Policing Jiu Jitsu: An Insiders Perspective of the Use and Misuse of the Rear Naked Choke

Given the history of grappling, the rear naked choke (RNC) has likely been the most effective grappling technique of all time. Greek statues have even depicted the movement in sculpture. Modernly, it is the most effective submission in all of mixed martial arts. In the sport of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is called the Mata Leao or Lion Killer. This name embodies its effectiveness. This effectiveness however, and people’s general lack of understanding regarding the technique, can make it a dangerous move to implement. Before we investigate this danger it’s important to understand the basics regarding how to execute the technique properly, the goal in its execution, and most importantly how to defend it.

Nothing if more frustrating for a seasoned and avid BJJ practitioner than watching someone perform a move that doesn’t understand it properly. To see this we need look no further than the most up to date movies in which proper grappling techniques is so rare it’s extremely memorable. For example, below we have a scene from the movie Olympus Has Fallen in which a highly “trained” secret service operative employs a RNC with terrible form. Any experienced jiu jiteiro can see that his head is clearly too high, the angle of his elbows are wrong, and his leveraging arm is on the top rather than behind the head. However, if we can learn anything from recent events we know that the RNC does not require perfect technique and can indeed be forced. Before we discuss this further let us ask “What is the point of the RNC?” If we assume that Gerard was attempting to subdue his would be attacker as quickly as possible then we can assume he’d like to do that as quickly as possible. How is this done?

Olympus Has Fallen


The rear naked choke can be applied two ways, as in any choke. It can either restrict the flow of air, or restrict blood flow to the brain. Restricting the blood flow is the most efficient and effective application. This version occurs by squeezing the carotid arteries that supply the brain with oxygen and nutrients. Within 3 seconds of applying the technique properly to someone with at resting heartrate consciousness starts to fade. Within 8 seconds it is lost. Around 10 seconds of applying a RNC to a victim results in a 1/3 reduction in heart rate and a halving of their rate of respiration. At this point brain activity has decreased by 70 percent. All within 10 seconds (A). Death can occur within 2 minutes in healthy individuals (B). All of this time is reduced depending on the health of an individual or their heart rate.

ESPN Fight Science- BJ Penn

ESPN Fight Science- BJ Penn

To see an example of this we need look no further than the master of the RNC, the human backpack, Marcelo Garcia. In his match against Vitor “Shaolin” Ribeiro the perfect RNC and its quick mode of action are exemplified. His head is ear to ear, his hand is behind the head and he is squeezing elbow to elbow. It is even this match that Marcelo himself says was the defining moment in his career.


An instructional of proper technique can be found here although I will refrain from discussing Marcelo’s RNC details purposefully as this information can obviously only heighten danger. Another method of doing the rear naked choke involves limiting the ability to breathe rather than sequestering the supply of blood to the brain. This is a trachea based choke and takes much longer to do long term damage than blood based chokes.


This brings me to the main point of the article, how to avoid the rear naked choke. Anyone with more than 6 months of BJJ experience realizes that they don’t know anything at all about proper grappling technique. In fact, as years go by you only realize this more and more. The beginning of the BJJ rank begins with white belt regardless of previous grappling experience (such as wrestling) and individuals practicing multiple times a week will often remain at this rank for at least a year. During this time movement is not understood in depth and practitioners try and force techniques, which often times result injury.

How can this be avoided? Proper understanding and explanation of technique application, resistance and reversals to these techniques, and their effect on the human anatomy, are most certainly high on this list as priorities. However, these are often not enough to override the pride driven mental state that occurs as a result of two Homo sapiens trying to induce their will over one another.

Avoiding the rear naked choke is hard to do. One of the best modern BJJ players can give us a few perhaps “life saving” tips though.

  1. Focus on controlling the choking arm (the one under your throat) – grab material if available
  2. Turn head (changes angle and creates space for carotid artery)
  3. Clearing their legs, pull on the arm and material and look for the head
Valente Brothers Productions

Valente Brothers Productions

Alternatively, if they haven’t sunk in the choke yet and they’re just attacking your back:

  1. Get your back on the floor/ground.
  2. Look towards your opponent and scoot away.


These techniques can be implemented by someone who isn’t a regular BJJ practitioner just as the RNC can.

Proper proprioception and technique implementation takes years to master and fully understand. However, a basic understanding of how first to apply the rear naked choke, the difference between needing a blood vs. an air based choke, the anatomical repercussions of each, and how to defend the RNC can be accomplished by a little education. The attitude and instinctively mammalian response in situations related to this information however is dependent upon a myriad of unpredictable variables.


  1. A) ESPN – Fight Science with BJ Penn.
  2. B) http://writersforensicsblog.wordpress.com/2011/07/09/q-and-a-how-long-does-it-take-for-someone-to-die-from-carotid-artery-compression/

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