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The story — and the man — behind the ezekiel choke

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UFC Fight Night: Pesta v Oleinik
Aleksei Oleinik submitted Viktor Pesta with an ezekiel choke from the bottom at UFC Phoenix. 
Christian Petersen, Getty Images

There’s a reason why we don’t see many sode guruma jime finishes in mixed martial arts — and why the jiu-jitsu and MMA worlds call it ezekiel choke.

It’s rare to see MMA fighters go for an ezekiel choke in MMA. UFC heavyweight Alexey Oleinik made history last year by becoming the first man to ever win a fight in the Octagon with the choke, tapping out Viktor Pesta with an ezekiel choke from the bottom at UFC Phoenix in January 2017.

Other than that, and Oleinik's previous 10 wins with the technique before joining the company — or the controversial Hidehiko Yoshida vs. Royce Gracie fight in PRIDE — it’s hard to find more examples of the choke working in MMA action.

This technique started to be applied in jiu-jitsu back in 1988. Pretty much every BJJ practitioner in Brazil was unfamiliar with sode guruma jime until judoka Ezequiel Paraguassu decided to visit Carlson Gracie’s gym in Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro, while he prepared to compete at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea.

Photo courtesy of Ezequiel Paraguassu

Paraguassu wanted to work on his ground game for his first Olympics, so he reached out to the popular member of the Gracie clan. One of the greatest coaches in jiu-jitsu and vale tudo history, Gracie told Paraguassu that he could stop by his gym to train, but his students weren’t so friendly with Paraguassu at first.

“There was a rivalry in the beginning, but then they accepted me there,” Paraguassu says. “I found what I was looking for. Every training practice was like a real competition there, and that’s exactly what I needed as I prepared for the Olympics.”

Gracie told everyone to stop training and form a circle while Paraguassu was standing in the middle, waiting for his training partner. The coach selected one of his proteges to roll with the judoka while everyone watched closely. Paraguassu was surrounded by some of the best jiu-jitsu fighters in the world, so it wasn’t a surprise when he realized that none of them was willing to stand with him.

“They knew I was a judoka, so they pulled guard right away,” he says. “I wanted that adrenaline, I wanted to be tested. It felt like a competition."

Trapped into their guards, Paraguassu had no idea how to break free and stand back up. “I couldn’t get out of there,” he laughs.

And that’s when he decided to try the sode guruma jime.

“The first time I choked someone and he tapped, everyone was shocked,” Paraguassu says. “Professor Carlson asked his athlete if he got hurt, if he tapped because I hurt him. They didn’t understand what was going on. Someone being choked from guard position? I just improvised and it worked."

Carlson Gracie Team grapplers were curious about the technique, and Paraguassu, who would also compete at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona four years later, began to teach them. And in a natural transition, sode guruma jime became Ezequiel — or the ezekiel choke, in English.

“I had no idea how to get out of their guards, so I started to use that. The more they pushed me away, the more they got choked,” Paraguassu says. “They started to say, ‘Try that thing Ezequiel did, try that Ezequiel choke,’ and that was it.

"I feel honored that I left a legacy in jiu-jitsu’s history, and I thank the jiu-jitsu community for welcoming me and helping me prepare for the Olympics. I had great training and made a lot of friends.”

So Paraguassu was choking people in Gracie’s gym, but he still was wearing a gi. In fact, the sleeve is one of the most important aspects needed to finish someone with the ezekiel choke from that position. So how is Oleinik tapping people in MMA bouts?

“I've trained without the gi and done the position before, but it’s different,” Paraguassy says. “You have to hold your own biceps, but the principle is the same. When your opponent pushes you to defend, he’s choking himself more and more. [Oleinik] has done a great job developing this position. Maybe he has long arms, and that definitely helps.”

Oleinik, who is scheduled to meet Junior Albini at UFC 224 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on May 12, is a 6’1” heavyweight with an 80-inch reach, and Paraguassu says that helps.

“That gives him more space to put both of your forearms around the opponent’s neck,” Paraguassu says. “Not every athlete will be able to submit someone because of that, but I’m sure we’ll see more fighters trying to use it. You have to train because someone might try that against you in the future, and in order to defend yourself you have to know how to attack.”

The former Brazil Under-21 Judo Team coach now lives in Guarapari, Espirito Santo, where he runs a charming beachside inn. He doesn’t compete anymore, but often welcomes grapplers as guests from time to time, teaching them his secrets while they relax and enjoy the beautiful beaches.