The naked choke

By EUGENE S. ROBINSON  |  August 29, 2010

The lion killer
"It's my favorite for a few very simple reasons."

The speaker is Leopoldo Serao, five-time Brazilian champion, five-time Rio di Janeiro state champion, chosen by the Brazilian media twice as the best grappler in the 175-to-185-pound range, and with a mixed-martial-arts record (MMA being now the umbrella acronym for pretty much any kind of fighting that happens in a cage) of 16 wins, 13 of them by submission. "It doesn't matter how big the guy I'm fighting is . . . he could be 300 pounds. If I can get his neck — and he's only got one neck — well, I can choke. Easy. Even better if you have skinny, boney arms too."

Out of the vast panoply of chokes, does Serao have a personal preference? "Sure. The rear naked choke." Ah, the rear naked choke. Also known as the mata leao — the "lion killer" — in Portuguese, or the sleeper, or any other of the half a dozen names gifted to the cat's cradle of arms around the neck, from the back, that tightens as you lean your head into your soon-to-be-sleeping opponent and whisper sweet nothings in an ear that is hearing nothing but the slowing whistle of blood to the brain. Serao gets quiet for a second and then laughs, delighting in some private reverie: "Funny."

Funny? That's a curious counter to the 6-4, 242-pound Rolles Gracie, son of Rolls Gracie, who himself was the nephew of the great and now departed Helio Gracie. "This is serious business," Rolles says. "And if I say something bad about [an opponent's] team or him and I don't pay attention and I lose?" He trails off, the unspoken implication apparent nonetheless: going to sleep more than once a day is a bigger drag than at first it might appear.

And because he mentioned it, the meander now turns to how curious the choke is, how blurry the thin line between doing and being done, and how no matter which side of the line you're standing on, you're perfectly in sync with what's happening on the other side. The lights slowly dim, sound attenuates, and everything starts to sound like Charlie Brown's teacher, all bassy vowel sounds. Your arms and legs get heavy, just like the hypnotist says, and then it's done. Whether you're struggling or not makes very little difference at this point. Your night is soon come.

'We're always on the neck'
That's on the chokee side of the line. On the choker side, the story is slightly different, as you feel another man's breath buckle and break under you. Sometimes there are convulsions. Sometimes not. But the body always gives away its secrets and there seems to be no more character-defining issue than how you go when you go. Is it the frenzied rush of panic as your struggle intensifies? Is it the quietly calming attempt to wait for things to blow over? Or something in between that in fits and starts eventually resolves itself — no matter who we're talking about — in the same place: sleep? Well, you don't know until you're there, and when you're there? You know.

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