Before Fightville andSmashing Machine, Rickson Gracie and two other fighters taught the world about no-holds-barred fighting in one of the earliest, if not first, MMA documentaries.
The past few years have seen releases of major Hollywood movies with MMA in the forefront, such as Warrior, Never Back Down and Here Comes the Boom. It was the efforts of other film makers, particularly documentary makers, to get to the point of having the sport be taken more seriously (or in the case of Here Comes the Boom, just accepting it as a legit sport to base a comedy around). Documentaries like Fightville are amazing modern-day examples, but before that we had plenty of other docs about the early time of MMA, but one of the earliest docs that hit video stores was Choke.
Filmed in 1995, Choke did not see release until 1999 where it had a limited theatrical release before entering the home video market. Directed by Robert Raphael Goodman, who later did another docu-short called 180 Degrees to Jerusalem in 2005, the film follows around three fighters preparing for and competing in the Vale Tudo Japan tournament in '95. In 1995, the term MMA barely existed and the sport was still essentially bare-knuckle in most places (the UFC had just begun implementing fingerless gloves in America). Even with gloves, it was still a no-holds-barred landscape internationally with limited rules, and Japan was no exception to this.
The VTJ Tournaments were eight-man tournaments with no weight classes and a grand prize of $60,000 up for grab. VTJ has held events as recent as last year, although the tournament format was dropped early on, and has seen top-level fighters compete including Frank Shamrock, Rumina Sato, Takanori Gomi, Hayato "Mach" Sakurai, Carlos Newton, Caol Uno, and Frank Trigg to name a few.
Rickson is the calm voice of reason in this doc, pretentious anecdotes about BJJ and himself aside. Todd "Hollywood" Hays, the 26-year old former football player and UKF kickboxing champ from Oklahoma, is the headstrong young gun of the film, along with his coach and owner of "Apollo's Karate" gym, Dale Cook. Todd's real dream is to be an Olympic bob-sledder, and he hoped to use the prize money to buy his sled, and is not as enthusiastic about fighting for a living as his coach is. Representing the Japanese was Koichiro Kimura, a greco-roman wrestling and amateur shootfighting champ, and his coach, Yoshinari Watanabe. Kimura has fought in various forms of combatives, but none as "rule-less" as this event, so much so that his parents attempt to prohibit him from fighting since they do not want him to die.
This film was also the world's introduction to Helio Gracie, who was already 86 years old when it was being filmed, even though he was still as spry as any 20-year-old on the mats. Rickson, who is 398-0 at the start of this movie, is the star of the doc and has the goal of defending his VTJ title that he won a year prior by beating Yoshinori Nishi, David Levicki, and Bud Smith, all of whom were finished in the first round. "I feel myself as an artist. I like to do things because it's beautiful, it's intense, it's edge, it's action, it's love. I like to put my energy into life and intensity," claims Rickson as he rolls around shirtless on the beach and doing bizarre yoga breathing techniques.Rickson represents the modern-day martial artist, waxing deep philosophical thoughts while punching someone in the face from the mount.
The training scenes with all of the different fighters are probably the most telling aspect of this doc (aside from the fights, which I will get to in a second). The mental and physical state of each fighter is represented in their training, as well as the story of them. Hays represents the audience - as he learns the rules of MMA, so do we. The naivete of the opponents, with the exception of Rickson, is remarkable, something fans today will laugh at. During the rules meeting before the fights, the ignorance of the competitors discussing standing-eight counts is something that you just don't see anymore, as well as Hays' confusion over the MMA style gloves that he claims are like "pillows".
At about 40 minutes into the 110 minute long doc, we arrive on fight night, and this is where the main story begins to unfold. Overshadowing our protagonists is the tale of Yuki Nakai, the smallest competitor in the tournament standing 5' 6" and weighing 135 lbs. Nakai drew UFC 1 veteran and Savate champ, Gerard Gordeau, which escalated into an ugly fight that is well known by older MMA fans. Gordeau would soccer kick and stomp Nakai in the face, as well as gouging him in his right eye, causing it to swell shut. For four rounds, Gordeau beat on Nakai until the Japanese fighter caught his opponent in a heel hook. The short-term outcome of the fight was that Nakai advanced in the tournament, but the long-term was that Nakai is now permanently blind in one of his eyes.
Choke is a staple for MMA docs, being essentially the first one on the market for public viewing. The film making is amateur at best, and I wish more time was spent getting to know the fighters and their stories. Once fight night arrives, the movie turns into fight footage of the event with snippets of on-the-fly interviews happening backstage. While this is a normal and expected thing to happen in MMA docs, since there has to be fighting, I just wish there was more substance leading into it to flesh out the personalities so the viewers can become more invested. It's because of this lack of ties to the main three that the viewer becomes more interested in Nakai's story, the little guy that takes a beating but never gives up and captures the attention of the main guys in the doc.
What happened after the VTJ Tournament in the film? Rickson continued to fight in MMA and gained more fame in Pride FC, eventually stepping away from MMA as the popularity of the sport began to rise internationally. This did little to stop fighters from challenging him, including Bas Rutten and Kazushi Sakuraba in Pride FC, but Rickson was done with pro-fighting despite not formally retiring. Hays was able to finance his dreams and competed in the Winter Olympics, temporarily retiring in 2006 to coach football. Hays trained for a comeback for the 2010 Winter Olympics, but sustained an injury, suffering an intraparenchymal hematoma that forced him into retirement. Kimura continued in pro-wrestling, joining W*ING and RINGS, and later DDT, competing as "Super Uchu Power". He was last seen wrestling in HUSTLE in 2010, and now "freelances" in various promotions.
Choke is like watching a fighting event with bonus footage. It's not much of a documentary in terms of storytelling, characterization, and the only drama comes from the fights, which was purely the master footage of the original telecast. If anything, it feels like an overly-long news report with fights and offers minimal insight compared to the films of today. If you are an MMA completionist and collector, you can order a copy of Rickson Gracie: Choke from Amazon.com for under $25 from various retailers as a used DVD. It's nothing particularly special, but it is a great piece of history of the formative days of this sport, as well as the approach film makers have made in capturing MMA in documentaries. As the sport evolved, so too did the films about it, and it's worth a watch to at least see that. For its' time, this was the first look many Americans saw of the sport, and it opened the door for future MMA documentaries that would vastly improve on the formula that Goodman started.