The Plot: This is a documentary based around Rickson Gracie and several of the competitors at the 1995 Vale Tudo Japan no holds barred tournament. Putting the spotlight on a point in time before the Mixed Martial Arts craze hit in America thanks to The Ultimate Fighter, this shows the sport in its infancy before many of the standard rules came into effect. The buildup to the tournament is huge, and the payoff is even larger as the eight man tournament fills with drama and Rickson Gracie demonstrates the power of his families jiu-jitsu.
The Review: It’s no secret that I am a huge fan of mixed martial arts. Growing up, thanks to the way it was marketed, I was actually kind of scared of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. My brother and his friends would watch the tapes, and I was a huge fan of professional wrestling but I had no interest in seeing people being beaten half to death or anything of that sort. This is truly what I picture the UFC as being. It wasn’t until a friend of mine put on the first event for me at his house. I didn’t want to seem like a wimp (I was probably just hitting my teens at the time) so I let him do so. He showed me the first fight of the first UFC event, a match between a 300 pound samoan named Teli Tulia and a kickboxer named Gerard Giordeua who was lucky if he was hitting the 200 pound mark. He asked who I thought was going to win, so I naturally assumed the bigger guy was going to take it easily and sandbag this little guy. Gerard kicked Teli’s teeth into the audience about one minute later. This was my introduction to mixed martial arts, and I haven’t looked at fighting the same way ever since. The fight was brutal for sure, but Gerard didn’t showboat afterward and the ref stepped in and stopped the fight almost immediately. This wasn’t human cockfighting as it is still sometimes erronously refferred to. That night in that tournament, the smallest man won. A young man, weighing around 170 pounds, named Royce Gracie won that tournament. Then he won the second tournament. He was on his way to winning the third as well before having to forfeit due to injuries. He came back and won the fourth as well. He claimed the secret to his success was no secret at all; it was his families groundfighting style called Gracie Jiu-Jitsu and anyone could learn. A style of combat meant to give the smaller man an advantage through technique rather than brute force, created by Royce’s father and passed along through their family and is taught by their schools around the world to this day.
It was still a few years before I had heard of Royce Gracie’s older half-brother Rickson Gracie, and his reputation followed him. Royce was originally chosen from their family to fight in the UFC tournaments due to his smaller size, as they felt his being smaller than everyone else would demonstrate how great their fighting style is. Ask essentially any of the gracies which brother is the best however; and Rickson’s name will always come up. The strongest brother and most athletic, Rickson has always had the advantage within the family. Where Royce’s time to shine was within those first few UFC’s, Rickson helped create the empire of Mixed Martial Arts in Japan that would become the biggest rival to the American UFC. Choke follows Rickson as well as future American Olympian (in bobsledding) Todd Hayes and Japanese wrestler and shootfighter Koichiro Kimura. Hayes seems like a likeable gentleman, but not a true fighter by nature. His goal in the tournament is to earn up enough money to buy his bobsled for his olympic dreams, but once in the tournament finds that all of that training has lead to something that maybe he doesn’t have the heart to fully realize. Kimura on the other hand feels that honor comes from his fighting and simply wants to do his best. However, at the end of the day, this is definitely the Rickson Gracie show starring Rickson. Following him around as he trains and shares his philosophy on fighting, Rickson comes off as a very approachable and kindhearted man. Once in the ring however, he shows an incredible determination in proving himelf and the pride of his family and their teachings. The film is not without its lighter moments however, as it shows Rickson having to use the bathroom right as he is being called out for his fight fight in the tournament. Sometimes the funnier moments come just from Rickson being himself, as he is a very serious person but with an infectious personality that catches on with the viewer right away.
A standout moment for me has always been the moment where backstage as Rickson prepares for his next opponent, they see Yuki Nakai on a screen and his eye has swollen shut from the previous war. He was in a fight with Gerard Gordiuea, who had actually illegally eye-gouged Nakai during their match. Unknown to anyone at the time, Nakai unfortunately lost his vision in his right eye from that fight. He kept this a secret until many years later however, in order to preserve the dignity of mixed martial arts. Yuki Nakai is truly an honorable man and an incredible man worthy of respect, but that night he was simply Rickson’s next opponent. Backstage before the fight however, rickson’s son comes to his father and explains “Did you see his eye dad? Please don’t punch his face”, mind you I’m paraphrasing, but Rickson replies that he will not punch the man but only slap him while attempting submissions. His cornermen start to berate him and tell him not to take mercy. However, once Rickson gets in the ring, he does just that. He mounts Nakai, slaps at him to distract his limbs and goes for a choke. Although not shown in the documentary, Nakai was so impressed with Rickson’s performance that he set out to fully learn Jiu-jitsu after their fight and eventually became a blackbelt and now sits as one of the most influential practitioners within Japan.
Choke might not be for all audiences, if you have no interest in MMA or No Holds Barred, sure you probably won’t care to pick this one up. However, if you’re a fight fan wanting to get a glimpse at a world before terms like “ground and pound” were brought to our lexicon and before there were “well rounded” martial artists and everyone was simply trying to play “catch up” with one another – this is an amazing insight into that time period and in my opinon one of the best sports documentaries ever made. I don’t even mind the fact that the film doesn’t discuss Rickson’s unproveable record of 400-0 and his lack of MMA experience; once again this film was made in a time period were the term “striker” wasn’t even that popular. Where you actually hear guys referring to their style as being a “kicker and a puncher”. I kid you not. This is a time warp to the very root of a new sport and now that it has taken off to the degree that it has; all the more reason to take this history lesson. Five out of five, one of my favorites.