Sidagoo Odette Russell
NWMAF Wonder Women: Our Origin Stories in Our Own Words
If one were to observe me from the distance, it wouldn’t appear that I am a martial artist with over 40 years of training. I am a girly girl with a tomboyish edge who loves to wear red lipstick, eyeliner, and tight bleached jeans with combat boots. I am comfortable expressing myself as a sexy, powerful female that is viewed as a peaceful yet vicious beauty with retractable claws. I consider myself an open-hand fighter, which means I prefer to rip and tear rather than punch. This is why I say I have claws that rip and retract like a cat—because my opponents won’t see how dangerous I am until it is too late. The biggest aspect of my life is being a martial artist, and there is nothing I know better than that. Although the serious part of my martial arts training started at the age of 18, I actually started training taekwondo for a year at the age of 9, in 1971. Though I didn’t rise in rank above a yellow belt as a child, that quickly changed as an adult—my martial arts training stayed continuous, with minimal breaks, up until the present day (even throughout my two pregnancies). This commitment to training as well as teaching occurred soon after meeting my husband—the iconic martial artist, Sijo Abdul Mutakabbir.
Sijo Abdul Mutakabbir, the founder of SWAM Martial Arts Academy, would practice martial arts just as much as he would breathe. When I first met him, with no exaggeration, he would train on an average of 10 hours per day, committing himself to hardcore extreme workouts. As a consequence, I had to train at least half of that time. For 6 days a week, my 5-hour training sessions consisted of katas, sparring, weaponry, drills, calisthenics, weights, and cardio. We trained in the dojo and public parks, as well as in our living room. On the 7th day, Sunday, there was no rest. It was on that day that I would test my martial arts skills by competing in semi-contact tournaments. In essence, martial arts training was not only my husband’s full-time job but quickly became my second job. I had to know my katas so well that I was able to perform them at any given time despite what I wore or how I felt. I didn’t just develop muscle memory with the martial skills I acquired, I also built an in-depth understanding of each individual move, as well as the in-between moves. When my husband would describe in detail the training regimen he underwent during the 1960s and ’70s, it reminded me of the difficult and challenging upbringing of the ancient gladiators. Martial artists’ training during that era possessed a uniquely high level of bushido—the equal of which would be hard to find within individuals training from the 1980s to now.
The stories my husband would share concerning his training and competing were unimaginable. One such example is when they fought as pure warriors (gladiators) in Sunny Side Gardens, having no gloves, no mouthpieces, no groin cups, no shin guards, no forearms, no headgear—just tape on their knuckles along with their rough, hard skin and real skills to protect their bones, ligaments, and organs. I am not implying that martial arts training after the 1970s wouldn’t acquire strong and effective skills, however, those practitioners who came before that era were of a different breed of martial artists. They are those who would now be looked upon as iconic warriors. Personally, my hardcore training didn’t begin until the ’80s. Be that as it may, while the type of rigorous training I endured was not as extreme as those who trained during the 1970s and prior, my husband assured me that my training experience was pretty similar, as I had to keep up with the SWAM training during my husband’s peak training period.
During my days as a newbie in the 1980s, I was the only female student that my husband taught, and all of my training sessions, which included sparring, were with my male counterparts. My husband ran his school strict under a serious atmosphere—no playing, no laughing, no water drinking, only training. Ranking was NEVER discussed, nor did we have promotion ceremonies. Although it was on my mind, I never revealed the frustration concerning my ranking level to my instructor or to the other students. Furthermore, while it is perceived that there are benefits to being married to your instructor, I received no special treatment nor had I any power of persuasion. The only benefits (which are the best of benefits) were the level of training underwent and witnessing a martial arts icon come into his own. Not realizing, at the time, that I was receiving the best of benefits, it was still frustrating that I wasn’t allowed to discuss rank regardless of the setting—home or dojo—until ten years later when we opened our Atlanta school. Even then, the conversation was limited to involve our students’ rank, and not mine.
Overall, it took me over two years to receive each under belt rank; from white to green, green to brown, and brown to black (a little over 7 years total). The system that my husband created consists of a combination of various martial arts that includes Karate (Yummukwan and Shotokan); Kung-Fu (Wing Chun, Praying Mantis, Hung Gar, and Lama); Jiu-Jitsu (Sanuces Ryu, Aikido, and Brazilian); Kick Boxing (Muay Thai); and Internal Arts (Tai Chi and Chi Qing). Considering our belts were from the Kung Fu side of our system, I was only allowed to wear a black sash. On account of not wearing the traditional colored karate belts to identify my rank, female competitors assumed during my underbelt years that I was a black belt at tournaments until they saw the underbelt divisions I completed in.
The first semi-contact tournament I participated in was three months after I had my first child, in 1983. I competed within the women’s intermediate underbelt division, against women that were green, blue, and brown belts. During those days, there were up to 30–40 women that we had to compete against. To my joy, I placed, I believe, in second or third. That was an amazing natural high, placing and receiving a trophy in my first tournament. I competed for the balance of the ’80s until I got pregnant again in 1990. During those competitive days I participated in both katas and kumite women’s divisions within the tristate NYC areas, where 75% of my wins were in first place.
The more I train, the more I understand that the concept of martial arts is first and foremost spiritual, then mental, with the physical element coming last. Character building was indeed more important than learning how to kick and punch. I was able to better develop this analogy when we moved to Atlanta, in 1991, and opened the SWAM’s southern division. At this school, my skills in running a business were more exercised than teaching and training. This of course was frustrating to me, as I found myself training less and conducting the operational duties of an administrator. My role extended to customer service representative, custodian, accountant, business administrator, supply (this included equipment) purchaser, marketer, and counselor; the last thing I was, a martial arts instructor, is what I’m best at.
Although we moved to Atlanta from NYC, our primary income came from my husband’s NYC security business. This required him to leave and stay in NYC two to three weeks approximately every 5 weeks. When he would go to NYC, he would primarily leave me in charge of running the Atlanta dojo. We did have another black belt to assist us; however, he was only accessible 35% of the time. So opening, running, and closing the school four days a week (Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday) was primarily my responsibility, especially when my husband was out of town. I did this with two young sons, the youngest being about 5 months and the oldest 8 years. During the week I would close the school sometimes after 10 pm, getting home close to 11. To this day that school was one of my husband’s most successful schools with a large group of loyal co-ed students. I assisted in running this dojo for almost 7 years. At that point I was given the title Sidagoo, which means “Mother of SWAM” and “Head Female Instructor.”
By 1998, I received the sanction from my husband/instructor to form my own female division of SWAM, which allowed my martial arts creativity to flourish. During this period I was a 5th degree black belt with 19 years of martial arts training. This transition felt right, as I had the qualifications of thousands of hours of mat work, almost a decade of tournament participation, approximately 15 years of instructing students, and 7 years of operating a successful dojo. Currently, twenty-two years later, the division of SWAM that I created has received the respect from my instructor, my martial arts peers, and the martial arts community as a whole, as I was able to teach hundreds of females and produced 6 dedicated female black belts.
Just to name a few, I have received multiple accomplishment awards that include Women of the Year for 2016 & 2017, Grandmaster Contribution & Life Achievements 2016, AMAA Who’s Who in the Martial Arts Hall of Fame 2017, Grandmaster of the Year 2017, Dr. Moses Powell Distinguished Lifetime Leadership Science Award 2018, and 2019 AWMAI Hall of Fame Inductee honored for 30+ years of martial arts dedication. Publications that have featured my bio include Black Heroes of the Martial Arts -- Volume II By Shidoshi Ron Van Clief and Glenn Perry, Who’s Who in the Martial Arts -- Volume III By Grandmaster Jessie Bowen, and April 2017 – The UK’s Martial Arts Illustrated by Andrea Harkins.
In 2018 I received my PhD in Health Psychology. In January 2019, I was promoted to 9th degree black belt, received the title of Grandmaster, and became designated inheritor to the SWAM Martial Arts Academy System. I merge both aspects of my skills as a top-rank martial artist and a specialist in health psychology and established the respect in the Atlanta wellness industry as a wellness advocate and health educator that conducts self-defense and wellness workshops to various businesses, religious facilities, and colleges.