin that partly revolves around his mastery of martial arts.
“Who needs bodyguards when you’re this good at self-defence?” asks an RT reporter in a 2008 news clip over a 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 love the idea of Putin as an exaggeration of a dictator for whom martial arts are a meme-worthy hobby. Encouraging 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 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 where I’m actually allowed to win without fear of reprisal, or he should face condemnation worldwide as a wuss and a phony,” Wittes wrote. “A truly strong leader doesn’t need to stage displays using [people] subject to his power.”