Current Events

How and When (or If) to Use the Dangerous Chokehold

Jeff Messina, owner of BJJ Revolution Team, demonstrates the rear naked chokehold on his wife, Veronica.
Jeff Messina, owner of BJJ Revolution Team, demonstrates the rear naked chokehold on his wife, Veronica. Photo by Mark Reyes
With the recent firing of Officer Daniel Pantaleo from the New York Police Department for using a chokehold and causing the death of Eric Garner, to the local news of Terry Thompson (husband of former Harris County deputy Chauna Thompson) who was sentenced to 25 years for the strangling death of John Hernandez outside Denny's, it is clear that chokeholds are more deadly than many people realize.

During the height of the World Wrestling Federation, Inc. there was a move called the piledriver where a professional wrestler would turn his opponent upside down and drive his head down into the mat. This was being performed during WWF matches — which are considered by a lot of people to be more entertainment than sport — but many children and young adults who saw this technique started to practice on their siblings or friends, sometimes resulting in serious injury or even death.

Chokeholds are banned in law enforcement academies of most major cities across the United States. Typical training for cadets is four to six months, during which time they learn driving skills, how to use their duty weapon, traffic laws, the penal code and other basics. Defensive tactics are covered, including handcuffing, tasering, when to shoot (or not shoot), the use of defensive sprays, the expandable baton, and being aware of surroundings. Between the large numbers of cadets and the short training period of defensive tactics there is not enough time to become proficient in hand-to-hand combat.

We checked in with the spokespersons for the police departments in Houston, Austin and San Antonio. HPD Spokesman Kese Smith confirms that the academy does not teach any type of chokehold. Similarly, Lisa Cortinas in Austin tells us they do not teach the lateral vascular neck restraint.

Romana Lopez, the public information office for San Antonio's police department, defines the lateral vascular neck restraint as "a general term for a grappling hold that critically reduces or prevents either air (choking) or blood (strangling) from passing through the neck of an opponent," though she does have a caveat. "The restriction may be of one or both and depends on the hold used and the reaction of the victim."

One place where students can be taught a proper chokehold is in a martial arts school or dojo under the supervision of a seasoned martial arts instructor. With a sensei and in a controlled environment, a student can learn the correct techniques of body position, head, arm position, where to place the hands and feet, and how to protect oneself as well as his or her training opponent.

According to Sensei Darrell Craig, one of the founding fathers of martial arts in Houston and owner of the now defunct Houston Budokan, when used correctly a chokehold should never be held for more than four seconds. If applied correctly, the person being choked should pass out due to lack of oxygen or blood supply.

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According to Ivan Spector of Karl Geis Ryu, the position of the hand — as high as possible — is critical.
Photo by Mark Reyes
Over at Karl Geis Ryu, a traditional Japanese judo dojo formed under the late Sensei Karl Geis, senior instructor Ivan Spector prefers the terminology "stranglehold" over "chokehold," though both descriptors have a negative connotation. During instruction, an emphasis is placed on safety and he wants students to build on confidence, using minimal energy to achieve maximum results.

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Spector teaches students to first get a tight grip of the gi (uniform) before executing the hold.
Photo by Mark Reyes
Spector mentions that it takes years of training to master the stranglehold, and warns that it only takes a moment to perform the technique incorrectly. He says that all chokes must be above the thyroid cartilage; anything below can cause serious damage to the windpipe.

In training environments, competitions, judo or Brazilian jiu-jitsu tournaments or even the Olympics, however, chokeholds are legitimate moves used to earn points and win matches. Because these are supervised conditions, the chokehold is not deadly.

In terms of self defense, chokeholds should only be considered as a last resort during a life or death situation. In the incident outside a Houston area Denny's, John Hernadez's only "crime" was public urination; it certainly was not a life or death situation. In the case of the New York incident, the victim Eric Garner was an asthmatic who cried out, "I can't breathe" at least 11 times and, while he later died from a heart attack, the medical examiner ruled that the chokehold was the cause of his death.

In a 2008 survey published in The Sport Journal, more than 42 percent of elementary and middle school teachers had observed injury among students who were imitating behavior common in pro wrestling. Children were observed imitating the body slam, the clothesline, and the piledriver. In 2001 a 14-year-old boy was sentenced to life in prison without parole for killing a playmate while imitating his pro wrestling heroes.

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Veronica demonstrates a leg lock arm bar on Messina.
Photo by Mark Reyes
We reached out to Jeff Messina, owner of BJJ Revolution Team and a third degree black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, about the importance of proper training and about the technique's merits as a form of self defense.

It's Messina's opinion that leg locks, arm bars and choke maneuvers are all unsafe when performed by those who have not been properly trained or who are not under supervision. Messina says that it's not his goal to teach students how to "kick ass."

Instead, his self defense methodologies include mechanisms for de-escalation, like negotiating their way out of a physical altercation. But it takes self control to be in a position to negotiate.

Then, and only if there are no other options, Messina says it's time to fight. But even then a positive outcome can be received by pinning an opponent to the ground without hurting them and waiting for help to arrive.

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Contributor Mark Reyes is a native Houstonian, seventh generation Texan, A&M alum, expert in all things Star Trek (ToS), and an avid comic book collector (DC). Mark enjoys documenting current events and pop culture conventions, as well as advocating for animal rights and looking to the future of space exploration.