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Throwback Thursday: Looking Back at “Choke” with Rickson Gracie

Throwback Thursday: Looking Back at “Choke” with Rickson Gracie

So, enjoy any April Fool’s joke earlier in the week?

I came across a few in the MMA world. ran a headline announcing an upcoming Ronda Rousey vs. Gina Carano bout… at the stroke of midnight, April Fool’s Day in New England. Nice!

But my favorite was courtesy of a prominent jiu-jitsu instructor in California.

This instructor is known for his deep understanding of jiu-jitsu’s most seemingly simple positions — a master of the traditional, bread and butter “Gracie Jiu-Jitsu” game. He’s got a sensitivity, developed from years of applying those signature movements. That’s his game.

But Monday, he showed his confused students a bizarre satire of a “new school” move — a roll which he dubbed the “berimbolo from knee-on-belly position,” and enjoyed their confused attempts to mimic the move — before reminding them what day it was. Perfect!

I had a good laugh when I heard the story, but it reminded me of the old master Rickson Gracie, and that granddaddy of mixed martial arts documentaries, Choke, which introduced much of the world to Rickson.

So, I gave it a watch again. Feel like a flashback? Here you go:

Choke DVD

Choke DVD

Choke was released in 1999, before the term mixed martial arts had even been coined. It follows Rickson Gracie and several other fighters as they prepare for Japan Vale Tudo 1995.

The film is highlighted by a polished performance from Rickson, who slashes through the tournament. Rickson’s mental and physical preparation is a sight to behold, including a memorable scene of yoga on the beach.

There’s also a gutty performance from Japan’s Yuki Nakai, who is badly undersized but refuses to back down from his opponents — even when suffering, as we would later learn, permanent injury.

Overall Choke is, in a word, raw. It’s from the days when no one reallyknew what to expect from mixed-rules fights. Today’s MMA is a matter of professionalism. You’ve got athletic commissions overseeing internationally-agreed-upon rules and maintain standards of matchmaking. You’ve got proper weight cutting to end a ten week training camp. It’s on prime time TV and it’s all been done before.

The 1990’s? We were in the Wild, Wild West. In some ways, the distinction between a mid 90’s vale tudo fight and a street fight were pretty thin — not only in terms of rules (there were hardly any) but even how a fight developed. Fights often didn’t even have judges in place. Allan Goes, one of Carlson Gracie Academy’s standouts of the day, remarked last year to SCI Fighting about how BJ Penn’s fighting spirit reminded him of the old days, but for the most part, to a lot of us, the spirit of those times seems gone.

That’s not all bad. They’re gone partly because safety had to become more of a priority in MMA. (I agree with Josh Tucker, who described recently how safety still has a long way to go.)

But it’s worth seeing those wild days again — warts and all. And that’s “Choke.”

Choke is actually filmed nicely. Sure, maybe the tournament wasn’t the best. The other competitors don’t always represent the best competition, so the action isn’t always top-notch. The talk along the way, featuring a Japanese amateur shoot-fighter and an American bobsledder turned kickboxer with his overbearing promoter/manager, gets a little corny. But the warrior spirit of Yuki Nakai and the beautiful technique of Rickson Gracie keep it interesting, even timeless.

It’s a worth another look. Or, check it out if you haven’t.

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