Are BJJ “Chokes” Really Strangles?

In a sport full of hard hits and brutal strikes, there are few great equalizers in mixed martial arts like chokes. A well-executed chokehold can bring down the toughest opponent in seconds, something Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu specializes in. 

With their efficient effectiveness, some may wonder if chokes are dangerous, or if BJJ chokes are classified as strangleholds. Anyone stepping into the MMA world should understand how chokes work, and if any dangers exist with using them.

Difference Between Blood and Air Chokes

While there are many types of chokes in the confines of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, BJJ practitioners break them into two categories: blood and air chokes. Both chokes work on different principles to bring an opponent into submission.

Blood Chokes

A blood choke attempts to nullify an opponent by constricting the flow of blood to the brain. This is typically achieved by applying pressure to the carotid arteries. A typical blood choke will attack the sides of the neck to restrict blood flow to the brain. This variation of hold can incapacitate an opponent in 10 short seconds.

While a blood choke is a great way to knock out an opponent, it can be difficult to reliably use. It is difficult to gain access to both sides of an opponent’s neck.

Perhaps the most famous blood choke is the rear naked choke, one of the most well-known moves in all of BJJ. Other types of blood chokes are the Bow and Arrow Choke and the Cross Collar Choke.

Air Chokes

Air chokes attempt to restrict the air supply to the brain. Fighters block the trachea with these chokes. A typical air choke attacks the front of the neck to apply pressure on the trachea. Compared to blood chokes, air chokes are typically more painful to an opponent and take longer to knock someone unconscious. 

Despite the longer time to knock out an opponent, air chokes are still a viable means of winning a match. For one, they are much easier to perform than blood chokes. Gaining access to the front of the neck is much easier than the setup to initiate a blood choke. The increased pain from air chokes can make opponents tap out faster than a blood choke. 

Air chokes come in many varieties, such as the Ezekiel Choke, guillotine choke, and short choke. The variety allows fighters to use these chokes from many positions, such as the mount or half-mount.

What is a Strangle?

Strangulation is simply the act of restricting the flow of blood to the brain through external means. The most common type of external means of strangulation is a submission hold. Choking refers to preventing air from getting to the brain. This can be due to an internal issue like food obstructing the trachea. But a chokehold would also qualify as choking.

Are BJJ Chokes Strangles?

A blood choke cuts off the blood flow to the brain, an act that can be considered strangulation. Some instructors and practitioners of BJJ, including famous BJJ coach John Danaher, never use the term “blood chokes.” The term “strangles” has replaced blood choke for many in BJJ.

Danaher described his position on the matter in an Instagram post. He describes a choke as something that happens at a dinner table due to lodged food in the airway. A strangle, in Danaher’s view, is an attack on the blood supply.

Danahar says most strangles are also chokeholds, as they still attack the airway. Due to the fast-acting nature of a strangle as compared to a choke, strangulation will always be the primary goal. Danaher believes using the term strangle is much more accurate than chokes, even for the famous rear naked choke, something he refers to as a strangle.

Are BJJ Chokes Dangerous?

The short answer: no. The long answer is more complicated. When correctly applied, both strangleholds and air chokes are relatively safe means for taking down an opponent. Fighters can use these holds reliably in both sparring sessions and a match. There are dangers when these moves are not correctly applied, however.

“Strangle” is a word that carries with it negative connotations. But blood chokes or strangles are mostly safe for the person taking the move. The holds are relatively painless, and little risk is involved, even in the case of unconsciousness. 

If a fighter applies a stranglehold for too long, it can be dangerous. This is unlikely to happen in a training session or match, as an authority figure is likely to step in and break the hold. These holds also carry risks to individuals with vascular issues. It is always important to release a hold when an opponent taps out or is knocked unconscious. 

Air chokes carry a few dangers with them as well. Since fighters must apply pressure on the trachea, there is always a risk of crushing the trachea. A crushed trachea is a serious matter and requires medical care. Anyone learning BJJ should practice these chokes with an instructor before using them in sparring or matches.

Some discussion has arisen about the link between chokeholds and the development of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, in BJJ and MMA fighters. Dr. Samuel J. Stellpflug published an article discussing this possibility, finding no established link between chokeholds and CTE. 

Stellpflug argues no definitive link has been found in asphyxia from strangles and CTE. He also says strangles are a safer way to achieve unconsciousness than an air choke, as they do not take as long and restrict blood flow, rather than airflow. The typical fighter is also rarely unconscious from these holds.

In Summary

Are BJJ “chokes” really strangles? The answer depends on the type of hold. Blood chokes could more accurately be classified as strangleholds by BJJ practitioners rather than chokes and could more accurately be called strangleholds. They attack the blood supply to the brain, while an air choke cuts off the supply of air to the brain. Both varieties of holds have their place, but martial artists only classified blood chokes as a stranglehold.

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