Many Ways to be a Warrior: Illness, martial arts, and seeing myself in Kojirō Sasaki

By: Gabriel Leão November 3, 20230 Comments
Sakaki Kojiro looking intently at the camera

Content warning: Discussion of ableism

The muscular torso of Poseidon is cut in an “X” movement by two opposing katanas; it slowly tumbles to the ground, and his words of disdain towards humanity become a memory. Kojirō Sasaki has won his bout in favor of humanity over the gods, keeping the earthlings’ hope in the game. It’s a powerful moment that makes me think of my own “golden age”: while our circumstances might be different, the “weak” but incredible strategist samurai from the Record of Ragnarok anime became one of the characters that I identify with the most.  

In this anime, gods and humans gather at the Coliseum in the afterlife where they watch gladiatorial matches pitting the latter against the former, among them the bout between Kojirō and Poseidon. The God’s Council has decided that the human species has irredeemable traces; therefore, bound to be exterminated. Humanity’s last chance resides in the tournament of Ragnarök, where the earthlings will be spared if they can surpass the gods in seven out of 13 matches. The humans find their champions in the Einherjar, notable personalities from history. 

Kojirō is the only champion that grows old in the afterlife as his “golden age” is related to his learning prowess and not his physical peak, therefore he is represented as an aging swordsman. I identify with him in many points: to the untrained eye, he seems feeble and “undeserving” of representing his species when compared to more physically capable and “heroic” figures. In the anime, as in real-life, history remembers him as the opponent defeated by Musashi Miyamoto, who considered him his toughest contender. Like Kojirō, I’ve been treated as the underdog, and still am, on many occasions due to my background and health conditions. 

When you are not a so-called “genetic übermensch,” people tend to look down on you in sports environments as early as grade school. Even though we have the Paralympics, other sports events and more welcoming places for those who deal with disabilities, illnesses, and neurodiversity, participants are still bullied for not meeting the expected standards. It is something that I still deal with to this day, through my experiences as a journalist navigating an industry rife with ableism under a veneer of “inclusivity.” Kojirō may not be himself disabled nor ill, but him being seen as “weak” and having to overcome that perception is something that ill, disabled, and/or neurodivergent people can relate to. 

In my teenage years my knee was bruised while I was playing soccer; after immobilization and physical therapy I still felt an excruciating pain. A surgery was performed, and it was revealed that I had hypermobile joints. Some years later I was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, Hypermobility Type (EDSHMB). It causes my joints to be looser, my skin stretchy, and leads to chronic pain and fatigue. The diagnosis helped me understand more about myself and why I struggled with sports and other activities that require motor skills like dancing.  

I was already born with Glucose-6-Phosphate Dehydrogenase deficiency (G6PDD), a common enzyme deficiency that, when triggered, causes red blood cell breakdown leading to complications like anemia, and at 11 years old I started my lifelong bouts with depression. Both maladies combined with EDS made my life miserable, and in my teenhood I was easy pickings for bullies. I knew that although doctors didn’t recommend impact sports, I had to do something for myself. Hidden from relatives and friends, I started to practice wrestling, a sport that never was popular in Brazil even after the emergence of MMA. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is king here, and in fact it was the discipline where I started my journey under Oswaldo Carnivalle-sensei at age 11. Still, BJJ is harder on my joints, and because of this and my depression making it difficult to even leave my bedroom, I parted prematurely from it. Instead, I would find my place in wrestling. 

Being the unhealthy kid green in combat sports made me the weak link of the wrestling rooms; some coaches outright banned me from their mats when knowing about my EDS. The situation was another hill that I felt I would have to climb while people looked down on me over their shoulders. 

Where I was allowed to practice, I would spar with women who eagerly accepted me and a few guys who could see that I brought heart, among them Marcelo Coppa and also Jefferson “Tank” Ludwig, an MMA fighter who, after retiring, would come out of the closet—a courageous stand in a field often riddled with prejudice. I’m forever grateful to them as I started to feel like part of something, even if some guys didn’t want me in there, and also to find my own personality. Their kind eyes allowed me to feel something like “home.” Besides my late grandparents, my relatives aren’t too supportive of my wrestling activities and tend to consider it not “a real job.”

At the Seigen Toda’s dojo, Kojirō was seen as nothing but an annoyance, and he was not only perceived as a bum but also as a coward for forfeiting matches to avoid injuries and to safeguard his learning process. I also recall those looks: since my disability isn’t readily apparent and I appear strong to most people, I would often hear that I was afraid, or indulging in self-pity.

By watching how Record of Ragnarok told the origins of Kojirō Sasaki, I reminisced about those years. The samurai would lose his matches; but Kojirō uses his defeats to study and learn the way of the sword, playing the matches and possible outcomes in his mind, analyzing how adversaries move and think.  

Gabriel Leão losing a beach wrestling match in a 2007 tournament held in Praia Grande, São Paulo, Brazil / Personal Archive

As a writer, I often interviewed the late legendary boxer Eder Jofre, a three-time world champion regarded by Ring Magazine as the best pound-for-pound boxer of the ‘60s who is also mentioned in Hajime no Ippo. In a private conversation he told me to pay attention to everyone in the gym, including to those who commit mistakes, so I wouldn’t repeat them. It is a lecture that I carry through life not only on the mat but outside of it as well. 

I studied the game, and in time I would surprise people by applying a move correctly or even beating them. Those too proud would deny they lost, since their ego wouldn’t allow them to be surpassed by a “sick boy” or a “freak,” even during practice. Once when I saw in my opponent the same face and eyes of Kojirō’s opponents, unable to grasp their defeat, it brought a smirk to my face. 

Kojirō, too, shocks his instructors and classmates when they see his skills after dismissing his scrawny physique. The samurai didn’t have his improvement handed to him, though, as he was a diligent person, relentless in pursuing his truth while no one was watching him, and those hours of silence and solitude are the ones that matter and shine in his anime story.  Many of those in martial arts and combat sports, in particular beginners, believe that the best way to improve is by sparring; thus neglecting repeating movements, studying, watching videos and most of all reading. More than once, I heard: “I don’t need to study, I just have to climb there and kick some ass.” I don’t have to mention that those who said these lines to me didn’t become household names. Renowned boxer Tony Jeffries, instead, spent hours and hours studying the sweet science, and still does. 

There is beauty in the way Kojirō draws his techniques in his notes and trains by using his environment to hone his craft. The animation shows his growth as he goes from a clumsy youngster to a master of precise movements, and the artists behind Record of Ragnarok competently portray the transformation which is a result of repeating the same actions for uncountable times, be it Kojirō or the animators themselves. 

These repetitive movements lead to fluidity which in turn can open to cherished moments. One of my sweetest wrestling memories happened when on December 31, 2007, veteran judoka, BJJ fighter and wrestler Rosangela Conceição invited me to be her sparring partner as she prepared for the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. For me, it meant a lot that someone so regarded had noted my evolution and considered me good enough to help her. It was also one of my last moments as a competitive wrestler. 

Shortly after this, two college professors told me that I would have a TV show on an award-winning TV Station. This was a remarkable opportunity: it would enable me to keep training since it doesn’t require many hours and the salary would allow me to really invest in my sport and also improve my livelihood and that of those around me. 

It was a lie. This offer was for them to satisfy their empty white saviorist urges while showing that a minority could make it in their world of “meritocracy,” but in reality I was dragged around this area with more phony promises. At least in wrestling I can see the harm coming my way.

Today, my work as a media professional is better as I focus on foreign publications and have turned my back to a country that doesn’t want me. If I talk about my illnesses I will face blatant employment discrimination, since while the journalism industry claims to support diversity it is all about optics—maintaining a facade of being inclusive. This reflects larger societal trends: Brazil is, after all, a country where there are still people living in conditions similar to slavery. 

The downside of my journey is that my golden age as a wrestler has become the lost years that haunt me daily. I tried to get back seven years after said events, but I wasn’t the same, and my depression made it even harder to keep it up. In my return bid I was denied by one club and tried two other gyms before I was accepted at the renowned São Paulo Olympic Center under Lucimar Medeiros with a recommendation from Conceição. 

When Kojirō is facing the fearsome Poseidon, he is supported by other historical samurai beside Musashi and Toda whom he had faced, like Yagyū Munetoshi and Kamiizumi Nobutsuna. He learned from and later employed their signature techniques in his bout with the god from the deep, giving him an edge he wouldn’t have if he employed just his own moves.

Kojirō performing the Niten Ganryu Style which combines all the styles of his previous opponents and supporters / Netflix

Kojirō’s friends and colleagues feel like my wrestling friends, even though I don’t believe in a “martial arts community” nor do I believe in a journalistic one. Therefore, I see that those mentioned in this piece, and others that I still talk to, are kinder to me than people from my profession, in particular those from here. Among those dear are the Jaoude brothers. 

After getting online coaching from his brother Adrian Jaoude, a well establIshed wrestler and martial artist who later would venture into American professional wrestling, I decided to work with Antoine Jaoude, a rare South American wrestling Olympian. In 2019, by seeing how managers and wrestlers tried to harm his journey back to the Olympics, I would act as a scout studying his matches, his possible adversaries, and accomplished wrestlers from whom we could learn and adapt their techniques to his repertoire. 

For this article, I asked Antoine over the phone how he felt by having me as his scout. He said, “I consider you a fundamental part in this stage of my wrestling life. You own a singular vision in said position by presenting me with statistics that help me understand the competition and previous matches in order to work on strategies.”

Those words, and seeing how Jaoude employs my studies, makes me feel validated, as he is our most respected wrestler, our team captain, and he is using my analyses and growing with them. All this process made me feel honored. It is not just my admiration for the person and athlete that Antoine is, who after all that he has done for our nation, the country keeps failing him. We were bound by the fact that we both struggle with depression, something that I had only told before to his brother and my coach Medeiros. Even though mental health is starting to be discussed now in sports, it isn’t a very popular subject in the locker room.

In our conversation, Antoine told me that by also having depression, I was more empathic to his ordeal. He confided in me how his late mother endured a severe depression, and it made him look at it through a different angle. “You undoubtedly can help people, like you did with me, who deal with this condition,” he told me.

When I look back to my second passage in wrestling, my worst opponents were the tag-team of depression and EDS. If I open up about it, people come with the meritocracy speech, pointing out that the disabled or ill wrestlers that I admire were able to surpass the odds and become champions while I’m just “ill.” Some even tell me about fictional “supercrips” like Marvel’s Daredevil. They should know that illnesses and disabilities aren’t “one size fits all.”

Sometimes when I open up, I also have to deal with attempts to explain my own mental illness to me, and even convert me when people say that I was born this way because I was evil in previous lives or because I don’t pray. Brazil is still very behind when it comes to mental health, and I avoid talking about it to acquaintances. It is easier to discuss it with my psychologist, doctors, close friends, or to watch media that portrays depression and other illnesses.

There are other characters in Record of Ragnarok with traits that I relate to. Hercules, before becoming the muscle-bound protector of mankind, was a meager young man named “Alcides” who had a great heart but it didn’t translate into fighting prowess. Raiden is riddled with hypertrophy that made him unable to walk from a young age, until he could overcome it and later weaponize it. I know how it means to be very ill or to end up on the bad side of a beating.

But more than Hercules and Raiden, Record of Ragnarok gave me Kojirō Sasaki, a character who now helps me recall my cherished memories. We don’t need to share an identity with a character to find meaning in their story, even meanings that can help us to understand our marginalized identities. I relate to Kojirō in our shared human condition.

Helping the Jaoudes and others with my wrestling knowledge gives me a warm feeling and a sense of recognition from a sport that helps me to continue to thrive in life even if I am not active now. I don’t know if I will ever get back to the mat to practice. But seeing Kojirō brings me to those days when I was the long-haired wrestler with a never-say-die attitude and always willing to learn. 

Note: I’d like to thank coaches Roberto Trindade, Edson Kudo, Graham Cash, Daniel Ferreira, William Naim, Thiago Queiroz and Lucimar Medeiros who accepted me in their wrestling rooms. 

About the Author : Gabriel Leão

Gabriel Leão work as a journalist and is based in São Paulo, Brazil. He has written for outlets in Brazil, the UK, Canada and the USA such as Vice, Ozy Media, Remezcla, Al Jazeera, Women’s Media Center, Clash Music, Yahoo! Brasil, Anime Herald, and Brazil’s ESPN Magazine. He also holds a Master’s degree in Communications and a post-grad degree in Foreign Relations.

Read more articles from Gabriel Leão

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