“OOS!” boomed Cawas Billimoria from across the room. One could forgive Avtar Singh for betraying a brief look of confusion. After all, the expression, in Judo circles, can have both positive and negative connotations. In the latter context, Billimoria would have continued with an equally loud “He’ll pick you up and throw you to Timbuktu. Not Rio.” But the confusion was all cleared a moment later. “That’s exactly how you do it. This is your move.”
It was a new and effective technique – Tai Otoshi – that the sensei was training Avtar for. A technique he’d seen crown champions when performed seamlessly, or be countered with ease when the attempt is flawed. “Through the roof, and then to Timbuktu!”
Avtar, who competes in the 90 kg category and who became the first judoka in 12 years to qualify for the Olympics since Akram Shah (60 kg) featured at Athens 2004, had sought the tutelage of former national champion Billimoria. More so because the 53-year-old stands at the same 6-foot-4 mark that Avtar does. “I’m three inches shorter and that makes a big difference,” explains Avtar’s coach Yashpal Solanki. “Cawas sir is the same height. So he can help Avtar with accurate technical and tactical advice for that height range,” he adds.
And so, in the recreation hall of a Mumbai school where Billimoria has coached for the last 13 years, Avtar is presented with five sparring partners for the session, including 2016 South Asian Games champion in 81 kgs Karanjit Singh Maan. One by one, he’d grab the opponent’s left shoulder with the right hand, and right arm with his left hand. He then had to push his opponent back.
“Wait for the spring,” called Solanki from the sideline, indicating that the opponent would involuntarily move towards him to counter the push. Now came the move. Swivelling in the air and dropping on one knee while extending the other leg, he lunged forward. With grip still in place, he’d pull the opponent over the extended leg and make the pin as the opponent crashed to the mat.
This variation of the Tai Otoshi body drop throw would take less than half a second to complete – much shorter than the invariably trailing bellow of ‘OOS!’
Barely a day after the 24-year-old returned from the Judo Grand Prix in Kazakhstan, with the news of his Rio qualification in mid-May, the decision was made to visit Billimoria. For the past four years, the Assistant Sub Inspector for the Punjab Police has been attending short clinics with the 10-time national champion, who had featured in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Yet their association went far before the four years.
“I used to see him in the junior divisions all the time. He was always the easiest to recognise because of his height and weight. Slowly, his talent became one of the top reasons for his recognition,” Billimoria mentions. “And since then I’ve been helping him fix a few things regarding his technique and corresponding height,” he adds.
This time around, the clinic’s repertoire expanded significantly. Now Avtar wasn’t only working to fix his own tactics and fitness, he was learning to study the trends of his competitors, and the technique of famed judokas from yesteryear. Billimoria sat Avtar, Karanjit and Solanki in front of his mobile phone, where he downloaded videos to study the bouts from the likes of Yasuhiro Yamashita and Robert Berland – Olympic masters throughout the 1980’s.
Following this were stern fitness drills. Then work on the mat.
Billimoria himself danced around the mat, showing tremendous lightness of feet while demonstrating certain moves to Avtar. “He’s the tallest in his weight category from those going to the Olympics, so his centre of gravity is high and he can topple over easily,” Billimoria explains. “What I’m doing is telling him the do’s and the absolute do nots for that height.”
In other words, the difference between an ‘Oos’ and ‘flying through the roof to Timbuktu.’
Standard moves like the Sasae —kicking the opponent’s front leg or performing a circular movement to wrap your own leg around an opponent’s to trip them were practiced over and over again. And each move was addressed according to the execution – through Billimoria’s trademark comments.
Finally came the introduction of the Tai Otoshi. Billimoria asserts to have never used the technique during his own days on the circuit. “It’s a last resort move when nothing else is working. But it’s a sure-shot uncounterable winner,” he adds.
Avtar spent near an hour working on the move, drawing ‘Oos’ more often than not from the vigilant Billimoria. “These moves are only for tall boys. The shorties can never do this. But it’s all on him when he feels it is best to use in a match,” states Billimoria.
It’s tricks like the Tai Otoshi that are specific to Avtar’s height that the veteran sensei intends to instill in his ward. “I’ll teach him the basic move, then I’ll give him homework —get 50 men lined up and keep doing it,” he quips. “There isn’t much time left, but I’ve seen players become world champions with just four moves. Avtar has those moves,” he concludes.