The rear-naked choke (RNC) is one of the most dominant techniques in submission grappling. A fundamental of BJJ, it is widely considered to be one of the most effective chokeholds ever. Its increasing fame is mainly due to it being the single most common submission used in the UFC, finishing twice as many opponents as the guillotine, which is the second most used.
Although renowned as a staple of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, it is taught and practiced across all grappling arts.
The exact origins of the RNC is notoriously difficult to trace. Despite its Portuguese moniker ‘Mata Leao’ (Lion killer), it is believed the technique was developed outside of Brazil. It is believed to be part of the Judo arsenal created by Kano Jigoro (founder of Judo), before making its way to Brazil with Mitsuyo Maeda (a student of Jigoro) in the early 1900s.
This idea is further strengthened by the fact that ‘rear-naked choke’ is a direct translation of ‘hadaka-jime,’ which is the Japanese name given to describe the choke (the ‘naked’ part of the word is due to the fact that a gi is not necessary or needed to perform the move).
The choke is now one of thirty-six constriction techniques of Kodokan Judo but differentiates from the others because it does not require the use of the opponent’s clothing to execute the choke. Despite having a substantial link to Japanese martial arts, images of a rear-naked choke have been traced back as far as the 8th century to Khmer traditional wrestling, a form of grappling that originated in Cambodia. Prior to that, it has appeared in historical accounts from ancient Greece circa 564 BC. It is thought to be one of the oldest known submissions in the world.
The rear-naked choke is a ‘blood choke’ that works by impeding blood flow between the heart and the brain. The initial compression of the top arm against the jugular vein in the neck causes flushing in the face as it cuts off blood flowing from the brain to the heart.
As the pressure increases when the bottom arm tightens the choke, the carotid artery, which is the primary source of blood to the brain, becomes restricted, thus eliminating blood flow to that area. Once that happens, it is usually only a matter of seconds before the brain shuts down, and consciousness is lost.
To precisely apply the choke, the choking arm must be held below the larynx (Adam’s apple), causing complete closure of the carotid arteries. While only a select few are able to withstand the choke, the majority of opponents will be forced to tap out or face a blackout. It’s always essential to stop the choke when you feel the tap to prevent long term damage.
The choke causes unconsciousness because the pressure on the neck reduces the heart’s bpm (heart rate), which in turn reduces the blood flow to the heart. In general, there is no lasting effect, and recovery is quick and painless. However, there can be complications if the choke is held for too long, causing an impairment of the blood flow between the heart and the brain, which may or not be permanent.
How to Master the Rear Naked Choke:
This is often one of the very first moves to be mastered in BJJ and is usually taught even at a beginner level due to its simplicity. Although considered easy to learn, it does require a detailed approach.
Here is our guide on how to master the rear-naked choke:
1- To initiate the choke, you must first be behind your partner (back control). This can be done from a standing or seated position. Remember that at all times, you should be like a backpack on your partner, leaving as few gaps as possible to maintain tight control.
2- A typical starting position is from ‘seatbelt control’, where there is one arm over the shoulder of the opponent and one arm under the armpit (under-over grip). This is secured when the bottom hand grips the top of the opposite hand’s wrist.
3- Once you have secured the under-over hold, reach your top hand to their opposite shoulder. Your fingers will be in a claw-like position, and your forearm should be beneath their chin. If it’s not against the neck, it’s not a choke.
4- Remove the bottom hand from underneath your partner’s armpit, then proceed to slide it backward so as to grasp the underneath of the top hand. Make sure to clasp the hands tightly together and pull the bottom arm towards your body. This strengthens the grip.
5- At this stage, it is most likely that your partner will try to block the choke by placing their hands in between their neck and your forearm.
6- Regrip the top arm around the shoulder so that you have a tighter hold. Simultaneously and quickly, use the bottom hand to knock off his right hand from your forearm. This must be done promptly to be effective, similar to a palm strike, and removes his primary defense.
7- Once again, use the ‘palm to palm’ grip. This should now be a much tighter choke. To ensure this, the forearm should be against the neck, and the elbow should be directly beneath the chin.
8- Finally, use the bottom hand to get behind the opponent’s ear and place it firmly against the back of their neck. Grab the top of the bicep on your other (top) arm and use your head to lock in the choke while also increasing the pressure. Extend your legs and arch your back to finish the choke with as much power as possible (hooks in). Squeeze with your whole body to finish them off.
Variation: RNC with Arm Trap
The rear-naked choke with an arm trap can be very effective when the opponent has a good defense. This restricts their ability to defend as they will only have one arm, allowing you to attack with two.
1- Beginning in seatbelt grip, use your bottom arm to grab your partner’s arm on the opposite side. Pull it down towards your leg where you can trap the arm by hooking your leg over it.
2- Dig your heel into their stomach to secure the trap before proceeding with the steps towards a rear-naked choke.
Variation: RNC with Arm In
While nowhere near as powerful, the ‘arm in’ variation is still another option to consider. It most closely resembles an Ezekiel choke from back control.
1- From the same starting point as other RNC variations, reach your top arm around your partner’s body and under their armpit, grabbing the top of the bicep of the bottom arm.
2- Reach the bottom hand up over their shoulder and behind the head. Rotate inwards and squeeze for the finish.
How to Block the Choke:
Once the full choke has been applied and you have lost control of your body and legs, there is, unfortunately, very little chance of escape. However, there are a few ways to inhibit your opponent from securing that position in the first place. It will always be easier to deter a technique while in the early stages of its set up.
The first warning sign for the RNC is the rear mount. There is a very high chance that the opponent will initiate the choke from this position. The best way to block it is to prevent them from getting their arms in dominant positions. Make sure to tuck the chin in so that it is a hindrance to getting their forearm against the trachea.
If they have already made it to this point, it will be challenging to stop them from progressing any further; however, it is still possible to untie the grip if you are quick and aware enough to exploit any mistakes they have made or gaps they have not managed to close.
As a last resort, there is also the option of using flesh grabs to deter your opponent. This is generally frowned upon in a class setting, so it is advised to only use it in a competition ( if the ruleset allows or in a self-defense situation). To do this, grab the skin and some, but not all, of the muscle on the choking arm. Alternatively, this can also be done to the inner thigh. It is incredibly painful, and the shock of it often causes the choke to loosen long enough to create an escape, but be sure to act quickly.
If there were any submission worth perfecting, it’s the rear-naked choke. It’s simple, overwhelmingly effective, and even harder to defend.
Despite its seeming limitations (can only be done from back control), it is hailed as the ‘king of chokes,’ the ultimate weapon to dominate your opponent and achieve total victory. Nothing can prepare the neck for the ultimate choke. A good defense is the only way to avoid its debilitating effect. The only way to truly master it is to practice it as much as possible.