I grew up in mortal fear of the choke. “I’m going to choke the life out of you,” my father would scream at me and my mother, waving his ham-hock-sized fists in the air. And he sometimes did, leaving these purplish indentations on our necks after a few primitive squeezes. Of course, the old man was no Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioner, and for him, the choke was merely an instrument of terror — sloppily applied, save for when piano wire was involved. But the choke is so much more than he ever understood, providing skillful small people with a safe way of subduing oafs like my dad, grappling artists like Marcelo Garcia and Gordon Ryan with a canvas for painting lights-out masterpieces and some kink-positive folks with an erotic, hallucinogenic high.
In other words, the choke can squeeze together multitudes. It offers to the choker a mixture of defense, power, and in certain circumstances, excitement.
First and foremost, though, we all stand equally vulnerable against a properly applied choke. That is, all of us would-be chokers can also be choked out. “As a 170-pound former college football player, the realization of how helpless I was against a trained choke from a much smaller man was a realization of the power of jiu-jitsu,” says Zack Moore, a jiu-jitsu athlete and NFL salary cap expert. “The significance of being choked out is that anyone of any size can do it to anyone else if they become proficient enough.”
Case in point: Small men such as early-20th-century judo athletes Mitsuyo Maeda and Masahiko Kimura and more recently the Gracie family of Brazil have famously modified joint locks and chokes to quickly subdue much larger adversaries and survive against long odds. “It’s pretty interesting when you think about the history of this type of combat,” says Logan Stout, a jiu-jitsu competitor and instructor at Pittsburgh’s Stout Training. “The human body hasn’t evolved all that much in the past 200,000 years, and a choke has always worked the same basic way in terms of incapacitating an opponent and ending a fight, but over the past century, we’ve seen constant improvements in ways of applying chokes.”
The methods developed during that period were further refined after Rorion Gracie and Art Davie introduced the UFC as a means of showcasing Gracie jiu-jitsu’s superiority against other martial arts. “Chokes and joint locks in early mixed martial arts… man, that stuff leveled the playing field,” says UFC pioneer and retired professional fighter Gary Goodridge. “The way Gracie jiu-jitsu worked, it was about taking a monster like me and putting that monster down, and when I couldn’t muscle out of a joint lock or got caught in a choke that was really cinched in, that cost me some wins. It cost some other big guys some wins back in the openweight division in those days, wins we could have earned if we had known more prior to the fights. You’d be doing fine, just whaling on somebody, and then put your head or neck in the wrong direction, and that was it.”
Chokes of the sort that helped defeat the hulking Goodridge come in two forms — blood chokes like the rear-naked choke, which cut off the flow of blood to the brain and can render a foe unconscious extremely quickly, and air chokes like the guillotine choke, which work more slowly by compressing the windpipe to restrict the victim’s breathing. In the Octagon, though, they occur sans gi, a garment that makes many other chokes possible as well and are likely to be encountered in self-defense situations, where both parties are often wearing jackets, sweatshirts and other layers of clothing.
“In a self-defense situation, you can pull off some pretty wicked collar and lapel chokes if you’re up against someone in a hoodie or jacket,” says Marc Sestok, a jiu-jitsu and MMA competitor who also works as an instructor at Stout Training. “I mean, I still remember when I was a blue belt and happened to catch [pro MMA fighter] Mike Wilkins in a lapel choke. Wilkins blacked out, and as I was trying to help wake him up, his eyes popped open again and he said, ‘You’re never going to get my legs like that.’ It was pretty crazy. He had no idea what happened. But as long as you’ve got a partner who isn’t keeping the pressure on, who releases the choke when you’re out, it’s all perfectly safe.”
“The way I look at it, choking is about as safe and painless a way to end a professional, refereed fight as you’ll find, especially if it’s a rear-naked choke,” says elephantine boxer and MMA fighter Eric “Butterbean” Esch, who attributes his 11 submission wins to occasional training with American Top Team (the primary U.S. school for Brazilian jiu-jitsu) as well as the inability of opponents to dislodge his immense bulk if he happened to land on top of them. “You might get your neck cranked a little in a guillotine choke and have it hurt for a bit, but if you lose to a rear-naked, you can be back out there collecting another paycheck in a few days. Joint lock, something could pop, and that might put you out a couple weeks with no paychecks. Get your lights punched out, and some athletic commissions might not let you fight at all for a while, which hurts your cash flow if you can’t get the right doctors to sign off that you’re okay.
“So a good choke, whether you get somebody with it or they get you with it, lets you hustle back in the ring to collect more checks. They’re much better for your business as far as losses go, especially compared to coming back from knockouts with the heavy gloves in a boxing match.”
“If you tap quick to a choke they’ll probably clear you faster to fight again, especially if you were only fighting for a couple seconds,” agrees Goodridge. “If it happens quick, you can get out of there without being hit at all, which will save you some wear and tear on the brain. Bean [Esch] and I were both racking up those fights overseas so that’s always a consideration, maxing out your tour in a market like Japan. Hurry it up and lock down a few more paydays. Tap out if you’re fatigued, if the other guy gets the choke in even just a little bit, whatever. Rest up and then on to the next one. That’s being a pro fighter.”
As such, both Goodridge and Esch lost to more than their fair share of smaller, weaker fighters throughout continent-spanning careers as heavy-hitting journeymen. Adam Arola, a philosopher and Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, finds this narrative of overcoming the mighty deeply interesting. “A massively strong powerlifter type can likely hulk their way out of a lot of joint locks, especially traditional armlocks, ankle locks and knee bars,” he says. “I’ve been picked up off the ground when arm-barring a white belt who could also comfortably rep deadlifts at over 500 pounds. But I could choke him out with impunity, because once I get a strangle in place and my forearm, crook of my elbow or back of my thigh is cutting off your carotid artery, no amount of physical strength can help that blood get to your brain.
“This makes the choke the great equalizer. It’s why the rear-naked choke is considered the king of chokes and the ultimate finish in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. If I’m on your back and applying a clean rear-naked choke, I’ve taken away all of your ability to strike me, bite me or really do anything to me other than hold on to my arms for dear life.”
Says Moore, “When you tap in training to a choke, you’re admitting that the person who is choking you was in a position where, if you were in a real-life scenario, they were capable of choking you unconscious and having complete and total control over your momentarily lifeless body.” That’s why Moore perceives being choked out, however safe it might be when done by the right training partner, to be a kind of spiritual defeat. “When you tap to an arm bar or leg lock of some kind, your opponent hasn’t taken your soul in the same way. A tap to an arm bar isn’t as devastating because while your arm might be broken, you’re still conscious and capable of defending yourself in some way.”
For Sestok at least, blacking out from a choke isn’t especially scary — once you’re used to it. “I suppose it’s like dying, or going under from anesthesia,” he says. “Before you know it, you’re out. And before you know it, you wake up. But it does make you realize how close to death you are. This is what you’re training to do, outside of the sports context — squeezing the life out of someone to hopefully save yours.”
“Chokes are compressions,” says Arola. “When you grab a neck, no matter how you grab it, you’ve essentially created a circle around it. To choke someone, you don’t push the circle or pull the circle, you make the circle smaller. Someone who is good at chokes or strangles has to have a good squeeze and it’s something you have to develop over time, because it’s not intuitive and it’s a full-body activity. This is why Eddie Bravo — legendary jiu-jitsu practitioner, founder of the 10th Planet jiu-jitsu system and global gym chain, and flat-earth defender — talks about people having a ‘black-belt squeeze.’ When a high-level practitioner grabs ahold and squeezes, you know it. You’ll go out in a matter of seconds from the same choke that you can resist for minutes from a less experienced person. So that hasty self-defense training only goes so far.”
But why, if chokes are about squeezing the life out of someone either for sport or self-preservation, do some people crave that feeling of being choked? And even though rear-naked chokes undoubtedly play a negligible role in sex — this mata leão, or “lion killer,” incapacitates too quickly for that — there are plenty of people who go wild over the thought of strong hands, forearms or even their own shirts wrapped tightly against their necks. When induced in a reasonably safe way and combined with an orgasm, erotic asphyxiation can apparently catapult the recipient to unprecedented levels of pleasure.
“First, there’s the grip on your neck, the strength you’re feeling in those hands, the excitement of being overpowered,” says porn performer Alexia St. James. “That by itself is pretty good, and really where you can stop most of the time if you don’t fully trust the other person. But the next stage — and the person you’re playing with doesn’t have to have you in some kung-fu choke or anything — is the one that gets you seeing stars and purple spots [a state called hypoxia, in which oxygen flow to the brain is reduced], and it’s better than any almost any high you’re going to get. Plus, unlike a fun drug like MDMA, it’s totally free, and you only end up paying if the jerk you’re playing with goes all Of Mice and Men on you.
“Then there’s the mental thrill — you know, you’re gambling with life or something. When people end up dying that way, at least you know they’re not alive to be embarrassed, and you can understand the high they were chasing. So yeah, there are definitely limits, but there’s something thrilling about being on that borderline between life and death.”
For their part, even if they’re not seeking the ecstatic highs of orgasm combined with hypoxia, jiu-jitsu athletes sometimes find themselves residing on that same borderline that separates life from death, the chokers from the choked. “One time I caught my training partner with a clean D’arce choke, which is a variation of an arm triangle, when we were transitioning between positions,” says Arola, ruminating on human mortality amid the wrestling mats. “I had everything closed up in a way that I knew he couldn’t get out of, but he refused to tap.
“It was an extremely unnerving experience because I knew he’d go out if I didn’t let go, but for some reason, I held tight until the feeling of resistance went away. I let go and was panicking. My coach came over and lifted my partner’s legs up in the air and shook them a bit. Almost immediately, he popped awake and looked very confused. I was mortified and couldn’t look him in the eye for a few classes. I realized that if I held on a bit longer he would’ve died. That’s when I realized, if you’re choking people in jiu-jitsu, you’re really just practicing killing each other.”
My own father, when reflecting on the time he and his college roommate — a Butterbean-shaped 300-pound offensive lineman from rural West Virginia — came to blows over a box of doughnuts, saw the matter quite differently. “I thought about killing that hog by strangulation after I had ripped him up with a coat hanger,” he wrote to me in a bizarre email sent a few years before his own death. “I should of [sic] killed him. I liked killing that way, turning on the black lights… a real thrill.”