Russia is no stranger to carefully crafting military propaganda for Western audiences. From "doomsday" submarines to missiles with "unlimited range," the Kremlin has a knack for the dramatic when they know it'll capture the world's digital attention span. If I'm honest, that's why I clicked on the link for a recently uploaded video of Russian president Vladimir Putin training with the Russian Judo team.
I expected to see a carefully crafted bit of propaganda meant to hide Putin's advancing age. Instead, I was surprised to find that the 66-year-old man actually does seem rather spry and capable. Moreover, despite some rust on the joints, he genuinely does appear to know what he's doing on those mats.
Most real martial arts training looks like this: two people working on techniques at 50% intensity.
(Image released by the Kremlin)
It's worth noting that despite years of training in multiple forms of martial arts, I'm no expert in Judo. My background began with scholastic wrestling and led to a passionate pursuit of martial arts throughout my time in the Marine Corps. I secured multiple waivers to earn my black belt in the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program by the time I was a corporal, and then proceeded to join the Corps' first formal mixed martial arts team, Fight Club 29, under the tutelage of (then) Sergeant Major Mark Geletko. During my time there, I trained largely in American boxing, Muay Thai, and Pankration, before transferring to a unit near Boston, where I studied Brazilian jiu-jitsu for a time under Rickson Gracie Cup Champion Abmar Barbosa. Since then, I've gotten out of the Corps and moved to Georgia, where I've focused largely on Filipino martial arts systems.
I went undefeated in my short semi-pro fighting career, but I left the world of competition behind when I took a solid right hook in sparring and lost much of the vision in my right eye (since repaired). I'm not the toughest or baddest fighter in the world, the country, or probably my state - but I have been around long enough that I can usually pick the real fighters out of a crowd when I see them.
If I were to sum up my expertise, I'd call myself a jack of multiple martial arts trades, but certainly a master of none. I've had the good fortune to train with a number of masters though, and it's not a title I take lightly.
Despite Vladimir Putin holding a black belt in Judo, this video suggests that he's no master either, though he could have been close once. Coming back to a discipline you've left stagnant for years is a lot like riding a bike: you may never forget how to do it, but when it's been a while, you still look a little foolish. And Putin does indeed seem a bit silly executing the agility drills at the opening the video.
From there, the video moves to what I expected to see: a young man with a black belt serving as Putin's training dummy and doing a fine job of allowing himself to be thrown, rolled, and balled up, meaning the former KGB agent didn't need to execute any judo techniques with the requisite form or intensity necessary to actually take down an opponent in a real fight. Putin's footwork and use of leverage does, however, suggest an active awareness of his body and what it's supposed to be doing as he executes throws and leg sweeps. Form and leverage are integral to the proper execution of these types of techniques, and while the intensity is lacking, the form does largely seem present.
For plenty of 66-year-olds, this stretch is death defying enough.
(Image released by the Kremlin)
These drills aren't meant to be street fights, they're meant to develop the muscle memory required to execute these movements with little or no thought, and in that regard, Putin shows a level of competency in the footage that suggests that at least some of the martial arts awards and honors bestowed upon him may have been legitimately earned.
Of course, I've read pieces like this one in the Washington Post where "tough guys" have accused Putin of lacking real chops, since the only footage one tends to find of him are in training environments such as this, but in truth, these claims are largely foolish grabs for attention rather than legitimate criticisms. Training of the sort shown in this video is not only completely normal, it would make little sense for a 66-year-old man to climb in the ring and spar at 100% with anyone just to silence an internet troll--even for someone as bravado-based as Putin.
Putin may not look like a spring chicken in this video, but he does appear to harbor a level of martial arts competency that, while rusty, is certainly more impressive than I've seen out of other celebrity martial arts "masters" like Steven Seagal. Is Putin as dangerous as he wants the world to believe? Probably not--but for a Bond villain on the downward slope of his 60s, he doesn't appear to be a pushover either.