New look for judo event

MARK KEAST -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:26 AM ET

This coming weekend the country's top judoka gather at the Hershey Centre for the Hatashita International, formerly the Ontario Open. Organizers are hoping a new twist in the proceedings will help boost the excitement of the event.

In fact, with mixed martial arts, and especially the Ultimate Fighting Challenge, gaining in popularity, why not tap into that and do what the UFC does well? After all, many of the moves you see in mixed martial arts are judo moves -- chokes, arms locks, throws.

"The only thing that's different is there is no punching," said Roman Hatashita, the former Olympian, part of the family that has done a lot to promote the sport throughout Canada, "where you don't get your brains rattled."

By emulating the UFC, the organizers behind the event -- involving more than 700 competitors from across Canada, the U.S., and Europe, to be held Saturday and Sunday -- have added what they're calling a Grand Champions Division competition on Sunday, for both male and females. Any fighter 18 years of age and over will take on another fighter regardless of age, weight or belt. It's an ultimate winner-take-all, with the last person standing pocketing $1,000 and a Mizuno prize package. A black belt might fight a blue belt, a 150-pound fighter might take on a 300-pound fighter. As the number of competitors gradually is whittled down as the day goes on, what will be left is the best in Canada, Hatashita said.

Offering up a prize package like that is rare in a sport where many toil on the poverty line. According to Judo Ontario, there are more than 20,000 people across Canada who participate in the sport now.

"This is our way of giving back to the athletes," said Hatashita, 41, who runs the family business, Hatashita International, a martial arts distribution business in Kitchener.

The Hatashita name is well known in martial arts circles in Toronto. Roman's late uncle, Frank, ran a popular judo club on Queen Street for more than 40 years, right up to his death in 1994. He's in the Canadian Martial Arts Hall of Fame and a three-time winner of the Canadian championship in the 1930s. Roman's father John was a former president of Judo Ontario and was a top coach. The Hatashita brothers came through the internment camps in B.C. during the Second World War, with 22,000 other Japanese-Canadians. It was there where the young boys practised judo in the camps and, according to Roman, the brothers learned how to overcome adversity.

"I remember my uncle as being very charismatic," Roman said. "Everybody knew him. Not everybody can do what he did, with his personality and charisma, to grow judo across Canada."

The decision to rename next week's tournament would have made him proud.

"It's quite an honour and a tribute to our family," he said.


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