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Gary Smith
March 24, 1986
She started life as Rena Glickman, and today Brooklyn's Rusty Kanokogi is the queen of judo
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March 24, 1986

Rumbling With Rusty

She started life as Rena Glickman, and today Brooklyn's Rusty Kanokogi is the queen of judo

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Strange feelings came over her as she became pregnant with her first child. Soon there would be something small and fragile in her arms—it would be O.K. to be soft now, to finally let go and be like other women. Part of her felt afraid, part of her relieved. During her week in the hospital and three agonizing days in labor, no one—not her mother, not her husband—visited or called her. "He was probably off somewhere, bombed," she says. "I said to myself, 'See? Don't be soft. This world is tough. Stay tough. The hell with everybody!' I asked the doctor to bring me divorce papers."

A full-time job, as a switchboard operator for a garment-district sweatshop in Manhattan, and a baby were not enough to exhaust her. One night in 1955, a man she knew showed her a move he had learned in a judo class at a nearby YMCA. He was 20 pounds lighter than Kanokogi, yet he tossed her effortlessly. "Wow!" she thought. "How could I have missed out on this?"

She talked the judo instructor into letting her join his class of 40 men. "I didn't go for self-defense," she says. "I did it to calm down." She was the first one there and the last to leave, a big-boned, 160-pound, 20-year-old woman who burst out of the broom closet where she changed clothes and shocked the men with her aggression. This was what she had been searching for since the Apaches busted up, a place where people worked and laughed, fought and were close just like a real family, and spoke a private lingo more mysterious than any jargon of the gang or the Catacombs—Hey, man, dey's real Japanese woids. A place where she could release the strength and toughness she had been stoking all her life.

On the subway platform, waiting for her train to work each morning, she pressed her hands against the billboard and thrust, practicing a throw called O-uchi-gari. Then she would turn upon the garbage, practicing a foot sweep called De-ashi-harai on startled juice containers. On the train she did squats and strangled the poles.

She stopped exercising long enough one day to notice a pervert exposing himself on the train. She drove her knee into his chin, pinned his arm behind his back, jerked the emergency stop cord and took him to the police station still unzippered. One evening during a workout a loud crack! resounded through the gymnasium. Kanokogi's right arm hung at her side like a piece of meat, her collarbone dislocated. Don't blink, Kanokogi. Keep the pain, keep it "I was one of the boys," she says. "How could I cry?" Moments later there was another crack! Her sparring partner, worrying about her, had lost his concentration and got his jaw broken competing against his next opponent, and now he howled unashamedly. Kanokogi drove the 45 minutes to the hospital, he screaming all the way, she biting back the scream and reaching across her body with her good arm to shift gears.

"God, she had brass!" says Mel Appelbaum, one of her former workout partners, who was then a first-degree black belt. "She'd bomb you away. All of a sudden you'd be flying, thinking, 'What happened? Did I slip on a banana peel?' She kicked a lot of guys' butts, and they resented it."

One man who lost to her spread the whisper that she wasn't really a woman. "I put the choke on him, and when he tapped the mat [a signal of surrender] I held on until he was convulsing," she recalls.

Women were more confused by her than men. A handful of women in the city were practicing a form of judo called kata, going through the motions but not daring actual combat. Kanokogi visited one such class and threw the instructor so hard she knocked her out. The next time she showed up, the instructor flicked off the lights and called off the class.

By her third year in judo, Kanokogi was winning half of her interclub matches against men, and headlines calling her FEMALE AMAZON and LADY MARINE began to appear. She entered the New York State YMCA championships, cut her hair even shorter, Ace-bandaged her breasts flat to look like a male and won her weight division. Word leaked out. Her victories were canceled, her medal taken away. Officials of the AAU national championships quickly inserted the word "male" in the event title to eliminate her. "I started getting mad," she says.

Her judo career snuffed in America because of her sex, Rusty dropped off her son at her mother's house in 1962 and flew to the mecca of judo, the Kodokan, in Tokyo. After she had spent a week terrorizing Japanese women in an auxiliary dojo (judo gym), the masters invited her to become the first woman ever to work out in the main dojo with the men. She practiced nine hours a day, caught cuffs in the ear that began to separate her lobe from her skull and a shot that produced a blood clot in her calf that caused it to swell as thick as her thigh. She wrapped it in clay and bandages that kept unraveling behind her and, like some crazed mummy, kept stalking back for more.

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