Interview with Canadian Judo Champion Kathy Hubble: From Judo to Stunt Work and Back Again

Starting judo at a young age, Kathy Hubble quickly jumped into competitions, and by 1985, she was a member of the Judo Canada Team. She soon quit judo and spent twenty-five years as a stunt performer in Hollywood North. In 2013, she returned to judo, winning gold in the Masters World Championships in Abu Dhabi, U.A.E., and has since began training and competing in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. In addition, she founded the Never-Tie Belt line for younger judoka. Today, Hubble took some time to talk about her amazing journey, from judo to stunt work and back again! All images provided by Kathy Hubble.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Thank you for taking the time to talk to us about your judo journey, Kathy Sensei!

Kathy Hubble: I’m happy to be here! Thank you for inviting me!

MAYTT: What drew you to judo at an early age? Was there a specific aspect of the art that struck you more so than other martial arts or sports? Had you considered other martial arts forms aside from judo?

Kathy Hubble wearing her NTB Fight Gear gi.

KH: My two older brothers were doing judo and I was always mat-side just dying to get on the mats, but I wasn’t allowed to join until age eight (this was the minimum age at the dojo we were at, although the Sensei did sneak me onto the mat at around 7 ½) [Laughs] My mom had been putting me into every traditional girl sport possible prior to this; ballet, figure skating, highland dancing, etc., but all I wanted to do was get on the mats and fight my big brothers! [Laughs]

MAYTT: What aspect of competitive judo did you like the best? Does that aspect continue to motivate your training or has the reason for training changed?
KH: I’ve always been super competitive (probably due to tough-on-me big brothers), but the day that I got my first judo trophy (1st place in the Under-12 Boys Division when I was eight), I was hooked! Judo competitions were always at least once a month growing up and I couldn’t get enough of them, I just wanted to compete all the time if possible. Even though I was always so nervous before a competition (and still am!), I treasured that rush and that adrenaline pump (and still do!) Yes, for sure, my reasons for training now have changed (so many reasons to train), but back then my ONLY reason for training was to win competitions! [Laughs]

MAYTT: With the intense focus of competition associated with high level judo, does having that “competitive edge” tend to trickle into your everyday life? And if so, has it ever been a problem?

KH: Judo competitions provide such an intense level of focus, such an intense level of emotion. Yes, I truly believe a person who goes to the highest levels of judo competition has to be a “bit nuts” and singularly focused. So yes, sometimes back then (and even still now) that would trickle over into everyday life. One has to remind oneself occasionally to “simmer down” or “there is more to life.” Spouses, parents, or friends don’t always understand one’s laser-focused targeted drive at all times.

MAYTT: That’s an interesting way of looking at it. From 1985 to 1988, you traveled and competed with the Judo Canada Team for the World Grand Prix. What was that experience like for you? How much expectation is associated or implied with being a member of a competitive team such as this?
KH: It was an interesting time. For me, I believe it just happened a decade too early. I was such a young teen when I started travelling the world with a much more mature team. I didn’t understand the expectations, I didn’t realize my emotions, I actually went from judo being the love of my life to disliking the sport entirely.

MAYTT: Can you give us an idea of what the training regimen was like being part of the Judo Canada Team? Did training leave time for anything else or were sacrifices made to ensure a certain level of performance was sustained?
KH: The training was typical of any high-level international competitor I believe, a few times a week at your home dojo with frequent training camps at the National Training Centre (for Judo in Canada, that is in Montreal which is a six hour flight from British Columbia) and many international competitions and training camps overseas. So no, this did not leave any time for anything else really. If you were to commit to the program, you would sacrifice pretty much all else.

MAYTT: Was the competition aspect of judo balanced with the art’s philosophical aspects? How was “mutual welfare and benefit” practiced in a competitive arena or, at that time, was the focus primarily “to win?”

KH: Just in the last few years, since rediscovering my love for judo, I’ve realized all the philosophical aspects of judo (and really come to love the sport/art for those aspects), but yes at that time, back then, the only focus on anything was “to win.”

MAYTT: At 19, you retired from judo competition and became a stunt performer in Hollywood. What influenced you to make the transition to work in the film industry?
KH: Well, it’s Hollywood North actually (in Vancouver, British Columbia) not Hollywood, where I started and still do stunt-work, and I guess because I dabbled in the film industry with the odd stunt here and there throughout my teens while travelling for judo, it always intrigued me. I could go on set for a day and get beat up or fall down a cliff, or get lit on fire or whatever and it paid well, and it required a wide range of skill-sets that I was fascinated to learn. What career pushes you to learn to ride a 6-foot unicycle and get your pilot license and learn to back-flip, etc., and know that everything you do could come in handy one day, but even if it didn’t, it’s all in the name of “work training” and you have a new challenge every day! [Laughs]

MAYTT: That’s amazing how you became interested in stunt performing. Many judoka that withdraw from competing take up the role as coach, helping the younger generation grow. Following your retirement, was coaching future competitive judo players ever an option or a consideration?

KH: To be honest, I disliked judo so much when I retired that I didn’t even want to be on the mats anymore. Only after our “Eighties Ladies” Reunion years later when I made my return to the mats, did I suddenly have the desire to coach and pass on to future generations. Now I absolutely love teaching the youngest of young (my dojo accepts judoka as young as three) to the oldest of old (like my age hahaa!) and everything in between. I even still love competing occasionally!

I also am exploring visually-impaired judo with a recent experience and I think it is fascinating and rewarding and I hope to be able to help in this arena as well.

MAYTT: In your years working in the film industry, what are some of your most memorable experiences working in Hollywood North?
KH: Up here in Hollywood North, we have made some fun films over the years. I just did a movie called Playing with Fire where I ride an ATV (doubling the actress) in a chase scene with John Cena, and it culminates with me running him over, so that was fun. And then we go all the way back to Rumble in the Bronx (one of my first movies in my early days as a stunt-performer) where Jackie Chan urges two girls to race for the drug-money so I end up riding a motocross bike over twenty cars. I also did a couple fight scenes in that movie.

MAYTT: In 2012, after twenty-five years in the film industry, you returned to judo. What prompted your decision to return to the Gentle Art? Did you feel you accomplished what you set out to do as a stunt performer? What did your time as a stunt performer teach you about judo and vice versa?

KH: It was an “Eighties Ladies” Reunion I was invited to (all the Team Canada women’s judo team from the 80s era) but the caveat was that we all had to attend at least one judo practice before attending the reunion. I found my old judo gi and went to my local club here and fell in love all over again (it was like when I was eight to twelve years old for me again).

As for stunt-work, I still do it today and have done it on and off throughout my life and will still probably do it until I’m just too old to do it any longer, but I guess what I learned through judo that applied to stunt-work is that anything can be learned if practiced enough; that anything you set your mind to (even if it is a skill you never think in a million years you can acquire), that you can acquire that skill, that you can accomplish anything with perseverance, practice, and mental prowess.

MAYTT: In returning to judo, did you see the training differ to when you first began the art? Many veteran martial artists have said that training today is far different than when they came up through the ranks, often citing that training has been modified or even “watered down” in some cases. Had judo evolved in your opinion based on your prior experience?

KH: Yes definitely. One of the clubs I was in, we would lay down face up and the Sensei would walk on our stomachs (and occasionally jump up and down on one of us) to “toughen us up” – this would never happen in today’s dojos. Not saying this should be happening today, but there was a lot that we did back then to “get tough” and “fight hard.” There was a lot of randori back then and competition style training (at the Kodokan in Japan also) that doesn’t seem to exist much today in modern judo dojos. I like a balance of both if possible, with a lot of the philosophy of judo thrown onto the younger generation of kids. They need to know the tradition and values of judo, which can carry over to their everyday life and the rest of their lives.

MAYTT: In 2013, you won 15 tournaments, including taking the gold at the Masters World Championships in Abu Dubai. How different of a competitor were you in 2013 compared to 25 years prior? Were the goals different? Were the competitions a personal mission to prove to yourself you still had it in you?

KH: Haha, I think you nailed it in your last question. I wanted to prove something to myself (no parents, no coaches, no associations this time), that I still had it in me. I wanted to fight all ages, all competitions, and as often as possible. The first day when I came back, I got killed by a youngster and that lit the fire under my butt, and I went on a mission. I loved and lived hard training that year, and even got my weight down to the same division I fought as a teen. When I proved the things I wanted to prove to myself, I was content and I stopped competing the day I finished out the year with the Masters World Championships win. Haha, then I started training Jiu-jitsu and got the bug again!

Kathy Hubble winning gold at the 2013 Master World Championship in Abi Dhubi, U.A.E.

MAYTT: With your return to judo, you also began cross-training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) and quickly participated in tournaments. Why did you choose to cross-train in BJJ as opposed to other martial arts? Were BJJ’s roots in judo something you felt would be an asset to both your ability to compete and for your own personal development as a martial artist?

KH: My ne-waza (ground-fighting) was always sub-par so I wanted to improve that area of my judo and also I figured that after I finished my internal mission, I could take up a new thing that would excite me and challenge me. I now firmly believe all judoka should be cross-training BJJ and all BJJ practitioners should be cross-training judo. There shouldn’t be any divide about which is better or history of the two arguments or anything of the sort, people should just cross-train both because each one enhances the other.

MAYTT: I see. Given that you have experience in competing in both judo and BJJ, how would you say the two styles differ and how would they be more similar than people may realize? Is there something that both forms of competitions could learn from each other?

KH: Well, there’s always that meme that “BJJ” means: “Basically Just Judo” but there’s so much more to it. The two styles couldn’t be any more different but the same. I’ve always used the analogy of: “Judo is 70% standup and 30% ground-work” and “Jiu-jitsu is 70% ground-work and 30% standup” just for vague terms, but honestly lately judo has become so much more about groundwork so that analogy doesn’t really hold water anymore. For example in our club, and in most clubs in Canada, we’re now doing about 50/50 with our practices (50% newaza and 50% tachiwaza) – the rule-set in judo competition is allowing for so much more groundwork these days so in order to be competitive nowadays you have to be very well versed in both. We have a lot of BJJ practitioners who come to our club and they do quite well in competition once they learn a bit of standup. And they can take their new standup judo skills back to their BJJ comps and do better also.

MAYTT: For those who wish to cross-train and compete, what advice would you give with regards to setting goals, personal expectations, and adapting a particular mindset? A level of patience on the part of individual with themselves would seem to be paramount.

KH: Yes, you’re right, a practitioner must be patient with themselves as they learn a new martial art. I think we all go in thinking that because of our background in one art it’ll be easy to pick up the new art, but they’re all different and while we may have some aptitude because of our background, we shouldn’t have some attitude because of it. Go in as a sponge to soak up all the new knowledge and most importantly, be respectful and humble.

MAYTT: In 2012, you unveiled the Never-Tie Martial Arts Belts line; a product born out of personal frustration to better maximize young practitioners’ time on the mat. Is there any concern that the traditional ritual of tying one’s belt may become an obsolete practice, especially considering that the tying of the belt provides a learning experience as well?

KH: No, it will never replace the traditional belt; it was never intended to. It’s simply a way to get young butts on mats, to ease the frustrations of many parents (and instructors) with the wasted precious time as they begin their journey. The Never-Tie Belt was invented for a white to yellow belt level for very young practitioners to just get them started. It’s hard enough for martial arts instructors to get young hyper kids to line-up and get started without the added frustration of tying their belts for them all the time (and then them falling off within two minutes of class starting and doing it all over again, while simultaneously teaching class). They use it while they learn to tie the traditional way. It’s perfect for the Tiny Tot class to get them started and hopefully they will get sparked about martial arts (and maybe not thirteen other sports) and begin their life-long journey without the distraction, and they learn to tie as they go and get bigger. My three to six year old class uses it and yellow-belt and under only. My goal with The Never-Tie Belt has only ever been about giving kids the spark for martial arts and getting them on the mats young. This eliminates a lot of frustration for all parties so the young child can just enjoy the love of this new sport/art!

MAYTT: Final question, Sensei. In all of your years of training in both judo and BJJ, what was the most memorable or most valuable lesson you learned and how does that lesson continue to teach and inspire you even today?
KH: There will always be pitfalls, and disappointments, and challenges in life, but you can overcome them if you apply the discipline and philosophies learned in martial arts. As an instructor, I try to remember that we are not only creating great martial artists, but we’re creating great human beings in society.

MAYTT: Thank you again for joining us, Kathy Sensei! It was an incredible journey!

KH: It was an absolute pleasure!

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