In early May, an incident at a New York City subway train involving a Marine veteran with unarmed combat experience made the rounds online. 24-year-old Daniel Penny was seen on video putting another man in a chokehold in what was deemed as an unruly incident taking a turn for the worse. 

According to reports, the victim later identified as 30-year-old Jordan Neely was allegedly acting belligerently at the time, yelling that he was hungry, thirsty, and “fed up.” Neely also reportedly said he didn’t mind being imprisoned for life and that he was “ready to die.” 

This was when Penny supposedly took action by putting Neely in what’s referred to as a rear-naked choke (RNC), where the attacking individual is applying the choke from the back. Penny reportedly had Neely in a chokehold for 15 minutes, as the latter went limp and slowly lost consciousness. 

Neely was rushed to a nearby hospital where he was pronounced dead. Penny, on the other hand, is looking at a second-degree manslaughter charge

This article isn’t delving into the case itself. Rather, it aims to provide a clear explanation as to what exactly happened by looking at the intricacies of a chokehold and how it works. 

The Anatomy of a Chokehold In Unarmed Combat

Chokeholds are part of any submission grappling discipline in an unarmed combat scenario. There are different varieties to it, but let’s first focus on the rear-naked choke that Penny was seen applying. 

The mechanism

You’ll notice in the video that Penny’s left arm is wrapped around Neely’s neck, his elbow right under the chin. His left hand was grabbing his right bicep as his right hand rested on Neely’s head. Penny was then squeezing with his left hand, causing Neely to pass out slowly. 

The compression aims to impede the blood flow to the brain via the carotid arteries, the blood vessels found on both sides of the neck. That restriction of blood flow causes a backlog of blood in the head and a blockage of fresh blood and oxygen to the brain. Ultimately, the person being choked loses consciousness. 

The rear-naked choke

According to licensed physical therapist and YouTube content creator Kevin Tokoph, it could happen within seven seconds if the choke is applied correctly, which Penny did. 

Permanent damage is expected to occur within four minutes. And if the reported estimates of how long the strangle lasted are accurate, it’s plausible to say that Neely could’ve died way before the choke was released.

The two types of chokes in unarmed combat

Let’s veer away from the news topic at hand and instead have a deeper look at the two types of chokes: an air choke and a blood choke. The main difference is the manner in which they are applied. 

A blood choke targets the trachea, otherwise known as the windpipe. It involves more of a crushing result, unlike the other method that blocks the arteries. Certified sports surgeon David Abbasi deemed the air choke to be more dangerous since that force upon the trachea can lead to instant injury. 

The Different Ways to Apply a Chokehold

Let’s talk about techniques. The rear-naked choke is just one of the few ways to apply a chokehold. If you’ve watched enough mixed martial arts fights on TV, you’ve likely seen the other methods. 

The guillotine choke

Contrary to the rear-naked choke, the guillotine is a front headlock attack. Instead of wrapping the neck from the front, this choke involves a compression that begins from the nape. The choking hand then slithers its way under the chin to connect to the support hand waiting on the other side. 

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It’s a very practical choke in both a sport and street setting. As soon as a person goes in for a lousy tackle, their neck is left dangling for the taking. 

In this variation of the choke, the attacker’s legs are wrapped around his opponent’s body as he pulls his knees toward his chest. For the person being choked, his body is pulled downward, as if to fold the person forward. This motion fortifies the choke held by the arms and ultimately causes neck compression. 

The ‘arm-in’ chokes

The name is pretty self-explanatory. These chokes are further tightened by the presence of one of the arms. A triangle choke is one example, where the attacker wraps their legs in a figure-four position to create a strangle. It works both in a sport and street setting. 

There is an arm-in variation to the guillotine, as well as other methods of application. One of them is the anaconda, where the strangulation occurs with the compression of the neck and far-side arm. 

Then you have an arm-triangle choke, which uses both arms instead of the legs. Different application, same menacing outcome. 

The Ezekiel choke

The Ezekiel choke is an outlier in an unarmed combat setting. It’s a throat crusher that’s mainly about inflicting pain. In a sports setting, it’s one of the more effective ways to cause a tap out from the opponent. 

The Ezekiel choke can be pulled off from top position, when the attacker is plopped onto their opponent’s chest. This is called the full mount position. From there, the choke can be finished by grabbing onto the arm of the person on bottom from behind the neck, otherwise known as a gift wrap. 

The attacker then sneaks their choking hand into the loop created by their opponent’s gift wrap, grabs the opposing bicep as the dominant elbow drops downwards to the floor. That creates pressure that’s likely akin to having a barbell dropped onto your throat. 

The beauty of the Ezekiel choke is that it can also be done from the bottom position. And yes, it is equally effective, especially when executed with perfect timing. 

The ezekiel choke in action during an unarmed combat situation.
The Ezekiel choke from bottom position.

Practice These Unarmed Combat Techniques in a Safe Setting

The chokeholds on this list are just some of the many that could very well inflict significant damage. Having knowledge of such techniques pretty much arms you with a weapon, and therefore, it should be wielded properly. 

Don’t put yourself in a sticky situation. Know the full mechanics of the choke and practice it over and over in training. Make sure you have the proper gear

You’d want to have a level of precision that should allow you to use these weapons when the need arises. But at the same time, you wouldn’t want to cause unnecessary serious damage as, just like how the aforementioned incident ended. Drill effectively and safely.