In fact, when I ask him how he'd fare in today's UFC, as he was born a decade too early for the popular explosion of MMA, he just shrugs. "I think I might do OK, mate," is all he offers.
Judd Reid is humble to fault despite being one of the most accomplished Karate fighters on the planet, a true legend in the Eastern martial arts world. To put it bluntly, Judd is a badass. How else can you describe a man who took on the real life kumite at 40 years of age, fighting 100 accomplished karate fighters and black belts in a row and living to tell about it, a mythic feat that only 18 other martial artists have achieved throughout history?
Guilty by association, he also happens to be a good buddy of mine.
I'll start all the way back in 2014, in an oppressively hot, smokey, end-of-the world bar in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. It was only 7 am but grizzled patrons were still drooped over their beers from the night before, unwilling to face the light outside. I was staying at the hotel above the Pickled Parrot and waiting to meet an Australian guy named Anton Cavka that morning.
I'd never spoken to Cavka before except a quick email, as one of my best friends in the world and fellow Aussie, Clint Groenmeyer, had suggested we meet so I could help market Cavka's new documentary, called "The 100-Man Fight."
Just as I was checking my watch and thinking he might not show up, he sat down at my table, a burst of energy like a man who didn't have time to waste, a shock of good blonde sun-kissed hair and intelligent eyes. Anton introduced himself warmly, like we were old friends, and ordered us two more coffees. Over the next hour of pleasant conversation, he told me all about his new film, as well as recounted his lifelong best friend Judd’s story.
Born in Melbourne, Australia, a young Judd Reid became obsessed with karate after seeing some kids practicing on the playground - and Bruce Lee movies at the local cinema. Training became his passion, to the point that he often skipped school to take the hour-long train ride to his dojo so he could work out. Soon, he was considered a prodigy, and with the help of his Sensei, caught the attention of a karate legend, not one hour away but all the way in Japan.
Judd’s invite was unheard of for an outsider, an monumental honor. He moved to Japan with one suitcase, unable to speak the language and not knowing a soul. He lived and breathed karate for those three years, sequestered in secretive training with some of the best fighters in Japan - and the world.
Even communication with his own family was limited to one outgoing letter the first year, but Reid confesses in a moment of levity that the hardest thing to get used to was the same breakfast for three years straight; a bowl of rice, miso soup, seaweed with an egg on top of it. They slept on the floor, with no air-conditioning in the scorchingly humid summers, and their wet gis froze stiff in the winter
His instructors broke him physically and mentally in order to build him back up like forging molten steel. There was karate instruction and training for six hours a day. But most of all, there was fighting, as Kyokushin Karate is all about full contact, are knuckle sparring where you can't punch to the face, but certainly can kick to the head or smash through the opponents ribs or legs.
There were many times that Reid couldn’t walk after doing 1,000 squats in a row, or straighten his legs for weeks when his limbs were beaten black from taking so many kicks, but it was such an honor to be taught by the demi-god of Kyokushin (who passed away in 1994 with almost 12 million disciples worldwide) that he never even considered quitting. Reid adapted to the grueling punishment and excelled in his training, coming to revere the elder teacher as surrogate father.
Cavka recalled the first time he met up with his friend at a Tokyo golf course after those three years. Amazed at Judd’s new physique, he asked to see some of the karate he’d learned. So, Reid walked up to a 2-foot thick tree and kicked it, bare-shinned, with all his might. The tree cracked and swayed, then fell to the ground, leaving Cavka with mouth agape but Reid apologetic.
Although finished with his uchi deshi training, there was more work to be done. Sosai Oyama instilled in his students that there were two accomplishments every great karate fighter should pursue in his lifetime:
1) To be a world champion, and
2) To complete the 100-man kumite.
Reid, still only 25, undertook the first, leading him through a storied professional career that certainly had its share of frustration. Year after year, he came in 2nd and 3rd in international tournaments but was never crowned champion. His response was always to train harder. So Reid moved from Australia to Thailand, where he trained with world-class fighters of all disciplines — kickboxing, karate, Muay Thai, and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Finally, he won the world championship of karate in 2010 at the age of 38.
Reid was hesitant to accept the invite as he’d seen the kumite fell great fighters whom he respected.
“When I first was asked to do the 100-man, I said “No way. I can’t do it,” said Reid, “It’s too hard. I had seen some people go through it, and actually one of them was one of my opponents, Masada Akira.”
Reid fought the karate world champion twice before as an opponent when Akira attempted the 100-man kumite years earlier. He faced him in round 10, when Akira was fresh, and again round 70 when Akira was delirious, a walking punching bag whose mind and body were in shock, leading him to start biting opponents.
“I guess he was just going into survival mode. I had never seen anything like it, so that’s why I said no and continued to say ‘no’ for a while,” he says.
He trained like a man possessed in Thailand, six days a week for at least six hours a day in the intense tropical heat. The regiment he put his body through brought him to new levels of conditioning in anticipation of the pounding he’d have to take; heavy weight training, carrying huge logs, sprinting up steep hills, burpees with a man on his back, hitting the heavy bag for an hour straight, and letting other professionals tee off on him with punches as kicks while he stood still and absorbed them. Most days he lost 10 lbs. or more just from sweating in the tropical heat!
Then, he was ready. The milestone date of the kumite, October 22, 2011 was upon him. It was held in a heavily guarded underground dojo beneath Osaka’s Perfectionary Gymnasium with Cavka’s camera the only one rolling. Reid was supported by his mother and sister in attendance, his Thai girlfriend, Mo, Cavka, and Nicholas Pettas, his co-student and only other foreigner to complete the 1,000-day training.
As the fights started, Reid was a beast, handily beating all of his master opponents. But as black belt after black belt fought him to the best of their capabilities, the physical toll began to mount. He rolled through the first 50 fights, his otherworldly conditioning training paying off, but hit a wall around fight 70. The last 20 fights or so he was past exhausted, unable to use his legs to defend or kick, wavering with dizziness, taking a tsunami of punishment from his opponents but never giving in.
The movie ends with Reid summoning his last ounce of willpower for just one more fight, his 100th, completing the 100-man kumite to honor his late master and the dream he’d followed since he was a teen.
When doctors examined him they said it looked like he’d been in multiple car crashes, his knee tendon severed, shoulder ripped, legs and torso black with bruises, and his whole body cramping severely.
Still to this day, Judd doesn't like to talk about the 100-man fight, professionally or even during off-the-record moments. "All I remember is pain," he says. 'My whole world was pain."
But it wasn't until months later that I actually got to meet Reid, who lived in Thailand with his wife and son. Expecting to meet a 10-foot legend, I was pleased to meet a regular and down-to-earth guy, who wears a Boston Red Sox hat that contrast with his thick Aussie accent. He picked me up at the airport in Bangkok, an hour and a half away, just out of kindness, and took me out for Thai food and beers.
"Eat up, mate," Judd says as he orders us another round of beers. My training had started, even though I didn't know it yet.
However, I thought I just would be watching the 12-day camp, with three insanely intense workouts per day. But I knew I was in trouble when, on the day before the camp started, Judd presented me with my own crips white go and white belt and invited me to "jump in whenever I want."
Despite being woefully out of shape, never having tried Kyokushin karate before, and suffering a broken rib, I managed to survive the camp. Another Huffington Post article followed.
Together, the three of us were planning a great week-long vacation where we trained every morning, worked on the book over coffee all day long, and enjoyed a few beers at night.
It was one of the hardest things I've ever gone through in my life, too, and it's fair to say that we were both traumatized, and afraid to go to sleep for weeks afterwards.
Needless to say, you grow closer to someone going through these experiences, good or bad, and after months had passed, Judd and I both agreed that the best way to honor Anton's memory was to finish the book that he had poured his heart and soul into.
Finally, The Young Lions was published in 2016 and is doing great, spreading an inspirational real-life Karate Kid story (and a hell of a lot of hard hitting!) to readers around the world. Serious martial artists from near and far have sent their kudos and well-wishes, thanking Judd and Anton for writing a book that honors Sosai Oyama and the true spirit of karate. There's even been conversations with Dolph Lundgren, a Kyokushin Karate black belt and now friend of Reid's, about making it into a Hollywood movie!
I've written seven books in all, but this is the one that I'm most proud of, and, most importantly, I believe Anton would be pleased.
This year, I booked my ticket to Thailand (a three-hour flight from the Philippines) and was ready to attend the camp again from March 3-9. Unfortunately, I've had some health problems (weird stomach parasite or something), so I couldn't jump in.
But that's also the reason I have time to sit at this coffee shop here in Thailand and type out this account of my friendship with Judd-O, our shared history with The Young Lions, and our fallen brother, Anton.
Training with them is humbling, to say the least, but I'm even more impressed with how they'd do anything for you. Whether it's picking me up at the airport, letting me stay at their condo for free as long as I want, or even driving me to the hospital and insisting on waiting with me when I have a doctor's appointment for my stomach, these guys are kind and loyal as they are physically imposing.
It would be a fitting end if I told you that Judd, Scott and I roamed the streets of Bangkok every night, fighting crime using our karate skills. But real life is usually a lot less glamorous that that. In fact, on most nights, we just storm the all-you-can-eat sushi buffet, put down a few beers, and go our separate ways by 9 pm to hit the sack, like most buddies in their mid 40s do, I guess.
But I'm just as proud to know 'em, and share their story with you here.
To see real video of the kumite or rent the documentary, go to www.100ManFight.com.
Check out The Young Lions book on Amazon.
Or join one of Shihan Reid's camps at ThailandKarateCamps.com
A special thanks to Judd, his wife Mo and son, Max, my main man Clint G, Scotty P, Mean Dean the Karate Machine, the entire Kyokushin family across the world, and, of course, in honor of the memory of Anton Cavka.