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The Concept of Permanent Combat

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During the constant game of one-upmanship in the Cold War between the US and the USSR, any action by one of the two superpowers had meaning and every nuance was a victory. The 1964 Olympic Games were to be held in Tokyo, Japan, and the demonstration sport was to be judo. Ever eager to showcase their physical and sporting prowess, the Soviet Union cast about looking for suitable candidates for this new Olympic sport and discovered to its surprise that it had an incredible stable of fighters and wrestlers to draw from. And thus, in the early 1960s, a new terror was loosed upon the world, a Cold War weapon developed in secrecy in the Soviet Union–Soviet judo.

Vasili Oshchepkov

Vasili Oshchepkov

The architect of this new menace, Vasili Oshchepkov, grew up during the pre-Revolution years an orphan in the great Russian Pacific port of Vladivostok. He learned judo in the city’s Tokyo Christian school, where Russian priests were trained for missionary work in Japan. A judo natural, he made repeated trips to Japan for advanced training with Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo, and other legendary figures of early judo. Oshchepkov’s language ability and facility with unarmed combat eventually led him into intelligence work for the fledgling USSR.

Oshchepkov was called to Moscow in 1923 to head up a research team with the single purpose of creating the deadliest possible unarmed combat system for the newly formed state. He was instrumental in fusing judo with the myriad of wrestling and fighting styles native to the cultures and peoples who made up the USSR. This new fighting system was called SAMBO. However, the horrific Stalinist purges of the 1930s were a literal death sentence for anyone with “foreign contamination” and, in 1937, Oshchepkov was arrested, interrogated under torture, and summarily executed. He was only 44. With the purges came a complete rewriting of history and any non-Soviet influence was stricken from SAMBO and its ties to judo completely renounced.

When it was announced that judo would be introduced as an Olympic sport in 1964, the Soviet Union saw a good opportunity to fatten its medal count, but there was one big problem. It did not have any judo players or even acknowledge the existence of judo in the USSR. The state turned to its SAMBO masters and unleashed them upon the world. Since SAMBO was originally based on judo, it was easy for the Russian fighters to take to the new sport. But there were a few very notable differences between the Russians and the rest of the world. The new Russian judo players were incredibly fit, even by the standards of international judo. They were utterly ferocious in their desire to win, as winning or losing could literally mean life or death. They were full of little tricks and trips and throws that came from the indigenous wrestling styles that SAMBO was partially born from and were very confusing and bewildering to the traditional judo world. And they fought according to a doctrine known as the Concept of Permanent Combat.

The Concept of Permanent Combat was developed by Vasili Oshchepkov in answer to the moments of inaction in a fight or judo match. A fight ebbs and flows and every match has times when the fighters are about to launch or are recovering from a flurry. Oshchepkov thought that these moments could be exploited by a fighter who was always on the attack. His Concept is one of constant threat, constant action, constant movement, constant pressure. This constant pressure would prove to be very difficult for non-Soviet judo players to deal with. No rest, no regrouping, no pausing. The doctrine was baffling to the rest of the judo world, used to the style and pattern, the feel, of a traditional judo match.

OK, enough ancient history, what does this have to do with CrossFit? Remember what the Concept of Permanent Combat was specifically about? The gaps in the action of a match. It is very easy to relate Oshchepkov’s doctrine to the similar moments of inaction in a WOD. These moments most often occur during the transitions from one movement to another. At a competitive level, this is where a workout is often won or lost. At high level CrossFit, there is very little difference in the speed two competitors can a certain amount of repetitions of a movement. Two 5’10″ 190 pound athletes with 375 pound back squats will not vary much in the speed both can do 15 thrusters. Or 15 pullups. Each time they pick up the bar, it is very unlikely that they will put it down until all 15 repetitions have been completed. Where one competitor will pull ahead is in the transitions.

In the Concept of Permanent Combat, as conceived by Vasili Oshchepkov, those pauses in action are ripe with opportunity to gain an advantage over one’s competitor. To constantly push and probe, to never stop moving and thus always put the opponent on the defensive. The competitive CrossFitter who follows this doctrine and sees the lull of a transition as an opportunity to pull ahead, to dominate the action, will always have an advantage.

At the 1964 Olympics, the Soviet Union entered its allotted four fighters, one in each weight division, and each of them medaled. It was quite an entrance onto the world judo scene.

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1 Comment

  1. Chris Kulp

    A marvelous post, Sam. This is publishable material, in the strict sense of “publishable,” and of signal importance to anyone who wants to get anywhere in serious CrossFit competition. A terrifically helpful way to think about transitions. I will certainly take it to heart.